Credit: SF Weekly
Photo Credit: SF Weekly


Do-gooders doing, eh, not so good

CASE STUDY: What is wrong with canvassers? You know what I’m talking about. Clipboard in hand, barricading busy corners, same robotic question on repeat: “Do you have time for (fracking, global warming, animal protection, worker rights, homelessness, education, etc.)?” I don’t have beef with people trying to raise money or awareness for any worthwhile issue. What I can’t stomach is just how awfully they’re doing it.

If my experience represents that of the average citizen, I’d guess only a few people ever stop to entertain the pitch every hundred or so times. Of that amount, an even smaller percentage ever signs the petition or makes a donation. These guys stand out there the whole day. Those are live resources! It cannot possibly be the best use of human potential. Something in this picture just isn’t effective and yet they keep at the same miserable tactics.

Warning: Clipboard People Ahead

Recently on Market Street near Powell, I saw a guy-girl duo failing miserably at this job. I mean, damn, they’re supposed to be helping save the world (or at least some portion of it) and they suck! These are the best do-gooders we can produce for this work? As a communications enthusiast, I couldn’t help but wonder how much more effective they’d be if only they applied some basic changes to their approach.

CLIPBOARDI offered in a warm and friendly manner, “Hey, can I interest you in a recommendation?” I kid you not, the girl froze in fear. Speechless. Herein lies problem #1. These guys are hired to talk to strangers but they haven’t the language skills to perform basic listening. In this case, the canvasser was so rehearsed in her script that she was incapable of dealing with regular conversation on the fly. She awkwardly directed me to her partner who we’ll call Adam because that’s what he said his name was.

Adam had a California vibe about him, grown-out blonde hair, unbuttoned plaid shirt, tank top, beaded necklace. Laid back as he appeared, Adam was still very “bro.” And this bro wasn’t about to let some guy (i.e. another man) talk to him, the Field Manager as he self-identified, about how to do his job no matter how free the advice nor how awful his current outcomes (These guys are paid on a commission mind you). Because the realest blockade to serving any good cause, more often than not, is personal ego. In this case, dude ego no less.

This part here might be my own bad too though. While I’ve had many successes lending a hand to strangers — helping carry strollers on and off the Muni, walking elderly people across the street, assisting an ESL student write his statement of purpose — I should know better still than to give expertise to people who haven’t asked for it. I’ll acknowledge that. But I figured, Hey, you started it.

So, out of curiosity and for the sake of shooting the breeze, Adam and I talked about his success rate in drawing in the public’s attention (poor) and the makeup of his plan to do so (also poor). He and his trainee had been instructed to memorize and parrot factoids and statistics. Great for graphs and pie charts but totally boring for dialogue. That’s problem #2. Never lead with figures.

“Hi, do you have time for…”

Problem #3 — and one of the worst yet most correctable offenses — is the bad ice-breaker on repeat. “Why not introduce yourself and begin with a handshake before starting into the spiel?” I suggested. You’d have a dramatically improved chance at earning someone’s interest and respect if you actually varied your open and made it more personalized. This is a scientific fact. It’s the very reason ambulance sirens and car alarms change tempo every 5 seconds. The human brain is a pattern-recognizing device, possessing the keen ability to quickly identify sameness and repetition, and to silence them as needed. In other words, the people you’re aiming to reach, when you rely on templates and a machined delivery, won’t hear you in the least. And it’s because they’ve put you on mute! Adam and his teammate may as well have been wearing white face-paint and black berets, pressing their sad gloved hands into an invisible wall.

At the end, he said he already knew these techniques and would be using them. Suuuuure. You and I both know he was full of it. Still, a polite enough way to say, No, thank you. “Okay,” I said. “Well, I gotta go. Good luck.” I left for a meeting and one hour later, I saw from across the street, bro Adam and his sidekick still getting passed up by streams of potential would-be supporters. The cause he was championing: gay rights. And even gay couples were having none of it, leaving him to talk only to upturned eyes. In San Francisco too. Geez, man. Could not screw it up any worse, I’m pretty sure.


Audience: 100s
Leads: 0
Conversions: 0
Wins for social cause: 0
Income for an afternoon of humiliating rejection: 0


The Lesson: Humanize

Great going there, boss-siree. If I was his subordinate, I’d quit by end of the day (And plenty do. These are throw-away summer gigs for a lot of people in this line of work). This is all unnecessarily so. You needn’t be a canvasser to get value from this story.

These mistakes occur across businesses, across mediums, across campaign types. I’m telling you. The few instances that people will comfortably put money into a machine might be to buy potato chips, a Metro card, or a laundry cycle. Otherwise, you can be sure that people will prefer to do business only with other, um, people! Not bots of any kind, not spambots, flyer-bots, spare change-bots, or clipboard-bots.

If you want to secure a clientele, a constituency, a donor base, or any attention at all for your cause or your company, don’t be afraid to put more humanness into your messaging. Focus on creating high-quality audience relations, care enough to solicit and listen to feedback, and keep communications professional and consistent yet natural-sounding and approachable; i.e. mix it up once in a while! Simple, yes? And why not?

Really, it can only help… bro.


You can apply these tips to both your online and real time interactions with your peeps. This might be the tech and automation age, but who says we can’t still put our best foot forward? That we can’t represent our true voice and our values? We can! And we should.

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