Fundraising Canvassing: How to Launch a Canvass

February 18, 2022 — Philip Radford

Fundraising canvassing, Fundraising Canvassing: How to Launch a Canvass

Canvassing is the systematic initiation of direct contact with potential supporters door-to-door, on street corners, or at events. Organizations canvass for several reasons: political campaigning, grassroots fundraising, community awareness, membership drives, and more.

Fundraising canvassing was popularized in the United States by Clean Water Action and adopted in the 1970s groups such as Greenpeace, ACORN, and the PIRGs.

From the 1970s to early 2000s, U.S. fundraising canvasses focused solely on door-to-door operations enlisting new and renewing donors. Most U.S. based organizations viewed canvasses as acquisition programs, aiming to break even immediately with one-time cash donations. Organizations generated net income by upgrading donors via telemarketing and direct mail.

Overseas, the European banking system enabled a far more profitable acquisition model. Cutting checks in the 1990s in much of Europe was rare; direct deposit and ACH was the norm. Monthly transactions and donations via ACH were also the norm. European nonprofits found that they could generate $3 or more for every $1 that they invested in acquisition prior to upgrading or renewing donors via mail or telemarketing. They achieved this by focusing exclusively on recruiting sustaining donors via ACH.

In the late 1990s, door-to-door canvassers working for Greenpeace in Austria tested standing on street corners, recruiting people to give monthly donations via ACH or credit cards. The model was lower cost, cutting out car rental expenses, travel time to and from turf, allowed for more hours canvassing, and raised substantial funds from sustaining donors. In the early 2000s, Greenpeace US imported the technique to the U.S., doubling its budget and recruiting over 80,000 new sustaining donors per year.

As global vendors entered the U.S. market and global nonprofits looked to raise funds in the U.S. like they had in Europe, fundraising canvassing has evolved towards optimizing long-term income in the following ways: 

  • Exclusively accepting monthly, quarterly, or annual donations.
  • Focusing on recruiting donors that are 25 or older (younger donors tend to give for fewer months and cost more to recruit than they give), and disallowing people under 25 from joining as monthly donors.
  • Asking donors to contribute via checking accounts, American Express, or Discover, which tends to result in longer giving.
  • Increasing the minimum gift accepted over time with increasing labor and other costs to $25 to $30 per month, $300 to $360 annually, or $75 to $90 quarterly.

In markets such as the UK, competition by canvassing companies for street corners has grown so intense that city governments strictly regulate who can canvass where and when. To avoid regulation and oversaturating street corners with competing canvassers, charities and vendors in the U.S. have formed the Professional Face to Face Fundraising Association, which facilitates the rotation of street sites and zip codes for door-to-door canvassing.

The North Star: Lifetime Value

The north star of fundraising canvasses is lifetime value (LTV). LTV is the total amount of money that the average donor gives divided by the cost of acquisition and stewardship over a period of five years. In general, it LTV expressed as a 2:1 return, where $2 is the gross amount raised over five years from the donor from spending $1 on Customer Acquisition Costs (CAC).

 

LTV is distinct from Return on Investment (ROI). The formula for ROI is net income (gross income minus costs) divided by the total cost. A 2:1 LTV is the same as a 100% ROI.

 

The major drivers of LTV are the amount each donor gives in their first gift (Average Gift) multiplied by the number of times that they give (the numerator), divided by the cost of recruiting (cost per donor) and keeping each donor (the denominator).

Maximizing Income in Fundraising Canvassing

Two elements enable you to maximize your income: the average gift, and donor retention. 

Average Gift

Most nonprofits and vendors only accept gifts over $25 per month, $75 per quarter, or $300 annually.  Data shows that donors who give over $35 per month tend to attrite more quickly. As a result, some nonprofits cap the largest monthly gift that they accept at $50 to $100.

 

In addition to requiring a minimum monthly, quarterly, or annual gift, some nonprofits add a pop-up to their donation form that asks donors to increase their gift by 10% to cover their processing and other fees. Nearly 80% of donors are willing to give more for this reason, and donors are more likely to give to cover processing and other fees than to give for SWAG or for campaign reasons.

 

Donor Retention

Put simply, donor retention is a measure of how long any individual donor continues to contribute to your organization. Because some donors pause, upgrade, or downgrade their gifts, the best way to calculate the financial value of sustainers over time is to measure the percentage of income that is successfully processed each month, or monthly-equivalent for quarterly and annual donors, compared to the month that the donors were first recruited.

