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.)

From the beginning, Grassroots Campaigns, Inc was a new step for everyone involved. None of us had worked in anything partisan before. We always took pride in being exclusively 'issue-based.' We believed that regardless of who was in office, corporations were still going to be compromising the public interest. So when I joined GCI early on, I felt ambivalent about working for the DNC. Not only are my politics more progressive than the Democratic party, but I didn't necessarily trust them to a)give us the backup we needed to run this successfully (and in hindsight that mistrust was well-founded)  or b) use the money efficiently. I think many of us had the same feelings, but the circumstances made it easy to cast those misgivings aside. It was freakin' George W. Bush.  As I understood it, we wanted to have the biggest impact we could have on the 2004 election; raising more money for the DNC meant we'd be doing our part to beat Bush within the structure that already existed.

So we went with the DNC--or rather the DNC went with us--on a trial basis. They were only interested in how much money we could raise--contrary to Greg's insinuation, they insisted that we canvass without voter registration forms so we could focus all of our energy on fundraising. We had to prove our ability to raise money first, then they would take us in, pay us, and reinforce us to the best of their ability.

So we worked our asses off. At first, we thought we could open 25 offices and raise a few million. We were already behind, it was January 2004 and we had to MOVE.  We worked out of Starbucks because we had no offices, we crawled through office space we didn't own--I was running on five to six hours of sleep, and only if things were running well. Our recruitment goals were intimidating. There were a handful of people laying all the groundwork for a staff of hundreds in a few weeks--hard work. But recruitment turned out to be E-A-S-Y. Everyone wanted to beat George Bush, and we were hiring for paid jobs, which set us apart. We soon grew far beyond our goals, and then beyond our means--the organization was being packed with people who'd never taken on this kind of work before.

We all implicitly agreed that we should get as big as possible, regardless of the experience level of the staff we'd be able to assemble in that time. The idea being: the more people out there (face to face, in the streets), the better. This is a basic principle of the campaign philosophy I'd always operated under.  But we were taking it to an extreme I'd never seen before.  I remember joking at one point, 'fuck it, let's send an office to Hawaii--I'll take that one.' In the meantime, the core group of experienced staff managers wasn't grown. We built out, not in, and took it all on ourselves. Eight people managing 52 offices. It was hectic to say the least.  But GCI was staffed with some of the people who built the model - we had it down to a science, so we figured we could handle it. And if we couldn't keep everything all together, that was OK too. Especially in this election season, we knew that even offices that were almost falling apart would be able to push forward into decent numbers on the steam of anti-Bush fervor.

Of course, things didn't go smoothly. We didn't have professional staff to oversee the administrative functions. As several commenters noted, some people weren't getting paid on time or reimbursed for office expenses.  At the time, it seemed like these were relatively small things; but almost every team suffered for them. I spent much of my time running around to different offices, putting out fires. I'd like to think that my region was one of the best, since I was willing to work 18 hours or more a day to make things right for my directors.

But I also put my staff under incredible pressure to hit numbers (in canvassers and in donations) which were higher than any other campaign I'd ever been in. Many of my directors saw their personal lives crumbling under the demands- but then again, I didn't have a personal life of my own. Was their personal life more important than beating George Bush? So my job was mostly to make my staff feel better about their lives in the campaign. And I was good at that. Unlike many other offices, most of my directors stuck it out, because I made them believe it was that important. Looking back, I know that some of my staff were put in really shitty situations by this job - people stopped paying their student loans, skipped friends' weddings, funerals, life events. But at the time, these were sacrifices that most everyone was willing to make - for the good of the country.

And at the time, it seemed like all of these sacrifices were making good. Our averages kept rising. Greg writes about the New York City office in his book, noting that in the last week its average ranged from between $650-1200--and I think he's probably right to suggest that these were the most successful canvassers in the history of canvassing. By the final days before the election, as we left our offices to head out to the MoveOn PAC GOTV campaign, we walked away from a canvass operation that was successful beyond anything we'd anticipated.

