Strip-mining the Grassroots (pt 5): Grassroots Campaigns, Inc's canvassing model
by greg bloom, Fri Jun 02, 2006 at 06:01:59 AM EDT
In this series so far, I've written about the DNC's recently-relaunched direct fundraising campaign, which is operated by an organization called Grassroots Campaigns, Inc (GCI). In 2004, GCI's campaign claimed to be engaged in the cause to 'beat Bush,' when in reality the money it raised essentially only paid for itself. I've described this operation as being shallow (unengaged in healthy progressive activism), narrow (focused only upon raising money), and driven by unsustainable working conditions. But GCI's 2004 campaign didn't just happen out of nowhere--it is part of a long tradition of 'grassroots' campaigns, the most recent in a history that might be uncomfortably familiar to many of you...
This is because Grassroots Campaigns, Inc uses a standardized model in all of its subcontracting operations. As has been noted in the comments, this model did not originate with GCI -- it was pioneered in the Public Interest Research Groups (the PIRGs), and has been expanded into a sprawling industry by the Fund for Public Interest Research ('the Fund') and its phone-based canvass 'sister,' Telefund. GCI, the newest member of this family, merely adjusted the model so that it could be run on partisan campaigns. (GCI is a for-profit company, but this status was chosen primarily for the legal flexibility it offers; otherwise, GCI seems to operate externally and internally just like its non-profit family members.)
So let's take a moment for a progressive activist history lesson. The PIRGs were originally student-directed, campus-based organizing groups that sprung up in the 70s, partially under the leadership of Ralph Nader. They initially got all of their funding from mandatory student fees that they lobbied to get installed within college tuitions. In the early 80's, as the PIRGs spurted into a formidable adolescence-- having carried off a string of successful campus organizing campaigns-- they turned to fundraising canvasses as a primary method of accomplishing two of the organizations' central objectives. First, it provided the PIRGs with a source of revenue that could lessen their dependence upon the mandatory fees, which were increasingly vulnerable to right-wing attack. Second, it provided a stable, engaging and paid activity for the PIRGs' college student members to participate in during their summer vacations.
In the course of the 80s, as the PIRGs matured into an institution, their non-profit fundraising arm (the Fund) formalized the canvass model, subcontracting it out to various special interest organizations (like Greenpeace, Sierra Club, the Human Rights Campaign, and local environmental groups). This was during a period when the influence of the special interest groups, which had won huge victories in the 70s, were at the peak of their influence in Washington. The canvass campaign provided a cost-effective way to continue to expand the memberships of these organizations. In the next fifteen years, the Fund's version of door-to-door canvassing became one of the most prevalent tools for fundraising and member-generation in the progressive realm.
The Fund now runs 30 year round canvass offices across the country; during the summer months, this expands to 50 to 70 offices. There's several hundred Fund directors working at any one time; the number of canvassers under its aegis at any one time is up in the thousands. Considering the very high turnover rate, this adds up to be a huge number of people who've filtered through this model in the last two decades. (One study of the 'civic health' of the nation found that 7 percent of all participants age 15-37 had participated in a canvass. For more analysis, a study of canvass campaigns as a form civic engagement can be found here (pdf))
Now, I don't have significant personal experience with the PIRGs or the Fund, beyond what I've heard from others. So I'll let others discuss their particulars. My interest here, now, is in the nature of this model that has become the default activism option for more than a generation of liberal youths. And I want to be very clear about what the model is and why I am writing about it.
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. The model is, for many in the organization, a philosophy--a way of life.
The model is structured around a few key precepts:
* Face-to-face contact (canvassing) is the best way to engage the population.
* Early success increases the chances that a recruit will experience continued success.
* Repetition and standardization in training will maximize the chance for early and continued success.
* Attrition is inevitable, and must be planned around.
All of these are, basically, sound organizing principles. And the model works, within the limited objectives of expanding 'member'-donor rolls and providing readily attainable jobs for liberal youths--or rather, from the model's perspective, 'leadership roles' that are simple enough for almost anyone to perform.
But there are two more unstated principles that need to be known about this model.
First of all, it's operated entirely from the top-down. The canvassers and directors who actually do the work have no influence upon their work conditions, the distribution of the funds they raise, or even the choice of causes for which they campaign. An employee who's hired for one campaign can be switched over to another campaign; the 'raps' are created without input from those delivering them; all decisions are made without any accountability to those below.
Second of all: the model is, in a way, curiously apolitical. I don't mean that it's not 'liberal' -- but rather, that it does not engage in deliberative processes. It is not rooted within any particular community. There is no defined agenda beyond the broad banner of 'progressive values.' It is disinterested in 'the news.' Its participants (both the canvassers and those who are canvassed) do not participate in open-ended, discursive relationships with the organization or each other.
I think these are less-inherently sound principles. But, again, I do recognize that focused passion channeled into collective action can yield powerful results. That's an idea that holds a lot of attraction for people, myself included. In this respect, what the model does do is provide its participants an all-encompassing answer to that ever-present question: 'what can I do?'
For now, I'll leave my analysis (which is, so far, open-ended) with two last points.
One: The answer that the model offers to the question of what can I do is--in terms of the activists that the model recruits, and the donors/'members' that it targets--predominantly comprised of upper-middle class white people. This is because those are the most likely people to be able to afford and inclined to participate in this kind of activism.
Two: the model does not care about what has been happening on the internet in the last four or five years. (In fact, aside from Craigslist, the model does not recognize that the internet exists.)
In my next post, I'll turn back to the case of Grassroots Campaigns in order to explain more fully what has gone wrong with these principles. I'll argue that Grassroots Campaigns, Inc has brought the model to a troubling new threshold, and that its 2004 performance sends a clear signal that the entire model must be reimagined for a new progressive movement. I'll also look at what happens when participants try to establish a certain amount of their own control over the model (hint: it's not pretty).