Strip-mining the Grassroots (conclusion): Toward a progressive canvass model

bumped - Matt

-/-

(This will be the final post in this series. I apologize for the delay -- my time was taken first by YearlyKos and then in preparation for my next series.)

Grassroots Campaigns Inc's canvassers are out in twenty some-odd cities right now, wearing Democratic National Committee t-shirts and asking citizens if they 'want to help end the Republican majority.' They tell people that they are 'working to build support for this November's elections'; they imply that they are part of the DNC's 50 State Strategy, and they claim that a 'big show of grassroots energy' in the x days before the election will ensure victory for the party. Finally, they say the best way to help is with a $100 check made out to the DNC.

This is all rather misleading.

First of all, GCI's canvass campaign is entirely separate from the DNC's 50 State Strategy (more about this separation here, 1/3 of the way down); it's not a field organizing operation, but a financial base-building operation. And as with most base-building operations, most of this money will actually go to cover the canvassers' own overhead -- the DNC's benefit is primarily in the long-term, from the new donors added to its membership rolls. When it comes to influencing the 2006 election, those $100 checks would be far more effective if given directly to state or local parties.

The underlying justification for the campaign is that each donation is an investment that strengthens the donor's bond with the Democratic party. But so far in this series, I have  argued that this is an unhealthy investment relationship. These canvassers are not trained to articulate the Democratic party's message, and they are uninformed about the state and local politics. They are instructed to direct every conversation towards the maximum possible donation, and to cut off conversations that don't appear to be headed that way. The young, passionate management staff works for less than minimum wage, 12 to 15 hours a day, seven days a week, and almost inevitably burns itself out. The result is a system that is efficient at getting names onto a list -- but at what cost?   

This canvass campaign is adopted from the same model (developed by the PIRGs/Fund for Public Interest Research) that has driven much of the non-profit progressive world for decades. Some have argued that this model of activism is a fatal shortcut that has inadvertently helped to strand the Left in a quagmire of civic disengagement. But we need models for effective collective action, now more than ever. This post will look for a way forward, towards a professional, sustainable, progressive model. (It will be specific to the DNC's campaign, but I believe it's an example of the kind of rethinking that is needed throughout the world of this model.)


The paradigm shift should begin, in this case, with the basics: carry voter registration forms. The argument against carrying voter registration forms is that it takes energy away from raising money, while other groups are focusing on voter registration. Allow me to suggest that a single voter created by a DNC canvasser is worth at least as much to the party in the long-run as a hundred dollar check from an existing member; allow me to further suggest that when a citizen discovers that a DNC canvasser does not carry voter registration forms, the citizen (voter or otherwise) walks away with a profoundly negative message. Ultimately, this issue has marginal cost-benefit implications but high symbolic implications. (Indeed, while I worked there, it was the first thing to signal to me that something was wrong with the priorities of our campaign.)

Somewhat less basic: canvass interactions need to be about more than just relentless pursuit of donation. It's necessary to train canvassers in professional sales techniques, but that is not sufficient for a progressive base-building campaign. And anyway, a smart salesman knows his product inside and out. So political education should be a component of training. This means more than just a 15 minute headline session every so often; canvassers should be engaged in the ideas of the party. We shouldn't expect or want canvassers to take up intricate policy discussions, but they need to be able to do more than just tick off the '6 key issues.' They are representing the Democratic Party, and for many people, they are the most immediate embodiment thereof -- so they need to be able to articulate the party's message. Even a moderate amount of investment in this regard will go a long way toward making a more professional corps.

Relationships with the existing base must be better served: The campaign's 'true' objective is to generate new donors, but canvassers are trained to lean as hard as they can (without being disrespectful) on people who've already given. It might be acceptable to ask for another donation, but the interaction is actually disrespectful to the donors as soon as it becomes clear that the canvasser has nothing more to ask of them: it sends a message that a member is only valuable to the Democratic party as a source of money. Base-builing should mean engagement. Canvassers should have something else to offer existing donors -- like issue-specific literature, information about their congressional district, or encouragement to volunteer for a particular function. Currently, canvassers don't even offer the option of volunteering unless a person first commits to a donation. Furthermore, in 2004, those who did check the volunteer box were never followed up -- so far, there has been no indication that 2006 will fare any better.

There needs to be more coordination with state and local parties. Canvassers should know their local politicians, should have some familiarity with local issues, and should be able to direct interested members to the appropriate contact points. State parties report that they are now at least in communication with the DNC about this campaign, as opposed to 2004, when most were never notified about it in the first place. But there is so much room for actual infrastructure building. One place to start might be with the volunteers mentioned above -- since the DNC canvassers are taking money out of the localities, they could give back by actively generating volunteers and directing them to state and local offices.

