Virtual vs Face-to-Face Canvassing: The Pros and Cons

October 28, 2021

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Canvassing gets the word out about your campaign in your community, fast. A well-run canvassing campaign allows your canvassers to make personal connections with supporters on behalf of your organization, while also fundraising for future campaign efforts

Advocacy technology and canvassing best practices have rapidly evolved over the past year and a half. There are now more ways to conduct canvassing, including virtual methods. Both virtual and face-to-face canvassing have unique benefits. Some advocacy groups may find that virtual alone is the best fit for their strategies, while others might decide to switch entirely to a face-to-face approach. Finally, there are also advocacy groups who may employ both methods when relevant. 

To help your organization determine which approach best fits your needs, this article will discuss the fundamentals of both virtual and face-to-face canvassing before diving into the pros and cons of each.

As you compare face-to-face and virtual canvassing, remember that canvassing, like most advocacy methods, is ultimately a tool. This means that while one approach may play more to an advocacy group’s strengths than the other, whether or not their canvassing efforts will find success is ultimately up to the organization’s staff and canvassers.

Your canvassing method will shape how you gather support. But ultimately, you’ll also need to consider canvassing best practices, your overall campaign structure, and your canvassing efforts’ goal. 

Face-to-Face Canvassing

Face-to-face canvassing is primarily conducted through door-to-door campaigns, street canvassing, or a mix of both. This method of canvassing has been around for hundreds of years and is seen as the more traditional, standard approach.

However, modern face-to-face canvassing benefits from advances in advocacy software. Instead of relying solely on clipboards and pens, advocacy campaigns can upgrade their tools to provide their canvassers and supporters with a streamlined, paperless canvassing experience without losing the face-to-face component. 

These advances in software have made face-to-face canvassing a more varied method of advocacy. Subsequently, different advocacy groups will experience the following pros and cons to different degrees based on their software setup. 

Pros

When most people imagine canvassing, they usually envision face-to-face canvassing. The popularity of face-to-face canvassing has made it the go-to canvassing method. However, as the default option, some of the unique pros of this method might be taken for granted, such as:

  • Ability to hold personal, one-on-one conversations. Personal relationships are vital for growing advocacy campaigns. Making a face-to-face connection can be an important stepping stone towards earning donations, attracting canvassers, and swaying public opinion. 
  • Ability to canvass home communities. It’s easier to gain support when your canvassers are already familiar with the community they’re canvassing. With face-to-face canvassing, your canvassers can personally reach out to friends, coworkers, and acquaintances to strike up a natural conversation about your advocacy group. 
  • Low-tech solutions tend to cost less. While advocacy software has advanced, advocacy groups who choose to stick to traditional clipboards and pens can do so with face-to-face canvassing. This method may not be as convenient as using advocacy software, but it often costs less. However, there are some low-cost solutions that may rival in-person canvassing’s extensive printing costs. 

Additionally, nonprofits conducting advocacy campaigns have another pro to consider: canvasser grants. As Double the Donation’s guide to canvasser grant basics explains, canvasser grants are donations made by your canvassers’ employers after they have contributed a certain number of hours to your cause. While you can still count virtual canvassing canvasser hours, many organizations might find it easier to track hours for in-person canvassers. 

Cons

While face-to-face canvassing has the potential to earn your campaign more attention and donations, street and door-to-door canvassing are ultimately hard work. This method can have significant drawbacks, including:

  • Handwritten phone numbers and signatures. After a day of low-tech, face-to-face canvassing, you’ll need to dedicate time to sitting down and reading through handwritten signatures and contact details. Handwriting can often be hard to decipher, making manually entering each name a difficult and time-consuming process. 
  • Potential safety hazards. Natural disasters, public health concerns, and other major public disruptions mean that in-person canvassing is not always safe. Even particularly bad weather conditions such as a storm can severely impact a day of face-to-face canvassing. 
  • Physical limitations on how many supporters you can reach. Your canvassers can only connect with the people they physically have access to. Door-to-door canvassing at empty houses can waste canvassers’ time and street canvassing success can vary wildly from day to day. 

