The end of the world looms large, but Katrina Cook has a more pressing concern. It’s her first day on the job canvassing for Greenpeace and if she can’t enlist three supporters in three days she’ll be fired. She stands between the Claw fountain and the bookstore, clutching a thick binder filled with donation forms to her stomach, maintaining a steady stream of greetings and invitations as traffic flows past her.
“Got a minute for the environment?”
“Hey wanna talk about the environment?”
“Hi, how are you?”
If Katrina gets someone to stop, she explains that she works for Greenpeace, though this will be obvious from the logo on her shirt. If the person stays long enough, she’ll ask for his money, specifically in the form of a monthly contribution (minimum $15). It’s her first day on the job, but Katrina has learned one thing well already: bicyclists never stop. Pedestrians are slower and therefore more susceptible, but they have excuses too.
“I’ll come back later!”
Others simply ignore her.
Greenpeace was founded in 1971 and gained notoriety for its anti-whaling and anti-nuclear campaigns. Those issues still matter to the organization, whose cohort of non-Stanford affiliated canvassers stake out spots in White Plaza, but Greenpeace’s mission has since broadened into what their Web site calls “a fight to save the world.” They now mainly lobby and raise awareness about climate change and environmental degradation.
It’s an expensive and hard fight — last year Greenpeace spent more than $26 million, four million of that in fundraising — but Katrina and Greenpeace’s other 300 canvassers nationwide think it’s a cause worth fighting for.
“Got a minute for the environment?” she asks an older man in a leather jacket. He goes over to her and listens with a polite expression as she talks about the clearing of Indonesian rainforests to make room for palm oil plantations. After about a minute he says he has to go and leaves before Katrina can open her pledge binder.
Another woman passes, dragging a rolling suitcase noisily across the pavement.
“Hey, wanna talk about the environment?” Katrina says to her. The woman says she already donates and continues walking.
“Don’t you love the environment?” Katrina asks a group of three boys walking past.
“I love the environment,” says one, sarcastically, to his companions. Laughter.
More people pass. Bicyclists speed by. Pedestrians give Katrina a wide berth. Those who come near try to avoid eye contact, but Katrina is insistent.
“Got a minute for the environment?” she says to a girl in a plaid coat.
The girl shakes her head while mouthing “no” and continues walking.
Josh Sigal, the Greenpeace team leader, is at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the Stanford bookstore. A girl in heels tries to pass him on her way into the bookstore.
“I need a minute,” he says.
“Sorry,” she says, and keeps moving.
“Why not?” he says, but she doesn’t respond.
Josh is a seven-month veteran of the organization. As team leader he coordinates goals and outreach strategies with the other team leaders from the San Jose office. He also goes out to raise money, supervising and providing tips and encouragement to novices like Katrina, who, at 3 p.m., has yet to receive a single contribution. The ranks of Greenpeace USA fail to swell.
“You’re a superstar,” Josh says, giving her a high five.
Greenpeace claims more than three million members worldwide and their donations provide the bulk of the organization’s income. In 2008, according to their annual report, supporters donated more than $20 million, almost 80 percent of Greenpeace Inc.’s revenue. The report doesn’t say how many of those dollars are monthly contributions pledged to street canvassers like Katrina and how many are one-time donations. But street canvassers must rack up substantial donations because they are a common, if somewhat unpopular staple of many public places.
A girl in a Stanford sweatshirt walks quickly away from Josh toward her friend. The pair deems the canvassers “shady.” A boy sitting atop a concrete bench says he’d never donate because he doesn’t want to encourage a world where canvassers harass you and ask for money.
Over by the fountain, one student remarks to his companion that the canvassers are no better than panhandlers. He feels “a special resentment born of a poorly formed approach to a subject close to [his] heart” toward the canvassers. He understands climate change is dire, but doesn’t like strangers asking him to do something about it.
“It’s impersonal,” he says. “You’ve gotta be learning it from people you know.”
Josh says that on an average day he will try to stop three to four hundred people. Only a tenth of those people will stop at all, and only maybe a tenth of that number will end up donating. On the best day of Josh’s career, he received nine donations. It is no exaggeration to say that the predominant experience of canvassing is flat-out rejection.
Josh tries to get the attention of a boy, but the boy passes without responding or changing his expression. Josh looks a little stunned.
“I see you,” says Carissa, the third teammate, slapping Josh a high-five.
Carissa is having a good day. She’s gotten four donations.
“It’s the sweet spot,” she says, describing her location.
Carissa is about the same age as Katrina, but she has four weeks of canvassing under her belt. Sometimes, she says, she can see someone and just know that they’re going to give money. She likes Greenpeace better than the last non-profit she worked for, Environment California.
“It feels like family here,” she says. “I went to Josh’s house for Chanukah.”
Later, the team is on break and Josh is explaining the 20-foot rule. He stands and points at a girl about 20 feet away.
“See her?” he asks. “I’m going to make eye contact now so that when she passes she’s already looking at me.” The girl passes, looking at him.
Break ends. Carissa, Josh and Katrina return to their spots. Katrina takes a sip of her coffee and eyes the surroundings. A late-afternoon sun warms the plaza. Traffic has diminished notably, but a small stream of students flows past.
A girl carrying a Naked Juice with iPod earbuds spilling out of her sweatshirt pocket beelines toward Katrina.
“Got a minute?” Katrina says.
“Actually, I do,” says the girl.
“Check it out, we’ve got 3 million members around the world, but we don’t have enough supporters in the U.S.” says Katrina. “That’s why we need you.”
The girl listens intently. Soon Katrina is opening the thick, blue book, and making small talk as the girl jots down her information and her debit card number.
“Thanks for getting involved,” Katrina says, grabbing a sip of coffee.
Josh comes over to supervise. He presides over the crayoning of the girl’s debit card through the carbon paper. He gives her a sticker and a welcome packet.
“I’m so stoked I got one!” says Katrina, as the girl walks away.
“First of many,” says Josh.
“I feel rejuvenated,” says Katrina.
“Just remember that feeling,” says Josh. “That feeling never gets old.”