But the most important change that needs to occur is in regards to the canvass staff. In much the same way that they present their campaign to civilians as the grassroots frontline of the Great Party War, the staff labors under the pretense that they are the Party's vanguard. But they do not participate in the party in any way other than as conduits for this money -- and after however many eighty to one hundred hour work weeks at 24k a year, an unacceptable majority of these people burn out. This work is important -- but so is the long-term cultivation of our young leaders. As I've said before, "If your system requires fifteen hours of work a day, your system is broken."

  -\-

Several of the suggestions I just outlined have come up in the comments of a previous thread, when someone who was 'familiar' with GCI argued that my posts were only serving to 'weaken the cause.' When I proposed these solutions, this commenter mostly agreed -- but backed away, saying:

The solutions are 1) too expensive or 2) too time inefficient or 3) not what the client wants (it is all about the client, right?). So change isn't happening.

As I noted in response, this is a pretty good explanation for why our society is failing to act to prevent global warming. The market's to blame. Indeed, the central mission of many of the organizations for which the Fund raises money is to overcome the evils of the unbridled marketplace by forcing industries to provide a more environmentally-responsible product. The Right's reflexive response is to call these campaigns 'anti-business.' But as we good progressives know, the truth is that sustainable industry standards foster growth in the long-run.

Watch how that could happen:
If employees work two or three fewer hours a day, they do more and better work (again -- that's science, folks). They burn out less, which means less time must be spent on recruiting (which currently takes up at least a third of a GCI staffer's day) and training (which takes up about a fifth). Add in something resembling a weekend and even a modest pay raise, and you now have an exceptionally better staff (which will make better decisions, fewer mistakes, further reducing the workload and turnover, and so on). This crack team of professional party advocates will then be better prepared to handle the more complicated task of managing a truly progressive, politically engaged office. The canvass campaign could gradually become the vanguard that it imagines itself to be.

Will they raise less money? Yes. This 'improved' canvass campaign will probably not bring in new donors at zero cost. But that zero cost is an illusion, the kind of illusion most commonly found on the Wall Street Journal op-ed page. In more accurate words, the cost of this expanded donor list is shifted off the Democratic Party and onto its base and its young generation of leaders -- with nothing invested in return. It's time to recognize that while this strategy has fattened progressive organizations' membership rolls for more than twenty years, it's also left us with a desiccated base that has been taught to equate civic engagement with check-writing.

The positive change that I've outlined above is really just a matter of re-balancing priorities. But that can only come through accountability -- and currently there is none. Indeed, few of the points I've put forth here are wholly 'mine' -- they come from many interviews with people who have all kinds of experience with the model -- yet they have no chance of filtering up from below. The top-down canvass model is lacking in any transparency and unreceptive to change. Employees who believe that things should be done differently are efficiently cast out of the system. Like the consultant class in DC, these executives have spent decades up there at the top, where they wield a fierce sense of self-preservation. Even a string of breathtaking progressive setbacks cannot convince them that they might be on the wrong tack.

So how do we make these progressive organizations espouse the ideology that they purport to advance?

There are two ways to hold this system accountable. One is, as that commenter noted, through the clients. If the DNC is going to subcontract its operations, even in the short-term, it has the responsibility to ensure that there are tolerable work conditions and pro-donor practices. The DNC should expect (and be willing to pay for) a better product. I believe the netroots can be instrumental in pressuring the DNC to accept this responsibility. (And GCI also has another big client -- MoveOn PAC. In a future series, I will explain how the matter of accountability is even more important with regards to GCI's contract with MoveOn.)

The second way is through a concerted, organized effort on behalf of the staff themselves to take some control of the campaign to which they devote so much of their lives. This is by far the more difficult -- and I believe more crucial -- of the two options. In another future series, I will report on the story of one such group of staff that tried to organize, the repercussions they met, and a potential path forward.

