Essentially, canvassing is the practice of being a door-to-door
salesman who sells politics
instead of vacuum cleaners
Activist and political groups often use canvassing as a way to raise public awareness and build funds. My canvassing director called it "Disturbing the Complacent." It is a big part of grassroots campaigning, and succeeds by the principles of statistics -- if you talk to 40 people, there will probably be about 5 who are gullible enough to give you money.
This summer, I worked for a week and a half as a canvasser for the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay and lesbian civil rights group. The average employment duration of canvassers in our office was roughly three days. Canvassing is not for the weak of heart, weak of mind or weak of foot. It involves hour upon hour of single-minded unflappability, dedication to the cause (because it sure doesn't pay well) and strong, tireless legs. We spent 5 hours a day canvassing a "turf", which was a section of 50-80 houses in a given neighborhood, and had a daily requirement of raising at least $120.
Canvassing usually involves a "rap", which is the initial spiel you roll off when someone comes to the door. Regardless of the organization, all canvassing raps are similar, specifically designed for maximum impact on the unwary victim:
Hi, how are you?
My name is __________, and I'm with ______________.
Right now we're working to _______________________.
Here's some more information about this work: _____________.
The best way you can support our efforts is by _________________, tonight.
If you support us, you'll get this: _________________.
This is what you need to do right now: ____________________.
Canvassing is actually not considered soliciting. In spite of the fact that you're often asking people for money, it is considered an exercise of freedom of speech, and does not require a permit. If you've got the nerve, you can legitimately canvass no-soliciting neighborhoods, and probably even make some money.
One interesting thing I noticed is how much people seem to trust canvassers (and assumably salesmen). They will often leave their door wide open and run to get a checkbook, leaving their house ripe for petty theft. I was also marginally shocked at the number of people willing to give cash to someone they just met 5 minutes ago. I could fire up my computer and create a "statement of support" exactly like those I used on the job and probably make an average of $100 a day asking people for donations to a supposedly honorable political organization. The possibilities are almost scary.
Occasionally, canvassing can be extremely fun and sort of hilarious. Once I was assigned a rich white upper-class turf in a neighborhood on the West End of Richmond, Va. As I was walking from house to house, I noticed a slightly middle-aged woman walking her dog down the road. I thought I might as well try the spiel on her, although she looked like the type of person who would turn me down cold. I walked up to her and began reciting anyway: "Hi, how are you? I'm with the Human Rights Campaign. We're the nation's largest gay and lesbian civil rights group, and right now we're working to prevent hate crimes." She looked at me and said "oh yeah? My son is gay! You have to meet him!" I got dragged all the way into her house across the street, and stood there while she yelled "ALEX! COME DOWNSTAIRS!!!!" She introduced us and gave me the full "suggested initial donation" of $75. I could tell that both she and her son thought I was a lesbian. I neglected to mention that in reality I'm mostly heterosexual, and he was probably, oh, the third or fourth openly gay person I've met in my entire life.
It was amazing how many people seemed to think I was a lesbian when I was canvassing for gay rights. I guess it's assumed that anyone who would actually go door-to-door raising support for the Human Rights Campaign would HAVE to be extremely involved in its issues. This is similar to assuming a programmer at a large corporation has influence over the company's irritating television ads. There is NO overlap -- we're merely the lowlifes doing the dirty work.