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The word activist may seem somewhat anachronistic these days, associated with the political movements of the late 1960s that slowly faded from sight by the end of the '70s. Yet ads for activists have been appearing more and more in newspapers across the United States, says Marc Anderson, director of the Chicago-based Hudson Bay Company, a consulting firm for nonprofit, special-interest groups.
A decade ago, only one public-interest group hired activists, or canvassers, to work full-time. Now there are more than 100 of these groups, says Mr. Anderson. The number of people signing up to be professional canvassers has also increased dramatically in the last two years, he says. Organizations that used to rely on only a few part-time volunteers to solicit funds and disseminate information now keep full-time staffs averaging seven or eight people and swelling to as many as 40 in the summer months, with temporary student help.
''It takes a strange breed,'' explains Kimberly Rothenburger, a canvasser for the Campaign for Economic Democracy (CED) in Santa Monica, Calif. ''I came to L.A. from Boston to be an actress, but when I got here, I found myself feeling so narcissistic, so caught up in that whole 'Me Generation' thing. I suddenly realized that there were so many problems out there that affected me and everybody - nuclear waste, reproduction rights. I wanted to be a part of the solution. It's real important to feel I'm doing something worthwhile.''
Canvassing isn't easy. Canvassers ring doorbells as many as five hours a day, and deliver their pitches to residents who often peer at them suspiciously through partially opened doors and send them away empty-handed.
Few canvassers make as much as $10,000 a year. Many must find extra part-time work to make ends meet. And most canvassers must raise at least $80 per night. Like any salesman who fails to produce, a canvasser who consistently fails to meet the quota is fired.
''There are no mercenaries here,'' says Richard Stayner, canvass director for CED. ''If you don't feel strongly about the issues, you won't last.''
There have always been people willing to work unselfishly for a cause, says David Zwick, director of Citizens' Campaigns Inc., a public-interest consulting firm in Washington, D.C. But they couldn't afford to donate their time for free. Now, he explains, people realize they can support a cause and support themselves , however modestly.
Some tie the increase in this sort of activism to the recession.
''Reagan has taught the country an economic lesson,'' says Anderson, ''and when times get hard, people turn to political action.''
Ads for canvassers attract all types: former real estate brokers, microwave oven salesmen, and receptionists, all looking to put more meaning into their lives; a former track star, tired of breathing smoggy air; even a 56-year-old woman who proudly styles herself as a lifelong activist. Most applicants are a few years out of school. Though some see canvassing as a temporary stint in social services, others aspire to higher positions within the organization.
The face-to-face method of delivering a message seems to be very successful in attracting new members to grass-roots organizations, Mr. Zwick says. Many see this approach as the liberal answer to the direct-mail and media campaigns of the New Right. After the conservative shift in the 1980 elections, these groups began full time canvassing.
In a large city, an organized canvass can bring in $350,000 to $400,000 a year. Anderson estimates that for most organizations, canvasses bring in 50 to 80 percent of the budget.