Canvass programs with the best retention master the five essential elements of retention:

 

  • CRM and payment gateway settings.
  • Donor age.
  • Gift types.
  • Staff behavior management; and
  • Donor communication.

CRM and Payment Gateway Settings

 

Payment gateways and CRMs have several settings that ensure you have higher retention out of the gate, including account updater, retries, and blocking forms of payment.

 

Account updater services, also known as credit card recycling, find new credit card numbers when cards are lost, stolen, or expire. Cards expire every three to five years. Security breaches at banks or bank mergers can lead to credit card reissuances on a massive scale. People lose their cards. Thankfully, the major credit card companies offer an account updater service for recurring charges.  This means that, when the card numbers change, the credit card company will automatically supply their new card numbers or expiration dates to gateways so that you can continue to charge your donors uninterrupted.

 

Retry services automatically retry declined transactions before the end of the month. Credit card authorizations can fail for assorted reasons at the payment gateway, including insufficient funds. Just because the first charge failed doesn’t mean that the donor’s payments have lapsed; not all failed charges are permanent rejections. Before you give up on a perfectly good opportunity to receive a gift this month, you should retry to debit them (several times) before the end of the month. Many gateways offer this as a paid service, or you can configure your CRM to automatically retry unsuccessful transactions several times before the end of each month.


Blocking transactions
that are unsuitable for recurring donations is essential. Select a payment gateway that allows you to block prepaid debit cards. If your goal is to recruit low-income or unbanked community members, you may consider allowing refillable prepaid cards, but should ensure that you are debiting those cards on peoples’ payday and understand that the attrition will be worse than from standard cards or bank accounts. In addition, a good gateway will prevent donors or canvassers from entering their Venmo, Apple Pay, or PayPal account numbers that are not set up for recurring payments.

 

Control over when you process donations requires a more sophisticated data team and CRM but can pay dividends. Ask your gateway what dates of the month have the greatest success rate for transactions. Many gateways report that the largest percentage of credit cards process successfully around the first or 15th of the month, close to payday. Systems that allow you to charge a recurring donor’s first gift at the point of acquisition and set the future payments for the 1st or 15th of the following months, ensure that you’ll have more successful debits. Debiting this far from the end of the month also allows you extra time to retry unsuccessful donations in the same month to avoid missing one month of donations from people who signed up in the last date of a previous month.

 

Setting up your CRM or gateway to bill peoples’ bank accounts every four weeks (payday giving) on their payday has proven to be an excellent way to collect dues from people on a tight budget and increases the number of gifts per year from 12 to 13.

 

Donor Age

Donor age is a crucial variable in any canvass program. Quite simply, nonprofits lose money on monthly donors who are under 25 years of age.

 

Gift Types

Two of the most important drivers of sustainer retention are the payment method and the donation frequency. The same sustainer who donates $25 per month using their Visa debit card will give for twice as long when they make the same donation on their checking account via ACH. The payment method can double the lifetime value of the same donation from the same donor.

 

Payment frequency is similarly important. Annual gifts yield the first twelve months’ gifts at once and tend to debit at a higher rate in year two than a monthly donor would debit in their 13th month. Quarterly is the second best, and monthly is the third best. The chart below illustrates the difference in income from donations with different payment methods and frequencies, assuming all donors are over 25 and give $25 per month, $75 per quarter, or $300 annually.

 

 

First Gift Amount

12 Month Income

5 Year Income

Annual Checking, Savings, or AmEx

$300

$300

$1,065

Semi-annual Checking, Savings, or AmEx

$150

$278

$1,024

Quarterly Checking, Savings, or AmEx

$75

$268

$1,006

Annual Visa, MasterCard, or Discover

$300

$300

$920

Semi-annual Visa, MasterCard, or Discover

$150

$263

$826

Monthly Checking, Savings, or AmEx

$25

$259

$795

Quarterly Visa, MasterCard, or Discover

$75

$235

$690

Monthly Visa, MasterCard, or Discover

$25

$203

$435

 

No one organization’s data is the same as another’s, so monitoring your lifetime value, and the income you generate from different gift types, will help you refine your financial model.