And now the meaning of that success is being called into question.  I was shocked to find myself unprepared to answer this question.  You normally canvass for long-term benefits of an expanded membership base; you canvass to increase the visibility of a certain cause or campaign, to educate the public about an issue; you canvass to put public pressure on officials and influence legislation in a positive direction. We claimed none of these objectives in our mission to beat George Bush (except perhaps for visibility, and I don't disagree with Greg that the kind of visibility and `education' we created could have been more constructive if not so centered around money). Throughout the campaign, we considered ourselves a success because we were raising enough money to cover the overhead and even give some in return - hardly any canvass campaigns do that in their first year. But did it help beat George Bush?  

I don't think any of us were thinking, at any point, about the ends of our work. We just never made a distinction between raising money and working on the election. We were simply doing what we could do best, doing it as hard as we could.

For a while, I thought that Greg was accusing us of being dishonest, of cheating. But at one point in our extended off-blog discussion, to show me exactly what he was talking about, he pointed to a comment in one of the threads made by one of our canvassers,  and this quote made me pause:

I wasn't doing the job for the money, and a lot of the time I wasn't even doing it for the campaign- I was doing it to "raise my score"- the whole thing became like a giant videogame and I wanted to be number one, I wanted to beat all my ...friends and come out on top for that day. It was a challenge: "that person looks like a $50, no she's a $200", it was kind of like Duck Hunt I guess.

That quote is from Mitch, Mitch the Jeweler, a legendary canvasser who was widely known around the campaign. Now, I don't mean any offense to Mitch--his energy and skill are invaluable to our cause. But reading those words kind of makes me kind of sick to my stomach. I've always believed our campaigns to be serious, hard, good, political work, yet part of me totally relates to Mitch. I know that no one there was `doing the job for the money.' But then when I catch on to what Mitch is implying about `not doing it for the campaign'...Well let's just say that we didn't think of it like Duck Hunt, but that gamer mindset was ours.

I'm still proud of the three quarters of a million names we gave to the DNC and I'm proud of how hard we worked to do that. For a long time, part of me simply refused to accept that I could have worked so hard for a year on a mission that didn't help the 2004 election. But when asked whether we could have better served the very base that we will need again in '06, '08, and so on, I have no concrete answer for what we did do except: `We worked for the DNC, and we worked really hard.'

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

Now it has. I anticipate that publicly participating in this conversation might make me a pariah among my former co-workers (assuming they can guess who I am). I have such great respect for these people - saying this might not change their reaction, but they are my friends of many years and I would do almost anything for them (except go back to work for them). But my interest is not in protecting Grassroots Campaigns--it's in making Grassroots Campaigns better. From my brief encounters with GCI in the time since I left, it seems that many of the big problems have been fixed - payroll works now, they're more in control of the size of their operation. But the game hasn't changed - the mindset hasn't changed. I no longer think its ok to just play the game. Leadership entails more.

A number of people have defended GCI by saying that it's not its responsibility to save the Democratic Party; while in a strict sense this is certainly true, I find it to be a deeply disappointing defense. It's our responsibility to make a truly positive contribution to the progressive movement--and when someone questions how we do that, if we can't give a clear and convincing answer, then we have some rethinking to do.   

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

Comments

21 Comments

Re: In response to 'Strip-mining the Grassroots'

Great diary. Thank you for sharing this. I hope that the DNC is listening to this debate.

by OsoDelMar 2006-06-22 01:49PM | 0 recs
Re: In response to 'Strip-mining the Grassroots'

I'm confused about one thing. If all these working bees out in the streets were working incredibly long hours seven days a week, as both you and Greg have said, running of 5-6 hours of sleep (unless you meant only yourself and the other manager, but I think I recall Greg said that ALL the people hired were overworked and exhausted), what on earth were they DOING? Surely they couldn't have been out in the streets raising money at midnight?

by anastasiap 2006-06-22 02:14PM | 0 recs
Re: In response to 'Strip-mining the Grassroots'

Well, Greg was an assistant director, which means that he'd come in at 8, train canvassers until 10, canvass until 4, process all the donations, and then spend the rest of the day handling recruiting. An office would run three interviews a day, bring in a dozen new people a day.

As for me, I was managing as many as a hundred directors at any one time. I was training them, monitoring then (getting their recruitment and canvassing numbers, and reporting their numbers up to my bosses took up a vast block of the day) and dealing with their personal issues. If an office wasn't pulling in the numbers we wanted it to pull in, I'd go to the office and make whatever needed to happen happen.

