More Responses to 'Strip-Mining the Grassroots'

[I'm experiencing computer failures and various setbacks, so the next part of Grassroots Campaigns, Inc's Great War of 2004 is a few days away. In the meantime, there has been a very interesting discussion going on in the past few days, way at the bottom of the last post's thread. Brings me back to the days of Game Theory class in college. Also, check out the unexpected turn of events at the MoveOn Minute Taker -- let's hope that the MINUTE TAKER can get back into the Operation Democracy campaign!]

Over the last two months, I've been getting several emails a week in response to the Strip-Mining the Grassroots series, from people who came across the series while working for Grassroots Campaigns, Inc's Democratic National Committee fundraising canvass campaign. I'll post several of them here -- they suggest that the problems in GCI's 2004 campaign seem to be still-present, and also that there is a good amount of negative feedback out there that the DNC might not be getting from this campaign. DNC, are you listening?

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Grassroots Campaigns Inc's Great War of 2004 (p3): the Collapse of Leave No Voter Behind

In the first post of this series, I described my experience working as a field organizer for MoveOn PAC in the 2004 election:  

The 2004 MoveOn PAC Leave No Voter Behind was not just a 'bad' experience. It was a soul-crushing experience.

I did not choose that phrase carelessly -- it is a sentiment shared by many of my fellow organizers who were out there on the ground. In the comments, they've called the campaign "ill-conceived,""cynical," and "disastrous." Since MoveOn has rehired the vendor that ran Leave No Voter Behind--Grassroots Campaigns, Inc--to run its 2006 ground operation, Operation Democracy, I believe it's important to open up a dialogue about what went wrong.

A number of GCI's managers from the campaign have taken issue with these posts -- they reason that all campaigns are "hard work," and that "kinks" and "snags" should be expected, especially since this particular campaign was the first time that either MoveOn or GCI had attempted such an operation.

But this glosses over some crucial context. GCI is in fact the youngest offspring of the Public Interest Research Groups family; Leave No Voter Behind was staffed by hundreds of PIRG/Fund for Public Interest Research managers, who took leaves of absence to work on the campaign. The PIRGs do, in fact, have experience in GOTV--on college campuses and state ballot initiatives--and though nothing on this scale had ever been implemented, in an important way this campaign was not so different from a standard PIRG/Fund operation. It was a new permutation of their well-worn model.

As I wrote in the "Strip-Mining the Grassroots" series (and it would help to read that post in conjunction with this one), the PIRG/Fund world is rigidly structured around this model:

The model is more than a set of guidelines -- it's a comprehensive campaign template that assigns the goals, schedules the time, scripts the interactions, and measures the progress of each participant. Those goals are defined entirely in terms of numbers -- numbers of recruits, numbers of members, numbers of dollars raised. It has three primary components -- recruitment, training, and canvassing -- which are compartmentalized and monitored in order to produce the optimal result.

In this post, I will explain -- in terms of this model itself -- why the Leave No Voter Behind campaign collapsed under a crisis of leadership that can be traced directly to the top of GCI.

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Grassroots Campaigns Inc's Great War of 2004 (p2): False Starts and a Blown Fuse for MoveOn

In my last post, I summarized my experience working as a field organizer in MoveOn PAC's 2004 Leave No Voter Behind campaign. For this GOTV operation, MoveOn contracted out a vendor named Grassroots Campaigns, Inc (GCI). GCI had also been contracted by the Democratic National Committee to run its 2004 fundraising canvass (this was the primary subject of my previous series, "Strip-Mining the Grassroots" -- please read Lockse's post for another valuable perspective on the GCI's 2004 DNC canvass). But while their DNC campaign was a resounding "success" that exceeded its goals by several hundred percent, GCI's MoveOn campaign matched this in resounding failure. As I wrote:

Things went wrong, as things always will in a campaign. Then things got worse, as things often will in a campaign. But what happened next was a breakdown that went beyond miscommunication, disorganization, and Acts of the Campaign God....

Altogether, Leave No Voter Behind collapsed under what I described to be "a profound crisis of leadership." Since MoveOn has seen fit to rehire this vendor for its 2006 operation and beyond, I argued that it is important to open up a dialogue about what this crisis was all about.