 

To incentivize staff to recruit people to join with the best payment method, we suggest creating performance metrics that consider the value of the five-year income from each donor type, such as the examples in the Productivity section of this paper below.

 

MANAGING STAFF BEHAVIOR

 

  1. Managing staff to ensure that they act with integrity is essential to retain your sustainers. Membership Drive tests demonstrate that measuring and managing integrity behaviors can raise your retention by 8% or more. Integrity issues are loopholes that staff discover that help them both to sign up donors easily and lead to substantial donor attrition. To avoid financial shocks on your canvass, implement a combination of policies, behavioral expectations, and systems. Behaviors that increase donor attrition include recruiting members as a personal favor to the canvasser rather than by the cause, signing up the same person more than once, signing up multiple donors with the same credit card, faking data to avoid donor age minimums, or misrepresenting that the donation is a
    long-term commitment. 

 

Recruiting members as a personal favor to the canvasser, and not to the cause, is a sure path to donor attrition. Some staff, feeling pressure to meet their goals, will sign themselves up, sign up friends and family members, or enlist co-workers as members. When those staff leave, the donors soon follow. In your CRM, you should create rules that flag if the name of a donor matches a canvassers last name; first and last name and address; or the first and last name and address of other canvassers. These instances should be investigated and staff should know that recruiting themselves, co-workers, or family members (or any donors not on their turf) will not count towards their goals.

 

Most canvass operations have experienced staff signing up several fake donors with the same credit card. When you process a credit card, your payment gateway encrypts and stores the credit card information, and returns an encrypted token to you, which is unique to both your organization and that credit card. In your CRM, you should create rules that flag if the same token is present in more than one donation record. If so, this could mean that canvassers have used the same credit card to create multiple fake gifts or have signed up the same person more than once.

 

Cancel calls will increase as your number of sustaining donors increases. It is essential to check three things by canvasser: how many people tell you that the canvasser instructed them to cancel or downgrade their gift, the total percentage of donors who cancel in their second month as a sustainer, and the total number of donors who dont debit in their second month. Figuring out if the donor thought they had given a one-time gift vs. if the canvasser literally stated that it was only a one-time gift or that the donor should call to cancel is an important distinction. When you receive even one instance of canvasser misbehavior, you will often see a flurry of cancel calls for other reasons associated with this canvasser as well.

 

The percentage of sustainers that each canvasser recruits who cancel or downgrade their donation in their first or second month is crucial to watch. This will give you an early sign of canvasser misbehavior. The percentage of sustainers who do not debit in their first and second months. The number of sustainers who do not debit includes those who cancel, receive refunds, or whose transactions do not process for any integrity issues or processing issues, such as insufficient funds or an invalid address.

 

Assuming you are not experiencing issues with processing payments across the board, which could show an issue with your payment processing or other factors outside of each canvasser’s control, we suggest implementing the following policy: 

 

If:

 

a. A sustainer tells you that a canvasser told them to call and cancel, downgrade, or that the gift was a one-time gift, or 

b. More than 10% of a canvasser’s donors recruited in the previous month do not debit in the current month (Month 2 Retention),

 

 

Then, a canvasser should be dismissed if, within a three-month period of counseling the canvasser:

 

c. Any other sustainers tell you that the canvasser told them to call and cancel, downgrade, or that the gift was a one-time gift, or

d. More than 10% of a canvassers donors recruited from the current month forward do not debit in their second month. 

 

When one Membership Drive client implemented this policy, staff all complied successfully, and sustainer retention skyrocketed.

 

DONOR CANCEL CALL MANAGEMENT

 

 

Most nonprofits with substantial membership have an in-house or outsourced call center to manage inbound supporter calls. Traditionally, these call teams are cost centers. Training your staff to retain members when they call to cancel can reduce the net cost of your phone team, or even result in the team being cost neutral.

 

When donors call to cancel, there are two essential tasks for your call team: record the precise reason that the donor called to cancel, and to retain 20% or more of those donors.

 

Recording Cancellation Reasons

The following five reasons should be in your CRM among the other reasons that you record when a donor calls to cancel:

 

  • Canvasser told donor it was a one-time gift
  • Donor thought it was a one-time gift
  • Canvasser told donor to call and cancel
  • Canvasser told donor to call and downgrade
  • Donor complained about canvasser behavior / pressure
  • Donor downgraded

Training staff the difference between a donor calling to downgrade, and a donor calling to downgrade because a canvasser told them to call and downgrade after a payment or two, is essential for managing staff behavior.