You know how really really late at night in the subway, you see those weird maintenance trains coming by with heaps of trash or whatever? I saw those every night.

by Lockse 2006-06-22 03:11PM | 0 recs
Re: In response to 'Strip-mining the Grassroots'

In all the offices under you, throughout the course of 2004, how many people  were hired and subsequently either quit or let go before the end of the campaign?

(rough estimate, just go with me here.)

by greg bloom 2006-06-22 05:12PM | 0 recs
Re: In response to 'Strip-mining the Grassroots'

About a thousand. (That's pretty rough. But yeah.)

by Lockse 2006-06-22 05:30PM | 0 recs
Re: In response to 'Strip-mining the Grassroots'

Let's say you hit a certain point in 2004 where, instead of continuing to grow relentlessly, you cut recruitment by thirty percent. Ten percent comes off the schedule. Ten percent goes into training. Ten percent goes into managing and administration. What happens?

by greg bloom 2006-06-22 05:38PM | 0 recs
Re: In response to 'Strip-mining the Grassroots'

Yeah, well better training would have meant more trainees making it onto staff. (Which would mean we would have needed to spend even less time recruiting.) Offices would have been less chaotic, so fewer canvassers would have 'slipped through the cracks' and interviews would have run better and got better show rates (less recruiting time still). Since directors would have been wasting less time on canvassers who dropped out, and getting an extra hour of sleep and an extra hour to get their shit taken care of, there would have been fewer directors quitting. So attrition would have dropped at the bottom and the top, might have been able to shave another hour off the schedule, too.

by Lockse 2006-06-22 06:17PM | 0 recs
Re: In response to 'Strip-mining the Grassroots'

Could you make a stab at how much attrition would fall by?

-30% recruiting = +10% training +10% management -10% workday = -x% attrition

(I am not a numbers guy, sorry if that equation doesn't make sense as written.)

by greg bloom 2006-06-22 06:20PM | 0 recs
Re: In response to 'Strip-mining the Grassroots'

I don't know. Substantially. A third? A half? I don't know. The quality of a canvass team will make all the difference when it comes to its rate of attrition. Whatever the attrition rate was, we could just keep recruiting at full bore, and we'd keep getting bigger. We just didn't consider those numbers in that way. We wanted to get as big as possible...and look, 52 offices and twenty two million dollars is really really big.

I guess your question is, could we have grown a fraction less while running a campaign that was by 'better' by several factors. I think that is a fair question.

by Lockse 2006-06-22 07:51PM | 0 recs
Re: In response to 'Strip-mining the Grassroots'

And, no, that equation makes no sense.

by Lockse 2006-06-22 07:55PM | 0 recs
Re: In response to 'Strip-mining the Grassroots'

The common canvassers had an easy schedule. In a door office, it was something like 2-9, which included time for lunch, travel to/from turf, and just about 5 hours of canvassing. Field managers (canvassers who adopted minimal leadership responsibilities) arrived an hour earlier to prepare turf maps.

It was the directors and assistant directors who put in the long hours. They reported results to their superiors, planned trainings, changed the fundraised cash to money orders, canvassed themselves, notified town and village police departments of the day's activities, and so on. Believe me, we filled our time well. Also, most field managers made more money than most directors because of commissions.

(I started as a canvasser and rose through the ranks to be an AD-in-training before switching over to GCI's MoveOn PAC project, so I experienced all the commitment levels mentioned above.)

by bschak 2006-06-30 08:51AM | 0 recs
Re: In response to 'Strip-mining the Grassroots'

I agree with pretty much everything here.  And, honestly, I don't think you actually had 8 people supervising all those offices, considering the roles other then direct managing (recruitment, finance, politcal director, etc) taken by some of the senior folks.  :)

I think a lot of it goes back to the attitude that it is just a numbers game, that if you get your 40 canvassers out on 5 turfs and each raises 180 dollars, then yay!  Never mind if you burn out 38 of them, as long as the other 2 become directors, you can hire another 40 canvassers.  

by dansomone 2006-06-22 04:43PM | 0 recs
Re: In response to 'Strip-mining the Grassroots'

Lockse, thank you for your intelligent and well thought out contribution to the discussion.

