GCI's "Call for Change" MoveOn Campaign: Slash-and-Burn organizing

ChangeGCI is a group of veterans from MoveOn's field campaigns run by Grassroots Campaigns Inc (GCI). We have been blogging to expose the ways that GCI is failing its organizers AND the MoveOn members that it recruits. Earlier this week, we posted a set of recommendations of actions that MoveOn can take to begin to resolve this crisis of leadership. If you find our stories compelling, and you agree this issue must be addressed by MoveOn, please send an email to Eli Pariser (eli@moveon.org) and cc us at ChangeGCI@gmail.com (or contact us there directly, and we will update you with further information about how you can send a message to MoveOn).

I accepted a job with GCI during the spring of my senior year of college.  After graduation, I attended a canvass training, but soon after the training I was transferred from the canvass staff to the MoveOn Operation Democracy organizing staff. Throughout my time with GCI, my interactions with management were much better than others I've heard about and read about on this blog. Working for GCI certainly cost me money, due in large part to their incomplete reimbursement for things like cell phone service--but again, my experience was not nearly as bad as what others went through. My superiors were very civil when I told them I was leaving, and they wished me well as I moved on. But I still want to add my voice to the chorus calling for changes in the model being used for organizing volunteers.

When I came on as an organizer, the focus of Operation Democracy was shifting from building "coordinating councils", to recruiting for the "Call For Change" GOTV campaign. Call for Change was designed to use the leadership structure of the coordinating councils built in Operation Democracy - I was to work with the Operation Democracy teams in my region and turn them into "Phone Captains." These phone captains would be the volunteer coordinators who would be checking in with the volunteer voter callers on the Call for Change program.

Some councils had formed into cohesive groups that had put on events and become fairly self-sufficient; others had basically been recruited and then left alone for the past few months, and had quickly become dormant. Many volunteers on the less active councils expressed frustration with how little had happened, and they were glad to have an organizer in the state and to see the activity level picking up again.  As I began recruiting council members to join Call for Change, I found that some people who had been active in the coordinating councils (even the best-performing teams) in the past were simply not interested in participating in a phone program. On the whole, though, the majority of the council members were so invested in taking back Congress that they were willing to join just about anything that MoveOn was putting together to try to oust the Republican majority.

In Call for Change, we were following the basic model that had been tested during the Francine Busby campaign, in the California 50th special election in April. GCI and MoveOn's claimed that their test phone bank for Busby was "the most effective phone bank ever measured." The exact basis for the comparison was never clearly explained, though, and I was left to believe that it may have come from self-reports of organizers and volunteers- and there is reason to doubt these numbers, owing to GCI's extremely "ambitious" (read: almost impossible to attain) goals. I ultimately ended up leaving the Busby claim out of my rap to the recruits and volunteers because it invited all kinds of questions that I really had no way to answer.

Call for Change would use MoveOn volunteer callers through many weeks of voter identification, and then in the week before the election it would do a major GOTV pitch.  In between, there was a less-well-defined period, neither ID nor GOTV, when we would just be "talking to voters about the upcoming election." The goal of that period was never totally clear to me.  Since GOTV calls really must occur within a week of the election to be effective, it seemed to me that this period of calling might just be designed to keep volunteers active between the ID and GOTV phases of the campaign. This still could arguably make sense, because our goal was to have as many volunteers as possible ready for the last week; but I would ultimately conclude that there was a difference between GCI's goal of sheer, non-stop recruitment and the end goal of having a large, capable volunteer force by the election.    

When I first hit the ground, I expected to just be recruiting for the first week or two. But I thought that once my teams were up and running, I'd spend more time working with them.  This did not turn out to be the case. We'd hold weekly conference calls to check-in with groups of phone captains, but some people couldn't call in to these because of their schedules, and other people wouldn't because the calls were to a long-distance number; if people didn't make it onto those calls, I had so much cold-calling to do that I could not follow up with them individually.  

