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Canvassing For Cash In The Nation's Capital

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The streets of D.C. are filled with canvassers working for various organizations. 
Daniel X. O'Neil: http://www.flickr.com/photos/juggernautco/5822425019/
The streets of D.C. are filled with canvassers working for various organizations. 

Standing on the sidewalk near the Dupont Circle metro, Greenpeace canvasser Dave Muller sets up his next pitch. "A man with facial hair like that loves the environment," he booms at a passerby that does not lack for facial hair. I know from experience, sir!" 

Tall and adorned with a bushy reddish-brown beard himself, a tattoo covering one arm and a Redskins cap on his head, Muller has about a year of canvassing for Greenpeace under his belt. The gentleman he propositioned kept walking, as most do, but he says he usually has no problem signing up new members, and not just crunchy hippy types.

"You never know who’s going to be what, or who’s a secret millionaire," Muller says. "So I definitely try to approach every single person that I can. I’ve signed up every single kind of person there is." 

Canvassers make up Greenpeace's bread and butter

Because Greenpeace doesn’t take any government or corporate money, it depends entirely on memberships and donations, many of them solicited by canvassers. The canvassers make $15 an hour, plus health care and other benefits, but they have to earn their keep by meeting daily quotas. 

Lincoln Deffenbaugh, who trains and manages all the Greenpeace canvassers in D.C., prepares them for the difficult situations they might encounter: rainy days where no wants to stop and talk, or times when the majority of people are wearing headphones or talking on their cell phones.

Even without the unforeseen challenges, it’s a bit of an uncomfortable job. "We do what your mother told you not to do: we talk to strangers about politics, and we ask them for money," Deffenbaugh says. 

Rejection becomes run of the mill

Between the pressure, and the rejection, it’s not for everybody. Some have even quit on their first day. Others struggle to meet their signup quotas, and they can be asked to leave if extra training doesn’t help. 

Even star canvassers like Muller get a lot of people saying, "sorry, I'm late," or "I don't have time." During a tough day out on the street, he has to work at staying positive.

You definitely have to forget your insults and remember your compliments," he says. "You never know what kind of day someone’s had, or what they’re coming from, if they’re unhappy, if they just lost their job, if they have family issues or whatever, so when you hear someone that’s super negative, it lets you be able to just roll it off your back."

There are canvassers in every major city, but D.C. is a unique beast. One of Deffenbaugh’s many duties is to make sure his team, and the five or six other nonprofits that canvass in D.C., don’t set up on the same corner on the same day.

"No one wants to run into an HRC [Human Rights Campaign] canvasser, then an LGBT [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender] canvasser, then a Planned Parenthood canvasser, and then have Greenpeace be on the same block," Deffenbaugh says. "That’s not beneficial for those groups or for us. By the time they get to you, they’re like, ‘Nope, I already talked to them.’ And you’re like, ‘But it’s different!’ And they’re like, ‘I don’t really care. I just want to go.’"

Staving positive during a financial rough patch

So what happens when the economy takes a nosedive? Are people really going to donate money if they’re struggling to get by themselves?  

"I’ve personally found, out on the sidewalk, that even in a time of economic downturn, people are still willing to set aside something for an issue like this -- almost more so, in some cases," he says.  But not always. People say they’re in debt, or they’ve lost their job, or they just don’t have any money to spare. Sometimes they’re apologetic about it, sometimes combative. 

But Deffenbaugh says the conversation is just as important as the donation.

"I get people who are rude to me every day, and that’s totally fine. But I do think it is necessary for people to keep that healthy democratic discussion alive," he says. "When people stop talking to one another … and they stop engaging in critical discussion on issues -- I think that’s when you see a democracy not be so healthy anymore. So at least give us that."

From Foggy Bottom to Columbia Heights to Capitol Hill, the canvassers will be there -- five days a week, rain, shine or Snowmageddon. In a city where time is money, they'll continue to try and get you to give up just a little bit of both.

[Music: "Money for Nothing (Karaoke Version)" by Hot Fox Karaoke from Hot Fox Karaoke - Karaoke Collection 2]

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