How To: Canvass: How I Got My Start as a Comedian

Magazine cover with "Elections" in blue text against white background, and "grassroots strategies for change" in black text

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 12 No. 1, "Elections: Grassroots Strategies for Change." Find more from that issue here.

Parts of this article previously appeared in the Clean Water Action News.


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You see this ad? If you're reading this, you probably care enough about clean water that it sounds pretty interesting to you. Well, it did to me. I jumped on it. Called up, interviewed, aced my training period, and got the job, canvassing for the Clean Water Action Project.

That's right, I'm a canvasser, a Clean Water Action Projecter, you might say. Instead, you're probably saying to yourself, "Who's a canvasser? What's a canvasser? And why do you always come around so late?" Frankly, we work between four and nine in the evenings because that's when most people get home. We come door to door so we can answer your questions, and help you finish dinner.

But seriously, folks, canvassing is primarily two things — education and fundraising. We alert people to the hottest current water pollution, toxics, clean-up, and prevention issues. We update folks on what the Clean Water program and research staff have accomplished over the years — bills drafted and passed, laws strengthened, citizen coalitions founded, resources safeguarded. And we raise the bucks to allow Clean Water Action to keep on working FULL TIME.

The key to the whole process is face-to-face contact. Personal contact allows more people to participate — more than 90 percent of Americans support clean water goals (according to the polls), but they rarely have a chance to act on their opinions. Canvassing allows thousands of folks every night to meet activists, sign petitions, invest money in a cause they believe in, get involved, and ask questions. Just think of all the times you've wanted to talk back to the TV or radio or newspaper. (But don't take it out on your friendly canvasser, please.)

Where our fundraising function is concerned, some of us think of ourselves as monetary policy consultants, helping you set the level of liquid assets (M-l) in your personal economy. We're not becoming millionaires at it like some policy consultants. We start at around $7,200 a year, and some of us make close to 10K a year, almost enough to buy a used Dart.

Why, you ask, is a canvasser willing to exist on a subsistence salary? Well, there's the obvious reason that we like clean drinking water and fishable/swimmable rivers as much or more than the next person. Then there are the not-so-obvious reasons. For this writer, a stand-up comic whose career will be made or broken in those midnight gigs when the audiences are loosened up, one reason is that the hours are so good. Canvassers work from 2:00 to 10:30 p.m. or so, and seldom, if ever, have to make the cost-benefit analysis of whether to miss Johnny Carson tonight or snooze at work tomorrow.

For others, a big attraction is the weather. Canvassers love weather. We live to trudge through your neighborhood, sweat running down our backs, sun staring us in the eye. Temporary blindness is not too high a price to pay for clean drinking water. If sweating is your style, try our Tallahassee office in July. How long can you canvass before ducking under a sprinkler? Some canvassers like rain. There is nothing like being wet and cold in your neighborhood. Still others adore winter canvassing — our Minneapolis office is sometimes known as the "Clean Ice Action Project" — defending the rights of ice canoers everywhere.

Canvassing has yet another attraction — upward mobility. Field managers, who help train and handle a crew of canvassers, graduate to become canvass directors — hiring, firing, running whole offices, tracking budgets, and so forth. Or they can do internships working with Clean Water's program staff people: researchers, lobbyists, organizers, writers, and others. Several of these program staffers were canvassers once themselves, and all of them have done at least a few days at the doors.

So everybody at Clean Water knows the two rules of canvassing: "be polite" and "get it in writing." A canvasser will not say to someone who is "not interested": "That's okay, just invite me in and I'll antagonize you." As for the writing, we want you to sign not just the support statement but also a check. A check is safer than cash for us in the field until 9:00 p.m. and it's also a receipt for you.

But what about you? Who are you? My extensive research (in Washington, DC, and Maryland; Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida; and Iowa and Minnesota) has identified six basic kinds of "doors," as we affectionately refer to the folks behind the surfaces we knock on.

To begin with, there is the so-called "virgin" door. This is who we were before we answered the ad in the paper. This is the person who recently moved to the area, whose home is new, or who simply hasn't been home when we've come around in years past. These folks we treat gently, letting them know:


Yes, we helped write and pass the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act, the latter passed after tests showed literally hundreds of toxic chemicals combining into unhealthy compounds in the drinking water of New Orleans, Louisiana, last stop on the Mississippi River; we helped stop the dumping of radioactive wastes from Three Mile Island into the Susquehanna River and Chesapeake Bay, which support 10 percent of the economies of Maryland and Virginia, and yes, we work with the League of Conservation Voters, an affiliated organization that publishes congressional voting records on environmental issues, then canvasses door-to-door to inform the public, raise funds, and get out the vote. Together we've built important coalitions with voters in Durham, North Carolina, and Tampa, Orlando, and Daytona Beach, Florida. We're working on drinking water and sewage treatment and toxic dumps and all kinds of problems that are worrying you. We've been written up in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and the New York Times, not to mention the Washington Post, which has comics. Let us continue to work on these issues FULL TIME. About that contribution, we're asking people to come as close to a dollar a month for the year as they can. We want to save you money: the Safe Drinking Water Act will be renewed and strengthened to make the polluters pay to protect the clean groundwater resources of all, and the billion-dollar Tennessee-Tombigbee Canal won't be built with taxpayers' dollars. And you'll be able to take as much credit for it as anybody. So help us out at the door, and save yourself the price of gas every month, bringing the dollar into our office, or the extra $2.20 in stamps plus envelopes. A good box of envelopes has got to run you at least 75 cents.


The next group of people commonly refer to themselves as "not interested," "not tonight," "I'm washing the sink," or "I'm watching Tic-Tac-Dough." These people we simply ask to read the statement of Clean Water goals and to ask any questions they might have. Thinking is not required, but we feel it's healthy.

The door we're least fond of, coincidentally enough, is the door that is least fond of us. This is the slammed door. Since this is a family publication, we can't print what we call them, but often it is an extended play on what we've just been called. A canvasser learns to deal with rejection, and is ennobled in the process.

One of the most challenging doors we face is the person who says, "I gave last year and nothing happened." You're the kind of folks we call "feisty." To this person, we say:


A common mistake — simply because we work so hard with bureaucrats and politicians does not mean we ourselves do nothing. Last year, for instance, we testified before the U.S. House water resource subcommittee; got Maryland governor Harry Hughes to budget an additional $203,000 for hazardous waste management; testified in favor of down-zoning western Fairfax County, Virginia, to protect the Occuquan drinking water reservoir from runoff pollution; helped push through some strengthening amendments to the Clean Water Act; and opened new offices in Virginia and Florida, among other things. No, it's not that nothing happened; it's just that we haven't been to your door for a whole year, and nobody else is keeping you up to date on these things. Get our newsletter. You'll stay up to date on the issues, and next year you can tell us what happened.


A similar type of door is the person who remembers us from last year and wants to know what's going on this year. To this person we recommend our newsletter. We say, "It keeps you up to date on the issues, gives you something tangible for your support, and also helps us that much more. Your generosity is appreciated. You also get to read some semi-humorous prose like this. You don't have to laugh; but if you do there's no extra charge.'' We call you "concerned."

Last but never least are the wonderful people who, as soon as we mention, "Clean Water Action . . . leap forward to say, "Yes, come on in. I'll get my checkbook. How much is your newsletter this year? Isn't there a book that comes with that? I'm really glad you're out there doing this work." Thank you. We call you "friends."