It’s easy to consider the best possible versions of both face-to-face and virtual canvassing when comparing the two options, but it’s important to also take common mistakes into account. With in-person canvassing, canvassers might forget to ask about preferred communication methods, go off script, or write something down wrong. These things happen, and your canvassing method should allow you to create contingency plans for these errors. 

Virtual Canvassing 

Grassroots Unwired explains that virtual canvassing software evolved rapidly during 2020 out of a necessity to campaign during the presidential election without putting canvassers’ health at risk. Fortunately, this shift to online canvassing has been a success. Virtual canvassing has proven that it can accomplish many of the same tasks as face-to-face canvassing, all while allowing canvassers to connect with supporters through virtual conferencing software, texting, and other remote communication methods. 

An advocacy group’s experiences with virtual canvassing will depend on the software they use, but most groups will still likely encounter most of the pros and cons discussed here as they continue to advocate in 2021 and into the 2022 election cycle.

Pros

As mentioned, many advocacy groups had to shift to online canvassing methods quickly last year. While this transition may have initially been difficult, the new widespread use and interest in virtual canvassing also shed light on many of the unique positives, such as:

  • Automatic data entry and real-time updates. Rather than guess how well your canvassers are collecting names, phone numbers, and donations, virtual canvassing allows you to see their data collection efforts in real time. This allows your team to respond to challenges quickly and jump on opportunities as they arise. 
  • More canvassers can get involved. Virtual canvassing is more accessible than in-person canvassing, as anyone, regardless of physical ability, can support your cause from the comfort of their own homes. Plus, they can continue to canvas even if unexpected disruptions occur, such as sudden storms or other weather related issues. 
  • Ability to schedule conversations. Street and door-to-door canvassing rely on your canvassers’ ability to catch the attention of members of your community that want to speak to them in real-time. Virtual canvassing allows the interaction to happen on a much more fluid schedule. 

Additionally, when weighing virtual and face-to-face canvassing, consider the scale of your campaign. While small, local grassroots organizations may be satisfied with in-person canvasing only, virtual canvassing may be a necessity for large-scale, state spanning campaigns that need to coordinate hundreds of canvassers and deal with rural areas that are not easily walkable.  

Cons

After the rush to invest in virtual canvassing, some advocacy groups are also interested in returning to face-to-face canvassing. They do have a few justifiable reasons as virtual canvassing has its drawbacks, including: 

  • Onboarding time. All software solutions take time to learn, and you’ll need to spend some time during your canvassers’ orientation training them how to use your canvassing and fundraising software
  • Lack of face-to-face communication. Virtual canvassing software does have face-to-face video conferencing features, but some may still feel that connections made with supporters are not as personal as those made through in-person canvassing. 
  • Canvasser burnout. Some might assume that virtual canvassing is immune to canvasser burnout as supporters are able to stay in the comfort of their own homes. However, repeat video calls for long periods of time can wear on even the most passionate supporters.

Fortunately, many cons of virtual canvassing can be overcome with the right management and foresight. For example, to avoid long-training times for future campaigns, your advocacy group might ask experienced canvassers to mentor new canvassers, giving them a resource they can go to if they have a question about operating your canvassing software. 

Both face-to-face and virtual canvassing have positives and negatives, ranging from major benefits such as the ability to make personal connections and get in touch with supporters around the world to drawbacks including safety hazards and lengthy tech onboarding times. 

The best option for your advocacy group will ultimately be based on your current needs. The approach that makes the most sense now might change in the future. Research your options carefully, test out solutions, and don’t feel pressured to commit entirely to one method or the other. After all, many advocacy groups have found success by using a mix of virtual and face-to-face canvassing, enjoying the pros and avoiding the cons of both methods. 

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