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Canvaser Emily Smits, Fundraising Manager for Toronto Street Fundraising Office with Public Outreach, tries to engage potential donors on Bay Street in Toronto. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
Canvaser Emily Smits, Fundraising Manager for Toronto Street Fundraising Office with Public Outreach, tries to engage potential donors on Bay Street in Toronto. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

Canvassers take the cause to the street Add to ...

Canadians do lots of things to avoid the reach of the street canvasser.

Emily Smits, who’s done the job for four years, recalls the businessman who sailed off the sidewalk into traffic, shimmying along a parked van to dodge her philanthropic pleas.

“I said, ‘I don’t bite. Have a nice day,’ ” Ms. Smits said.

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The 25-year-old former comedy writer is part of the growing army of street canvassers, or face-to-face fundraisers, who work on Canada’s busiest sidewalks, shilling for major charities.

Their perky pitches run from “Hey, be my friend today,” to a more plaintive, “Do you care about children?” Some dance, some wave and some call out passersby directly: “Hey green shirt!” Typically canvassing in pairs, they’re easy to spot down the road with their logo vests, emblazoned binders and that indefatigable spirit.

While plenty of Canadians find them grating, street canvassers are astonishingly effective at signing up coveted monthly donors. With fewer Canadians checking their mailbox, more signing up for do-not-call lists and missing heart-wrenching ads by watching TV shows online, the holy grail of fundraising is now face-to-face. Encompassing street, mall and door-to-door canvassing, “f2f” is now a chief source of continuing, monthly contributions.

While a number of charities hire, train and manage fundraisers internally – notably Greenpeace, which launched street canvassing in Europe in the nineties – many others use recruiting agencies. These include Quebec-based ONG Conseil; Toronto-based Fundraising Initiatives and Vancouver-based TNI, both of which concentrate on door-to-door campaigns; and Public Outreach Canada, which staffs approximately 200 fundraisers across 13 cities, with a focus on street canvassing.

“This is not about shaking a can and collecting change,” Bryan McKinnon, co-founder and national director of Public Outreach Canada, said from Toronto. “Face-to-face fundraising is focused on monthly giving, which provides regular, predictable income.”

Founded in 2002, the company guarantees charities between a 2:1 and 3:1 return on investment over a five-year campaign, with the agency absorbing the risk. The average monthly donor gives between $18 and $20, and many of those who signed up in 2002 are still giving monthly today, said co-founder and president John Finlay.

“Once you hit that return on investment, it’s just free money that shows up that the charities don’t even have to think about. That’s the magic of monthly,” said Evi Andreller, Public Outreach’s executive operations manager.

The agency hires twentysomethings mostly during summer break. Many study political science, environmental studies and international development – and, fittingly, theatre. The pay is $13 an hour plus benefits, with no commissions: Imagine Canada, a charitable umbrella organization, and the Association of Fundraising Professionals both prohibit them.

Still, many canvassers set personal goals of signing three or four monthly donors a day – an experience that’s both exhausting and addictive.

“We’re fundraisers but we’re also counsellors and scratching posts,” said Robyn Connolly, who has raised funds with Public Outreach in Toronto and Victoria for a year and a half.

“You learn to love everything there is about people. Never am I ever bored,” said the 27-year-old, who used to work as an executive assistant in film.

She had her best day last fall at the busy intersection of Bloor and Spadina in Toronto, where she signed up nine monthly donors. Fundraisers need to avoid “prejudging, because you never know who’s going to sign up,” said Ms. Connolly, who acknowledges one pattern: “Female canvassers often sign up more male donors and vice versa.”

Before she became a street-level fundraiser, Ms. Connolly wasn’t so moon-eyed about their tactics: “I hated them, totally. I did the thing where I would put my headphones on and pretend that I couldn’t hear them.”

Why? “Guilt. In my opinion, the annoyance a lot of people feel comes from guilt.”

For all the apparent angst between Canadians and street canvassers, those who employ them say they bring in massive numbers.

“It’s easy to make street canvassers a target of the reality that it costs money to raise money,” said Rebecca Davies, director of fundraising at Médecins Sans Frontières. “We wouldn’t do this if there wasn’t a good return on investment and a good business case to do it – just like anything.”

Half of MSF’s 45,000 current monthly donors started giving “because of a conversation they had with someone on the street or at their door,” according to Ms. Davies. Over a decade, donations from this stream have ballooned to $16.5-million with an average monthly gift of $16.

‎The charity was an early adopter of street fundraisers, in 2002, largely because it relies heavily on private, monthly support: “We don’t want to be writing grant applications when there’s an earthquake. We want to have the funds ready to go so that we can load planes.”

Since pairing up with Amnesty International Canada in 2002, Public Outreach street canvassers have recruited more than 10,000 monthly donors who raise approximately $2-million a year, according to Cheryl Rooney, Amnesty’s monthly giving associate. The average monthly donation is $17.

The Canadian Red Cross estimates $9-million in total gross revenue for the 2012 fiscal year from face-to-face fundraising, which the charity began making use of in 2005. The average monthly gift here is $17.50.

“They’re telling more of the story of the organization,” said spokesperson Pam Aung Thin, noting that three-quarters of the organization’s 60,000 monthly donors were recruited through f2f canvassing.

“We’re not there to pressure anyone. We’re only there to facilitate people getting involved if they so choose,” said Joel Keitner, 25, an English-lit grad who has been canvassing in Halifax for nine months.

Mr. Keitner got into it to escape the hospitality industry and overcome his shyness. He started mid-January with an unpolished shtick and dearth of winter gear: “The cold ocean air was very unforgiving.” Today, his opening salvo is painfully earnest, as many of them are: “If I see people looking around for a store, I will say, ‘Are you looking for a friendly conversation? Because it’s just over here.’ And then I point to myself.”

Ms. Smits, who has canvassed for Public Outreach in Toronto, Oakville, Ont., and Vancouver, will sometimes hazard, “May we have this dance?” Surprisingly, it works with both men and women: “It is a conversational dance,” she said.

She acknowledged that other Canadians find those in her profession “annoying,” even “accosting.” To this end, Mr. Finlay said Public Outreach tries to alternate busy intersections, rotating “fallow zones” to “give each community a break from being solicited.”

Ultimately, though, “most people won’t just go to a website and go, ‘I’d like to give money today,’ ” Ms. Smits pointed out. Landing new donors now often requires the unique “gumption” of face-to-face fundraisers who have the “skills, emotional intelligence, persistence and persuasion,” MSF’s Ms. Davies said.

“The donor and the canvasser are simply two people who are passionate about the same cause,” she said. “It’s a great skill of the canvasser to find that person.”

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