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

Comments

10 Comments

Re: Strip-mining the Grassroots (conclusion): Towa

there's some decent stuff in here, but a bunch of stuff that I think is off base.

good stuff: not a bad idea for canvassers to carry voter reg. forms or to have literature to pass out. That's probably really the DNC's call vs. the canvassing vendor

stuff that's off base: I doubt canvassers get zero political education or aren't taught anything about what's happening locally.  I canvassed in the 2004 elections (for GOTV, not for $ though), and we received basic background political education similar to the 15 minute sessions on the 6 key talking points you describe above. I found it perfectly adequate.  I don't think it would've been helpful to the overall campaign to hold me back from door-knocking until I knew x,y, and z things about politics inside and out; I became more of an expert over time as I spent more time on the campaign. I found that a few basic talking points were enough to get through most canvassing interactions; of course if people have questions you can't answer on the spot, point them to a website or some other resource w/ more info.      

On this whole thing of "the interaction [w/ existing donors] is actually disrespectful to the donors as soon as it becomes clear that the canvasser has nothing more to ask of them [than another donation]"... I don't think this is true.  I give to a few organizations (including the DNC sometimes), and they ask me for more money all the time on the phone, over email, in the mail, w/ a canvasser, etc.  I can't say "yes" to every ask, but it's not like I need somebody to ask me to volunteer when I say "no" to giving $ so I don't feel disrespected.  I've gotten enough calls/emails from the DNC over the years asking me to volunteer that I know they want more than my $.

I also have doubts about your claim that canvassers "burn out" at an unreasonably high rate.  Door-to-door fundraising is important stuff, but I imagine is very hard work, people slam doors in your face all the time, you get rained on, etc.  On some level, I am somewhat impressed that these guys can get anybody to stick it out.  

by dal27 2006-06-20 10:52AM | 0 recs
Re: Strip-mining the Grassroots (conclusion): Towa

dal, it seems like you are the one who's 'off-base' here. My girlfriend had first hand experience with one of the groups mentioned above.

First: there isn't enough campaign work or knowledge being taught in those canvass offices. That's fact. For the time that my gf worked (and it was over a month)she went through one campaign briefing. And the briefing wasn't even about the campaign she was working on! Her questions went unanswered. And so, maybe this isn't the way that most offices run. I don't know. my gf only worked at one of the offices. But, don't you think, if you were the ED of a large org and you found out that the people working in one of your offices knew very little about the campaign they were working on, well, don't you think that would worry you a little? I don't know, dal, that would definitely worry me. Sending inexperienced people out into the field to represent an organizaiton that they knew very little about, speaking to probably 60-100 people a day, but still not really knowing how to adequately answer their questions, and possibly misrepresenting the organization they are raising money for?

And as for your doubts about burn out, I can assure you that my gf didn't burn out from the people who spit in her face and called her a faggot every day, bcs you know, that comes with the territory of canvassing for gay rights. Instead, she was burnt out by the amount of pressure put on her to work overtime, the guilt that was put on her when she didn't, and the high turn-over in the office.

It angers me that organizations like this one aren't being held accountable by the left. it also angers me that they don't have enough corporate responsibility to see that the way that the treat their employees is wrong. Just plain wrong.

by may1978 2006-06-20 12:31PM | 0 recs
Re: Strip-mining the Grassroots (conclusion): Towa

The great thing about these organizations are that they recruit some really smart and thoughtful people -- many of these issues came up all the time. But we just dismissed them. It wasn't part of the game plan. When a canvasser in his first week would come up to me to suggest we do something differently, i would bat him away - what does he know? he's been here for a week. But that same logic is used at every single step in the chain, against first, second or 5th year staff.

It's 'off base.' Ha, that's a phrase that sounds familiar. I too thought all this was off-base, simply because our goal was to FUNDRAISE. But dal, you seem quick to dismiss some pretty heavy points. There's a big difference between 'a moderate amount of investment' in talking about politics, as Greg suggested, and sending canvassers out there with three sentences and a snappy response or two. I mean, I oversaw plenty of canvassers who could talk a Republican into a donation, but the vast majority we sent out simply had no clear, standard set of ideas about what it was all for. You're talking about what's necessary for a passable canvass interaction. We're talking about whether this is sufficient. I used to think it was; now I'm just not so sure. Having some distance from these campaigns, seeing it all from a civilians' perspective, I'm more willing to consider those ideas about how to make it better.

And dal, as for the burnout. Believe it. This is hard work; it's not for everybody; etc etc. That doesn't mean it can't be made better. We're talking about some important relationships here. Why not try to make them better?

by Lockse 2006-06-20 11:29AM | 0 recs
Re: Strip-mining the Grassroots (conclusion): Towa

"These canvassers are not trained to articulate the Democratic party's message, and they are uninformed about the state and local politics. They are instructed to direct every conversation towards the maximum possible donation, and to cut off conversations that don't appear to be headed that way. The young, passionate management staff works for less than minimum wage, 12 to 15 hours a day, seven days a week, and almost inevitably burns itself out. The result is a system that is efficient at getting names onto a list -- but at what cost?"