This was a constant problem for me, and it became a particularly big problem when a new tech tool replaced the old system of distributing call lists.  Many of the volunteers were very confused by the new tool, or didn't even realize that they were supposed to be using it.  During the first week or two that it was up, I received several calls a day from volunteers asking how it worked.  It would take about 20 or 30 minutes to walk a volunteer through using the website.  My cold-calling hours suffered as a result, and I received several unhappy calls from my Lead Organizers reminding me that I should be calling more.  I suggested that a half-hour spent retaining an existing volunteer was a better use of time than that same half-hour spent cold-calling in search of a new volunteer, but my supervisors did not agree.  They were mainly concerned with the number of new people being brought on--and oddly enough, even more concerned about the amount of time I was spending trying to bring those people in.  

When my Lead Organizers would ask me if the each new cold-calling requirement made sense to me,  I would say no, and suggest that we needed to spend some time focusing on the people we already had. My arguments never prevailed, though. In the end I definitely did end up cold-calling much more than I would have if it was my choice alone, but I always prioritized my existing volunteers over calling for new people. Overall, no more than 2/3rds of the people I recruited to be Phone Captains ever made a single call, and less than half even tried to fulfill their full commitment of calling for two hours per week.  Some of this was undoubtedly just typical volunteer attrition, but some of my Phone Captains told me when they quit that they didn't feel like their job was explained well enough as it changed.  (In particular, older people who weren't as comfortable using the technology that the role required seemed to need more follow-up.)

Even though I saw these problems during my time in Operation Democracy, I was still able to reason that the means and ends made sense.  As Call for Change got fully underway, however, it became clear that the campaign was going to be almost solely focused on recruitment - five to seven hours of cold-calling a day - and we were specifically told not to spend more than an hour a day working with the councils we had been building.  I knew this would not be enough time to do a good job following up with our phone captains and councils, and as a result our problems with volunteer morale and retention would only get worse. Volunteers need to be better led - not only to keep them from quitting, but to turn them into better leaders themselves.

I'd committed to do this job through November, but I felt that the job had changed from how it had originally been described to me. I had signed on due in large part to a belief in the idea of building a long-term progressive infrastructure that could improve our prospects in future elections.  When I saw that infrastructure being neglected (to the point of organizers actually being prohibited from working on it as much as was needed), I no longer had faith in the model I was implementing.

I always figured that GCI's contracts are predicated upon recruiting specific numbers of organizers and volunteers or raising a certain number of dollars in its canvass.  In the pursuit of those numbers, GCI seems to be willing to burn through staff and subject people to very poor working conditions in the name of "the cause." Although I personally was never severely mistreated, I also never felt as though GCI valued me - or anybody else - as an employee, or as anything other than a numbers-producer.  Quality does not seem to be an important factor in GCI's calculations of performance; but if the left is going to build a network that can rival the one currently in place on the right, it will need exactly that--quality organizing that builds quality volunteers .

I agree with the rest of ChangeGCI that MoveOn can and should take short-term actions to make this campaign better, and to lay the groundwork for better campaigns in the future. In particular, the suggestion to allow MoveOn members to "opt-in" to GCI's Telefund fundraising lists (as opposed to the current situation, which requires them to "opt out") would be a way to address the quantity-vs-quality problem.  If there were some financial incentive for GCI to care about the experience volunteers have after they sign on, it seems like it would be much more likely that the model would be implemented so that retention is increased--in other words, so that volunteers are being better-led and more productive.

A third-party monitor of some sort would also be helpful.  GCI does not solicit feedback in meaningful ways - and there are no secure channels through which one can voice a concern or criticism without worrying about repercussions.  If there were a person responsible for monitoring things like payment and work hours--from the perspective of a watchdog and not a supervisor--both standards and productivity might improve.

If things are left as they currently stand, I am concerned that this model will burn through activists - both GCI employees and MoveOn volunteers - in a way that will ultimately be destructive for the progressive movement.

Tags: Call for Change, field, GCI, GOTV, grassroots, MoveOn, Operation Democracy, volunteerism (all tags)

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