In this digital age, I want to make the case for a return to old-fashioned door-to-door work.
Yes, as in actual doors.
And actually knocking on them.
I know, why would we bother to “waste” all of that time, when we have email addresses and Facebook and so many “easier” ways to organize people?
In short, because sometimes there’s just no substitute.
There are still some ways in which door-knocking campaigns are superior to online engagement strategies:
You can collect really valuable information about people, the conditions in which they live, and their relationships to their communities by physically traveling in their space. No virtual community gives you exactly this same sense of people’s places.
You get a certain credit for showing up that can be helpful in, especially, your efforts to recruit new people to your cause. Precisely because email is so much easier, it’s also more easily tossed away. Yes, some people will slam the door in your face, but, honestly, it doesn’t happen that much. We’re willing to give a little bit more respect to those who actually come to see us.
Door-knocking is a great way to get your advocates/members/activists more comfortable telling your story; once you’ve knocked on a stranger’s door (to ask for a petition signature, or a membership pledge, or a vote), you’re much less scared to ask an elected official to take a certain stand. There’s a real comraderie in door-knocking, too, that you don’t get with online strategies.
You can multitask on the doors. A good online campaign can get you members and contributions, and maybe petition signers, too. And a well-executed door-to-door effort can get you all that plus some media coverage (because knocking on doors, these days, for anything except a political campaign is really kind of news) and intelligence about your target community, and maybe some good volunteer connections, too.
Door-knocking can be part of a multifaceted online and in-person organizing campaign. Of course, these days, you don’t have to choose one or the other. You can collect email addresses when you’re talking with people on the doors, sign up canvassers on Facebook, and vice versa. My point is not to get you to abandon online efforts in favor of traditional neighborhood ones, but rather to rediscover the potential of the door-to-door campaign as part of your overall approach.
There’s a reason why local and state elections are often won or lost on the doors, rather than with paid advertising or mailing: people build relationships and connect with issues in a different way face-to-face. That’s still true today.
There are many sources of information about how to put together a good door-to-door campaign (including how to choose your target area, how to prepare your door script, how to train volunteers, how to protect your folks in the field, how to debrief your canvass, and how to follow up once you’re in the office).
But I think that most of these campaigns fail not in any of these areas of detail, but in the most fundamental respect: we’re just not trying them anymore.
Really, any social justice issue lends itself, potentially, to a door-to-door campaign, but those with a strong geographic component (think: school finance, environmental justice, zoning, unemployment, city services, law enforcement) are especially well-suited. Here, there’s really no substitute for constructing a strong connection among neighbors, and awakening a specific, localized population so that they can advocate on their own behalf.
And, from my own experiences, 10 minutes on someone’s front stoop can do that. Really.
So happy knocking.