- I enjoyed reading the ideas you have about fixing the model. But, my question is: shouldn't we just discard the models all together? I mean, it seems like this type of operation is outdated and only does more harm than good. Fixing it might take more energy than is worth. Is a canvassing outfit really the answer anymore? or can the progressive politicians run these outfits on their own, maybe with limited help from an outside organization. I don't know. I'm interested to read more about your ideas on how to solve the problem of the left.

'But the most important change that needs to occur is in regards to the canvass staff. In much the same way that they present their campaign to civilians as the grassroots frontline of the Great Party War, the staff labors under the pretense that they are the Party's vanguard. But they do not participate in the party in any way other than as conduits for this money -- and after however many eighty to one hundred hour work weeks at 24k a year, an unacceptable majority of these people burn out. This work is important -- but so is the long-term cultivation of our young leaders. As I've said before, "If your system requires fifteen hours of work a day, your system is broken."'

- I think this is one of the things that angers me the most. I've read a lot of literature that argues both for and against this model of campaigning.  I think your way of describing this model is one of the most compelling.  It just doesn't make sense for a non-profit organization to take advantage of its laborers in that way. And, as you've mentioned before, its not just GCI. In fact, I have heard stories from people who have worked at alot of  major non-profits which all sound similar: low pay, excruciating hours, and a feeling of expendability.  And these people are expendable, bcs when one bright-eyed activist burns out, another is graduating college to come in and replace her.  The culture of the organizations is very curious. it is a culture of like-minded, idealistic, young individuals who have a genuine interest in 'doing good' and 'changing the system', but who are also relatively inexperienced, and therefore moldable and easily taken advantage of.

- And you're right: if your system requires fifteen hours of work a day, your system is broken".  No one should have to spend hours upon hours every day of the year working. its not sustainable. And so people quit. Lots of people quit. I don't have any hard statistics, just anecdotal evidence, but I have had many friends go through canvas offices, some stayed on for a while, some quit after the first day. These canvassing operations go through staff like water. I mean, I've seen it. But again, I have no stats to back it up, so anyone who wants can argue with me.  But it is my opinion that even if you have 20 people who have come out of working for your organization dissatisfied, then its time to re-evaluate the way you do things.

"If employees work two or three fewer hours a day, they do more and better work (again -- that's science, folks). They burn out less, which means less time must be spent on recruiting (which currently takes up at least a third of a GCI staffer's day) and training (which takes up about a fifth). Add in something resembling a weekend and even a modest pay raise, and you now have an exceptionally better staff (which will make better decisions, fewer mistakes, further reducing the workload and turnover, and so on). This crack team of professional party advocates will then be better prepared to handle the more complicated task of managing a truly progressive, politically engaged office. The canvass campaign could gradually become the vanguard that it imagines itself to be."

-good, this is really good. Keep going with this Greg. let's keep figuring out how we can make the left stronger. And how we can build it both out and up. We don't just need lists upon lists, we need people who dedicate their time and energy. we do't need people who get burnt out after a year or two. It wastes too much time trying to train new people.

"The top-down canvass model is lacking in any transparency and unreceptive to change. Employees who believe that things should be done differently are efficiently cast out of the system. Like the consultant class in DC, these executives have spent decades up there at the top, where they wield a fierce sense of self-preservation. Even a string of breathtaking progressive setbacks cannot convince them that they might be on the wrong tack."

- I had a close friend who was totally dismissed when she tried to approach upper management about the systemic problems with the organization. Oh yeah, they definitely don't want to hear it. Its such poor business practice. it seems like people are working for a large corporation like Wal-mart and not a progressive org.

"It's time to recognize that while this strategy has fattened progressive organizations' membership rolls for more than twenty years, it's also left us with a desiccated base that has been taught to equate civic engagement with check-writing."

- it seems like the more we civicvally engage our base, the more likely they will be to donate. We don't have to ask them to just give money. We can ask them to participate- and part of participating is fundraising. Its true now that people say they'd rather colunteer than give money, but when it comes down to it, they don't go volunteer. they pull the checkbook or credit card out and feellike they are making a difference. And they are, but its not the difference that we need to make. And we, as the left, did have to be taught that civic engagement = check-writing. And its unfortunate that its organizations like this one, who's values are supposedly progressive, are un-teaching the left all of those lessons we learned in 9th grade civics classes.