I was one of the people who used canvassed names (taken by another PIRG outlet) to solicit donations over the telephone. I was not a member of the upper strata, but an entry level worker. My co-workers and I, unfortunately, were routinely exploited and harassed by management at this company that Douglass H. Phelps is incidentally, also the president of.

I'm not denying that the PIRGs and GCI do good work--certainly they do. Nor am I denying the incessant need for funds in any campaign.  

However, my question is at what cost?

This model, as Mr. Blum has so painstakingly showed, is not working. It is not working for entry level employees obviously, and most importantly it is not working for GCI's professed  mission: "building grassroots support for progressive causes, political candidates, public interest campaigns, and non-profit organizations."

In fact, the website even has the audacity to quote the great Paul Wellstone.

If the founders of GCI have ever attended a Camp Wellstone campaign tract, they should know that while money and resources are important, time is by far the most valuable thing a campaign will ever have. It is, after all, something that you can never get back.

If GCI knows the history of Wellstone's first senate campaign, they should know that it was not contracted fundraisers that earned him grassroots support--that it was instead a dedicated outreach to the community and a commitment to treat all human beings in said community respectfully.

GCI instead, treats workers--fellow human beings interested in changing the world--poorly at times. The turnover is ridiculous and some young people are  even taught to believe that this "brand" of activism is all there is--the grassroots.

Worse, GCI makes the "grassroots" exclusive, and turns it into a commodity. No authentic democracy will ever be created in this fashion. History shows this, and current events show this.

All I ask is that GCI admit its own identity and describe itself as a business for fundraising and member retention, rather than a bright and sunny enterprise that honestly cares about grassroots support. It clearly does not.

by EMRosa 2006-06-23 12:16AM | 0 recs
Re: In response to 'Strip-mining the Grassroots'

Thanks for commenting EMRosa. Here's what I wanted to accomplish with this post: these people believe they are doing the best they can for the Party, for the Left, for the Movement. It's not helpful or fair to villainize people who are acting in that regard. (Not to say you're doing that here, but that's how most people who criticize the operation come off.)
I'm trying to be fair here. I don't know if it will help.

I think you're right that the issue of business is key here. The problem is that, in this business, no one is profiting.  No one is getting fat up top.  So if they are treating people poorly they do so in the name of the cause. That's a tough problem.

by Lockse 2006-06-23 05:25AM | 0 recs
Re: In response to 'Strip-mining the Grassroots'

Yes, I also agree with being fair. This is why I disclosed my employee history.

I would disagree however on your inference that it is not a profitable business.

If the money that actually makes it to GCI's clients is anything like Telefund, Inc's (which in October 05, gave an average of about 35% to clients according to available Colorado Secretary of State records), and the workers aren't being paid a lot, then obviously someone is making some money.

GCI is a paid soliciter and is obligated by most state laws to disclose their finances. Perhaps when I get more time we can all find out for sure.

by EMRosa 2006-06-23 10:40AM | 0 recs
Re: In response to 'Strip-mining the Grassroots'

There's this chapter in Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals that PIRG trainings will teach -- I'm not sure how much of the rest of the book they read, apart from this one chapter called: 'On Means and Ends.' In the second paragraph, Alinksy writes:

The man of action views the issue of means and ends in pragmatic and strategic terms. He has no other problem; he thinks only of his actual resources and the possibilities of various choices of action. He asks of ends only whether they are achievable and worth the cost; of means, only whether they will work. To say that corrupt means corrupt the ends is to believe in the immaculate conception of ends and principles.

They make this kind of consideration in the work that they do. But I think a 'strategic' error was made somewhere along the line, when they came to conceive of their model itself as the ends, rather than the means.

by greg bloom 2006-06-23 05:40AM | 0 recs
Re: In response to 'Strip-mining the Grassroots'

I am currently an employee for GCI and have been having a moral dilema with the whole organization.  First, I believe that they are exploitative of their workers and secondly I don't like the fact that I feel as if I'm lying at the door about where the money is going.  I think I believe in what we are doing but I question it and I question lots of what is going on in this organization.  I work 15 hours a day at least and I feel that GCI depends on my bank account at which they are not keeping filled enough for me to requisition something every day.  I feel that they see a fresh college grad as a dime a dozen and that if I step down, someone will be there to take my place.  What would you suggest, or what would your advice to me be.

by pabq 2006-07-25 09:51PM | 0 recs
Re: In response to 'Strip-mining the Grassroots'

There is a great difference between working hard and working smart. Doing both will work better at winning elections.

by chuckwoolery 2006-08-01 10:08PM | 0 recs
Re: In response to 'Strip-mining the Grassroots'

This is kind of an old post, but I wanted to clarify what I said a little bit.