Predictably, the dialogue so far has been contentious. On the whole, my account was confirmed by the 'field organizers' who were working right on the ground. But several 'lead organizers' (managers who oversaw the individual MoveOn offices) claimed thatconsidering the circumstances -- in which GCI was a brand new company attempting something that neither organization had ever done before -- everything went fine. (This discrepency in perspective between management and field organizers is quite revealing in its own way -- and it's one that recurred throughout the campaign; I'll explore it later in the series.)

At one point in the discussion, Matt Stoller pointedly asked, "What is failure? What is success?" My fellow field organizers in the comments actually did a good job of answering that, but I want this discussion to be as clear as possible on the matter. So in this post, I'll explain exactly what the campaign set out to do, and I'll sort out the two reasons that it fell off track right from the outset. In other words, this post is only about the "Things went wrong...[t]hen things got worse" part. These initial failures ultimately precipitated the "crisis of leadership" that I believe is still present (though passive) within Grassroots Campaigns' model.

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Grassroots Campaigns Inc's Great War of 2004: Fool MoveOn Once, Shame On GCI. Fool MoveOn Twice...

"Working hard for the right side--how could it not be the right thing? That question never came up. Now it has."

The first order of business in this series is to direct those who followed my previous series to a postscript of sorts: if you haven't already, please read Lockse's 'In Response to Strip-mining the Grassroots.' Lockse was an upper-level director for Grassroots Campaigns, Inc's 2004 Democratic National Committee fundraising canvass, and 'In Response...' seems in retrospect to be an essential counterpoint to 'Strip-Mining the Grassroots.'

Lockse's personal perspective is thoughtful and empathetic. Though the post doesn't come to any conclusions on its own, it does corroborate the fundamental critique made by myself and others: this canvass fundraise model might be a cost-effective way to fatten the 'membership' rolls of its clients, but its hidden costs are anathema for the progressive movement. Rather than cultivate the grassroots, it burns through the grassroots like cheap fuel. (This critique is specific to GCI's DNC campaign, but it has much wider implications--as GCI is merely the newest branch of the Public Interest Research Groups/Fund for Public Interest Research network, a corporate family that dominates the bottom-most level of the activist industry.)

I want thank Lockse for providing a voice that speaks with both experience and a willingness to engage with criticism from below. I also want to take this as a cue to change hats.

A number of times in the course of the series, defenders of the GCI/PIRG/Fund model tried to dismiss my posts as the axe-grinding rants of an ex-employee who 'had a bad experience'. Now, it is true that 'Strip-Mining the Grassroots' was born of my experience working for GCI. And yet, I only raised money for the DNC for three weeks -- they were intense weeks, but ultimately not enough to leave a lucid impression of systemic failure. Rather, my 'bad' experience with GCI and the PIRG/Fund model was in Get Out the Vote for MoveOn PAC.

Now, as I take off my calm, methodical armchair-analyst hat and put on the hat of a young, idealistic progressive who is telling the story of his first intensive experience with political activism, I hope (perhaps in vain) that the impact of the following qualification is not lost amid the din of the blogosphere: the 2004 MoveOn PAC Leave No Voter Behind was not just a 'bad' experience. It was a soul-crushing experience.

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In response to 'Strip-mining the Grassroots'

I've been frustrated with Greg's series, at first because it seemed to me that he was out to `take down' something that I've put a lot of myself into. I worked in the PIRG world for many years--all my adult life. I was one of the people who built Grassroots Campaigns. I've since moved on from GCI, into a new life; but it still means a lot to me. I've had the kind of experiences that simply can't be nailed down in a few blog posts; Greg, on the other hand, worked for us for ten weeks.

But I'm also frustrated because as he pieced together his critique, I knew that it was something that essentially rings true. And the period of time that Greg worked for us was one of the most intense phases in all my experience with this model. It was intense enough to burn me out almost entirely. In the course of an extended, heated off-blog discussion with Greg, I decided that I would try to help this discussion by providing some context from above. (This is cross-posted from Kos.)

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