 

Preventing Cancellations on the Phone

 

There are several methods nonprofits use to retain donors. Below are a few examples of techniques that help organizations retain about 20% of the donors who call to cancel:

 

  • Some organizations that restrict the donors’ gifts to sponsoring children, animals or apply the funds to programs, will explain this to donors, and offer to have the nonprofit cover the costs for a few months if the donor will agree to pause their gifts and resume them at an agreed upon time; and
  • When donors express that they are cancelling their gift for financial or commitment reasons, many nonprofits will ask donors if they would be willing to split their gift in half and continue to give at a lower gift level.

DONOR COMMUNICATION

 

To ensure that donors feel confident that their donation went to your organization, and feel good about the gift they gave, many organizations have tested the following techniques to determine their effect on retaining donors.

 

EMAILS

 

Several organizations send emails that include the canvasser’s name, reinforce the message that was shared to recruit the donor, and to thank them for their generous gift. Some CRMs or payment gateways automatically send out receipts to donors every time they charge their account. Turn this off. Donors do not require a monthly, formulaic, computer-generated receipt from your gateway. Instead, integrate your online donors into your regular email action alerts, with occasional donation asks layered in.

 

 

Sample Donor Email

Dear [First Name],

Thank you for talking to [Canvasser First Name] today and making the powerful decision to join People For with your [Frequency] membership.

You have joined a community that is [#} million members, supporters and activists strong! Together we are standing up to [mission
statement here].

Your support comes at a critical moment in the fight our democracy, as People For works to [big picture campaign blurb].

As a member, you’ll get insider news about how your support is [xxx about impact on democracy]. And we’ll let you know about urgent opportunities to [yyyy].

Together we will continue to demand [x, y, and z].

Thank you!

 

In Solidarity,

 


HANDWRITTEN POSTCARDS

 

Organizations have tested sending handwritten post cards to donors, which has had an impact on retention. Tools such as Handywritten can sync with most CRMs, and merge in the canvasser’s name in the signature. Notes often include stating that it was nice to meet the person, thanking them for their gift, and reinforcing what their funds will enable the nonprofit to do.

 


PHONE CALLS

 

A thank you call within one week of the donor signing up can make a substantial contribution to donor retention.

 

Other organizations call their donors to upgrade them within three months of them joining, and to convert the donors to ACH if they are giving through Visa, MasterCard, or Discover. To convert donors, the pitch is generally that the donor will give the same amount each month, but more of their money can go to the cause and less to credit card fees if they’ll switch to ACH.

 

MANAGING COSTS

To manage costs, you need to keep your core costs low and to maximize the number of high performing canvassers.

Core Costs

The main fixed cost in running a canvass is your central staff and canvass directors. The chart below assumes that a Canvass Director’s (CD) total compensation (including salary, benefits, bonuses, and direct costs) is $80,000 per year and that the CD recruits three donors per week. It assumes that canvassers’ total compensation is $22 per hour and that they recruit one donor per day.

Cost per Donor at Different Staffing Levels

 

Canvass Director with No Staff

CD + 3 FTE Canvassers

CD + 5 FTE Canvassers

CD + 10 FTE Canvassers

1 Canvass Director

 $       512.82

 $       232.14

 $       212.09

 $       195.07

2 Canvass Directors

 $       512.82

 $       272.23

 $        241.19

 $       212.09


The chart above does not consider office rent, vehicle expenses, or any other costs associated with running a canvass office or program. It simply demonstrates that the more staff you have, the more you spread the cost per donor of the Canvass Director out over all the donors recruited, and that having more than one Canvass Director is far less cost effective than only hiring one. For this reason, many vendors and charities are shifting to one Canvass Director offices, and only hire a second if an office grows to more than ten staff.

PRODUCTIVITY

There are two equations that nonprofits and companies use to track performance:

 

  1. Total Contacts * Yes Rate (this = total gifts) * Average Gift = Total Raised; or
  2. Hours Worked * Members per Hour * Average Gift = Total Raised.

We recommend method two, because it focuses managers on the number of canvassing hours each staff person works, and the productivity per hour.