I canvassed for almost three months, taking only about two weeks off the entire time, and often working a six day week. Many others worked for a similarly long period of time. After a while, one day blends into the next, one hour into the next. And during any given day, after you have been standing out in the 95 degree heat and sun for four hours, it's hard to keep moving and stay excited. It was extremely hard for anybody to stay motivated enough to do a genuinely good job. Many canvassers slacked off, sitting on benches, not really being enthusiastic when trying to stop people, etc. One of the reasons I was a superior canvasser was that I was able to keep up my energy level more than most people, constantly running around, talking to people, and not stopping until the day was over.

I wish I could say that this was entirely or mostly motivated by my desire to elect Kerry-Edwards. That was why I took the job, and why I was proud of my work. But during any given day, I knew that whether or not I got another $100 contribution wasn't going to decide the outcome of an election four months away, and my paycheck might be a week or two away. So if the election or the pay was the only motivation I had, I probably would have spent a lot more time resting on a park bench.

The competitive aspect was immediate and real- I knew that if I had a good day I'd probably do better than everybody else, and at least wouldn't look bad. And if I had a bad day, I'd be embarrassed about it. The results would be felt by me, personally, by about 4:45pm that day.

Besides competing with other people, it usually was fun. Getting contributions from people was a real challenge.  I'd walk/run from one person to another, thinking of it as an opportunity to raise my score. People who didn't have that "eye of the tiger" didn't do as well. It's not that I wasn't devoted to the campaign, but it wasn't possible for me to constantly dream of a Kerry-Edwards inauguration for 6 hours a day, six days a week, for three months.

When my political motivation came out was when I was actually talking to the people I canvassed. If I hadn't been an impassioned believer in our cause I wouldn't have been able to do a good job. Some people came onto the job for the money and didn't care about the campaign; it showed, and they couldn't canvass effectively. So when I talked to people on the street about how we had "one chance, only one chance, to stop George Bush", that wasn't about raising my score, it was what I actually believed. Raising my score and beating everybody else was what gave me the energy to stop that person in the first place; my passion would take over from there.

***
My main point with this is that all people are motivated by complicated and different things, and few people are saintly enough to be able to do canvassing full-time over months, solely for their desire to help the country, with no other motivation. I have done door to door canvassing for an afternoon or day as a volunteer, but most people won't even do that. Any effective campaign or business organization needs to recognize that hardly anybody can constantly be a selfless Che Guevera style New Man, doing hard work over a long period of time with no personal motivation.

by MitchF 2006-08-08 10:42AM | 0 recs
Re: In response to 'Strip-mining the Grassroots'

I am thankful for GCI--they seem like heroes to me.  

I think I can understand the side of the people who complain.  But it looks like the solution is not hard. Maybe the solution is listening to people and make them feel appreciated.

by jasmine 2006-09-10 04:46PM | 0 recs
Re: In response to 'Strip-mining the Grassroots'

From a business perspective (which is a fundamentally competitive environment), there is a huge advantage to taking good care of your employees.  

Let's look at the example of CostCo vs Walmart.  CostCo has better prices, cares for its employees, and only sacrifices a very minimal short term gain for its shareholders in favor of a long-term strategy of growth.  Walmart treats its employees like cattle and tries to eke out a few more pennies per share, and expects the taxpayers to pick up the difference (like the GCI college students' parents).

Walmart is pretty much reviled for its exploitive labor practices and no self-respecting progressive would ever shopt there.  

There is a vast un-met need which GCI fills; we desperately need a network of trained and engaged citizen activists to combat the Bush fanatics.  I applaud them for their efforts, but I can't help but thinking of them as a Walmart model as opposed  to the CostCo model.  

by jk2004 2006-09-13 08:16AM | 0 recs

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