Strip-mining the Grassroots (pt 5): Grassroots Campaigns, Inc's canvassing model

(This is the fifth in a series of posts (cross-posted from DailyKos) about a particular breed of ground operations that is increasingly popular among progressive organizations -- its clients now include the DNC and MoveOn. I'll argue -- and I'm not the first to do so -- that this model of subcontracted 'grassroots' activism is unhealthy for the progressive movement; that it saps vital energy and does not effectively advance our cause.)

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...

In the last several posts, we've talked about the specifics of Grassroots Campaigns Inc's DNC canvass campaign. This is the most prominent of GCI's fundraising operations -- but they also run smaller campaigns for other organizations, like the DCCC and an organization called Environmental Action PAC. My descriptions in these posts so far could apply to any of GCI's campaigns, with little variation. In fact, a canvass office running a campaign for the DNC can be switched over to a campaign for a totally different organization with hardly any trouble at all (changing only the t-shirts, clipboard materials and 'raps').

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).

Tags: canvassing, DNC, Fundraising, GCI, grassroots, PIRGs, TheFund (all tags)




This is a Republican Lite strategy. We are just outsourcing the MOST IMPORTANT work we need to be doing. Getting out the message in person should not be outsourced to the lowest bidder.

Simple as that.

by OsoDelMar 2006-06-02 09:38AM | 0 recs
Re: Strip-mining the Grassroots (pt 5): Grassroots
The level of discussion here has been considerably better than over at DailyKos, but today things picked up at the DK. Seems that someone stopped by to troll and got caught up in a conversation they weren't expecting to have (starting about four comments down)
by greg bloom 2006-06-02 12:12PM | 0 recs
MASSPIRG 1988 Veteran

And I think the canvass model did more harm than good--it burned away most of my idealism and faith in the political process, and I didn't get active again until 2000.

Working as a canvasser, I learned that I was disposable, that this organization was concerned solely with how much money I raised.  Many of the people who did best didn't care at all about the issues we supposedly stood for, but were just good salespeople.  This left a very sour taste in my mouth, and as I hadn't done much political activism outside of that, it turned me off to the entire field.

As a canvasser I never understood why I'd meet people who said that they too had once worked for MassPIRG, and how they'd always be nice, but wouldn't give a dime.  Once that summer was over I understood perfectly.

by Go Vegetarian 2006-06-02 12:55PM | 0 recs
Re: Strip-mining the Grassroots (pt 5): Grassroots

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.

This is perhaps the most disturbing thing about GCI and its sister fundraising outlets.  Grassroots by definition should come from the people, and it should never be an exclusive process. You want to see grassroots; you look at the hundreds of thousands of May Day marchers--or look at The Other Campaign in Mexico right now. These are movements with dedicated individuals--and they weren't made over night.

What GCI, PIRGs, Telefund, and FFPIR offer is a commodity, and a commodity--no matter how efficient or lucrative--will never get us authentic democracy.

Thank you Greg for doing this series, for having the work ethic to take a clear and thoughtful look at this model.

(Disclosure: I used to work for Telefund, Inc.)

by EMRosa 2006-06-02 05:44PM | 0 recs
Re: Strip-mining the Grassroots (pt 5):

My name is Evan Brown, I worked for Grassroots Campaigns for eight weeks, six of which were spent alongside Greg Bloom, in Miami, during Grassroots Campaigns' disastrous MoveOn PAC 2004 Leave No Voter Behind campaign. I'm currently working as a campaign staffer for Marcy Winograd, CA-36. I think this model is broken.

by hoboninja 2006-06-02 07:17PM | 0 recs
Hey Greg,
I've worked on canvasses for pirg and grassroots and I think your points are very insightful. Its got me thinking that the real problem with these "campaigns" are their internal propaganda. Both summers I canvassed everyone burnt out. Even the die hard field managers quit by the end, and Im thinking that it may be because of the strain of reconciling the gap between the strip-mine fundraising you're doing and the presidential campaign you're told your a part of (for the dnc at least). I was already active outside the job, but it was those good progressive kids excited to get their first job that makes a difference, who happily worked the million  extra hours that burnt out and wont be back.
Instead of attempting to hide the real nature of the job, GCI especially, ought to just come out and embrace it. Fundraising is important. Building donor bases are important. And anyone willing to work a canvass will be willing to work for that, and if nothing else it will keep workers from feeling lied to in their first experience with a "progressive" group.
by Rob Laurent 2006-06-03 03:55AM | 0 recs

And Rob was one of my office's best FM's.

I donno, I think the largest problem is the attitude that you don't have to "be the change you want to see in the world."  If the GCI/PIRG model was based more on building a progressive movement, and not on the assumption that there will always be more young college kids willing to do the work, it would be much more effective.

by dansomone 2006-06-03 07:25AM | 0 recs

How about: 'be the change you want to see in the model.'

I just wanted to try that one out. Felt pretty good, what do you think?

by greg bloom 2006-06-03 10:23AM | 0 recs
Re: Strip-mining the Grassroots (pt 5): Grassroots

Two: the model does not care about what has been happening on the internet in the last four or five years.

So, what -- do you really think you can make them care about what's happening on the internet now?

by Lockse 2006-06-03 04:38AM | 0 recs
Re: Strip-mining the Grassroots (pt 5): Grassroots

Well goddammit it's worth a try.

Rob, Evan (good luck Tuesday, bud), Erin, GoVeg -- thank you. Let's see who else is out there.

by greg bloom 2006-06-03 04:54AM | 0 recs


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