 

Average gift was simpler to calculate when nonprofits only accepted one-time payments. There are a few ways that nonprofits now calculate the average gift:

 

  1. Monthly equivalent, which converts annual, semi-annual, and quarterly gifts into the equivalent of a monthly donation (e.g., Quarterly Gift / 4 and Annual Gift / 12); or
  2. A weighted average gift, which assigns a value of the gift based on the expected lifetime value of each donor’s donations.

We recommend method two.

 

One suggested method for weighing the value of donations recruited illustrated in the chart below. In the chart below, we assume that the average monthly gift given is $25 per month, three times that for quarterly gifts ($75), six times that for semi-annual gifts ($300), and 12 times that for annual gifts ($300). Based on industry and proprietary data, we calculate the total income you might make from each donation type over their five-year LTV. The Points v.1 column approximates how many times you’ll earn back your $400 investment with each Donation Type. The Points v. 2 column is a less complex method that may be simpler for staff to understand. Using multiples or points like this, we would propose setting an expectation that your staff will achieve two points per day on average each week.

 

Donation Types

First Gift Amount

5 Year Income

Cost per Donor

Points v. 1

Points v. 2

Annual Checking, Savings, or AmEx

$300

$1,065

$400

2.5

2

Semi-annual Checking, Savings, or AmEx

$150

$1,024

$400

2.5

2

Quarterly Checking, Savings, or AmEx

$75

$958

$400

2.5

2

Annual Visa, MasterCard, or Discover

$300

$920

$400

2.25

2

Semi-annual Visa, MasterCard, or Discover

$150

$826

$400

2

2

Monthly Checking, Savings, or AmEx

$25

$812

$400

2

2

Quarterly Visa, MasterCard, or Discover

$75

$690

$400

1.75

1

Monthly Visa, MasterCard, or Discover

$25

$469

$400

1

1

 

STANDARDS

To ensure that your organization generates long-term sustainable revenue, you will need to set performance standards for staff. We recommend pegging standards to generating $2 for every $1 you invest. Based on the suggestions above, we recommend a standard of averaging two points per day for a week, and if you are under that amount, then staff have one more week to achieve that goal.

PLANNING FOR SCALE

To figure out the best market strategy, consider the addressable market in each area and the costs of operations.

Addressable market can be figured out by the number of likely supporters within 30 miles of the city center. Many nonprofits have large enough lists of online supporters or donors who have given online or through the mail to be able to calculate how many supporters they have in a geographic area. Others partner with data firms to create look alike models to figure out how many people may support them within a geographic area. To plan out exactly where to go within each local market, organizations should evaluate the level of potential support by census bloc, not by zip code. Alternatively, other organizations figure out where they have the densest support, and cross reference that with population size of each market.

 

The cost of operations is largely driven by the cost to recruit, retain, and employ staff. The key factors are the costs per job applicant, wages, and extreme weather events.

 

  • Cost per job applicant. Done right, each job applicant should cost between $1 and $5. Most canvassing operations primarily use Indeed to recruit job applicants. Indeed is a search engine, and job listings on Indeed often dominate Google search results as well. Therefore, smart organizations use keywords in their job titles, in headings, and a few times evenly dispersed throughout their job descriptions. The best keywords to use, in terms of price per applicant, tend to be “campaign job,” “nonprofit job,” and “political campaign.” Use Google AdWords to look for similar words and test high performing words in your job descriptions. To ensure that you recruit applicants at $1-5, post more than one job per city at a time (using the best keywords), set the spending cap at $15 per day, and remove and repost those jobs multiple times per week. In cities with low unemployment, such as Seattle and the Bay Area, it can cost $15-45 per applicant. Avoid these cities. Other cities such as Denver can cost about $5 per applicant, while most cities range from $1-2.
  • Local wages. Many fundraising canvassing operations are paying about $20 per hour, particularly in cities and states with $15 per hour minimum wages. In cities and states with low minimum wages, this makes your hiring easier. In cities with more competitive wages, people working in the service sector may be making as much as a canvasser, without the pressure of having a quota or minimum standard. This makes staff recruitment and retention more difficult.
  • Extreme Weather. Extreme weather has proven to be increasingly disruptive, from wildfires in the West to winter extremes in the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic, and Northeast. When operations must shut due to extreme weather, organizations still are paying salaries and overhead, making the cost per donor in weeks with extreme weather far less profitable.

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