Listening Door-to-Door: The Case for Canvassing

Open Answer mobilizers talk to community members in Denver.
Open Answer mobilizers talk to community members in Denver. Photo credit: Jordan Strong

When a Colorado advocacy group focused on the health threats posed by climate change was considering support for a local policy to require air conditioners in rental units, it decided to ask the experts: renters. And to make sure its “Extreme Heat Survey” included low-income communities and communities of color, the group took its questions door-to-door, canvassing residents for their feedback on the proposed rule.

When you think of canvassing, what do you picture in your head? Someone on the street corner asking you if you want to save the elephants? A stranger coming to your door to ask you to vote for their candidate? Perhaps the image you have conjured is not the most positive interaction, but I’m here to challenge that perception and to encourage you to envision what is possible with the power of face-to-face conversations.

Long before my organization, Open Answer, a nonprofit specializing in grassroots outreach, took on that canvassing project in Colorado, I was a graduate student in South Carolina, knocking on doors of registered Democrats to gauge their support for Barack Obama’s candidacy. I heard some of the worst things said about someone of his stature, but I also had some of the most fulfilling conversations I will probably ever have in my life. Since then, I’ve knocked on thousands of doors as a union organizer mobilizing state employees, and as a political organizer for labor-backed candidates. I’ve even knocked on doors because there were days I preferred to talk directly to people and hear their unadulterated perspective on the issues, rather than just sitting back and thinking about campaign strategy.

Through those experiences and my work at Open Answer, I see canvassing as an invaluable tool so much broader than one-off electoral-based door knocking. This tactic could and should be used by direct-service providers, nonprofits, philanthropic organizations, and governmental entities to better understand the needs of the communities they aim to serve. Decision makers and others in positions of power, while well-intended, can make assumptions about community needs and solutions based on limited or superficial information, solely quantitative data, or what works in other communities. Hearing from folks directly about their opinions and lived experience has the potential to challenge those assumptions and thus create more responsive policies, programs, and funding.

Canvassing also promotes equity by centering the voices and leadership of people who are Black and/or Hispanic and others who are most impacted by an issue but often least heard, and then further underrepresented in traditional data collection methods. Canvassing truly meets people where they are. It mitigates barriers to participation in web and phone-based surveys related to language, literacy, and technology access, while eliminating the time, transportation, and childcare issues that can block participation in focus groups. It also acknowledges the mistrust that exists and puts the onus on us to actively build trust with community members.

Canvassing: A tool for listening

Canvassing can be layered with public opinion polling, focus groups, and online surveys. Some advice if you are thinking about getting started:

  • Don’t hold back. Everyone you have met was a stranger at some point. Face-to-face conversations with folks at the door don’t need to be this scary, taboo, uncomfortable act. We have conversations with our neighbors, clerks at the grocery store, and our kids’ teachers on a regular basis. Community members who have lived experience to share are no different.
  • Prepare yourself for the potential to be wrong. Even the best intentioned organizations make assumptions that aren’t aligned with what a community needs or wants, and should view listening as part of the process.
  • Be sure not to be extractive and make a plan to close the feedback loop. Ask yourself how you’re going to keep participants abreast of the outcomes, how their experiences helped shape your work, and continue to seek their input.
  • Compensate people for their time, such as with gift cards. While survey participants have expressed appreciation in even being asked for their feedback, and we can see how that act alone can help communities feel empowered, those who seek information should offer participants compensation.
When Canvassing Can Be the Right Listening Tool, Some Examples:
  • If a municipality is considering a zoning change but public meetings are filled with the usual suspects, a door-to-door survey of adjacent neighborhoods can generate useful information.
  • If an advocacy organization is working to set its priorities based on community voices, door-to-door surveys can be used to surface the highest priorities and most relevant barriers for the organization’s target audience.
  • If a nonprofit organization is having difficulty attracting clients from certain demographic groups, door-to-door survey outreach can be used to understand why.

The approach is gaining traction. Everyday Canvassing is an organization focused on ensuring decisions made by Montgomery County, Maryland are responsive to the needs of the area’s residents. In one project, Everyday Canvassing knocked on more than 4,000 doors, twice over, speaking to 600 renters in English, Spanish, French, and Arabic to get input for the creation of a neighborhood master plan. During the conversations, the canvassers, many of them community members hired for the project, provided information about local services, such as language classes, to meet the needs expressed by residents.

In our own work on the Extreme Heat Survey for Healthy Air and Water Colorado (funded through a grant from the Environmental Justice Data Fund), we solicited opinions about the proposed air-conditioning rule, along with feedback to highlight stories of how families are dealing with extreme heat. By targeting our door-to-door outreach based on Denver’s neighborhood equity index and heat vulnerability scores, we were able to hear the voices of low-income residents and people of color who are experiencing the most acute impacts of climate change and often are overlooked in policy decisions.

We visited 3,000 homes and tabled at libraries and other community hubs, generating 800 completed surveys. The result, our “Report to the Community,” confirmed some of our beliefs and challenged others. Contrary to initial assumptions, most renters had air conditioning. And we learned that people were vocal in their desire for more shade trees and community pools. The in-person outreach resulted in more and more in-depth feedback than we likely could have gathered using other survey methods.

Open Answer canvassing
Photo credit: Jordon Strong

We did fall short in one part of the listening practice: We didn’t include a component that authentically closed the feedback loop. If I had a redo, I would propose a line item in the budget to go back out to continue conversations face-to-face, rather than solely through email. I also would have our mobilizers go back to the homes they visited to hand deliver the report; because to me, that demonstrates respect for participants’ time and feedback.

We’ve heard time and again through our electoral work that disenfranchised communities often feel that interactions can feel transactional and that folks are interested in hearing from them only when it’s election time and they want their vote. When considering executing canvassing projects of all types, I think it’s critical to add another round of in-person outreach to recognize people’s valuable input, and, if applicable or appropriate, to ask them how they may want to be involved in future efforts.  

We are always aiming to put our learning into practice as we work with other clients, such as the Colorado Gives Foundation. As part of its commitment to community engagement, Colorado Gives already conducts listening sessions and actively seeks perspectives from its nonprofit partners before establishing grantmaking portfolios. Now, with a desire to better understand the diverse voices in their community and use that knowledge to make a positive impact, Colorado Gives wants to expand its listening practices by reaching additional households through canvassing.

My hope is that more funders, nonprofits, government agencies, and policymakers wanting to advance equity will join Montgomery County, Colorado Gives, and the growing number of other organizations starting to see canvassing as a worthy and effective practice. Community members, after all, have the knowledge, experience, and insights that could lead to better solutions. Canvassing does the job of listening to what they have to say. 

About the author: Kate Stigberg, executive director, Open Answer