Greg, I have to say that I have been following your diary from the beggining, but haven't commented until now because I didn't see you really flushing out ideas and producing viable solutions. I was thinking, 'ok, we know what's wrong with these orgs, but what do we do about it?!'.  I'm really glad you've started moving forward. I'm excited to read more.

by may1978 2006-06-20 11:51AM | 0 recs
Re: Strip-mining the Grassroots (conclusion): Towa

shouldn't we just discard the models all together? ... Fixing it might take more energy than is worth...

Well you might be right that fixing this thing will be very difficult. But as much as it's nice to imagine a free-radical system where activists improvise and create spontaneous movements, the current model is dominant -- and built so that it never 'loses.' But I think the basics of it do work -- the problem is in the priorities. The attitude. Of course, the only way to change the owners' attitude/priorities is by threatening those imbalancing objectives -- making it detrimental for them not to change.

by greg bloom 2006-06-20 02:53PM | 0 recs
a few comments

I generally agree with most of what you're saying, Greg.  (Lockse, I'm starting to guess who you are, NY/NE RD for GCI?)

I should say a few things, though.

1) I don't agree that the canvass is not helpful for the 50 state strategy.  IF people are recontacted effectively by the DNC they're very, very useful resources.  That is something for the DNC to handle, not GCI.

2) I definately agree on political training.  Something as simple as "no T1s on fridays, fridays are staff development days" might do it.  1/5 of the training being "political" would be a huge change.

3) The entire recruitment strategy needs to be rethought.  Basing your strategy on burning through staff is just bad planning.  The "anyone can canvass, throw them into it" idea sounds good, but realistically, a lot of people don't WANT to canvass.  Having them do it for 2 or 3 days and quit is pretty nasty for morale.

4) One thing that still needs to be discussed is unionization of director level staff.  It's a can of worms that needs to be opened when we're talking about "being the change you want to see in the world."

by dansomone 2006-06-20 01:57PM | 0 recs
Re: a few comments

re: the 50 state strategy, i think you've misunderstood: I meant that it's not currently associated with that strategy in any way. Totally separate campaigns (although the 50 State Strategy did make its way into GCI's rap). But you're right -- it's absolutely a potential tool that can enhance the field operation. And it's the DNC's responsibility to use the tool effectively. But as for GCI, it doesn't train canvassers to encourage volunteer work. (After all, putting that option on the table would seriously sap some offices averages.)

As for your fourth -- why, yes...can of worms indeed.

by greg bloom 2006-06-20 02:30PM | 0 recs
Re: Strip-mining the Grassroots (conclusion): Towa

This is a really great diary.  The use of the visceral "strip-mining" image is exactly right too; it points towards the sustainability / negative-externalities type of analysis that is important here.  You're absolutely right: if these canvassing groups are chewing through our pool of starry-eyed energetic young activists, for relatively little gain, then they are chewing up an important resource and, relative to other possible uses, wasting it.  Tearing through our dedicated youth for such little benefit is a crime.  And when 50% of the money raised is used just to keep that kid on the street canvassing, who can say the donors' money is really being well-used either?

Someone in the comments said there's whole books written for and against this kind of canvassing, and I'm ignorant of all that.  But I've instinctively felt for a few years that this was an insufficently productive use of our donors and our workers.  

by texas dem 2006-06-20 08:21PM | 0 recs
Strip-mining the Grassroots (conclusion):

Personally, I've never worked for GCI, but I did spend about a year working for the State PIRGs, who started this model of canvassing.  

I worked in a canvass office that cycled through employees on roughly a monthly basis.  Many dedicated canvassers quit simply because they could not physically cope with 12 hour days of very difficult work in an environment where they felt expendable.  In the offices I worked in, even essential functions like getting employees tax forms or reimbursements were neglected in favor of collecting a few more dollars.  Basic issues of racial or gender fairness were neglected; for example, no effort was made to accomodate female canvassers who felt vulnerable in certain neighborhoods or to assign them to safer neighborhoods, even when this issue was brought up.  Likewise, I saw dedicated black male canvassers repeatedly assigned to white suburban neighborhoods where they were treated with disrespect, even when this was brought to the directors attention by the minority canvassers themselves and alternate neighborhoods were readily available.  I saw directors working hours that led to sub-minimum wage pay levels, and heard stories of directors literally being hospitalized due to exhaustion. In PIRG at least, an office which tried to unionize was cleaned out overnight and had its entire staff fired.

I hope GCI is not as bad as this, but it does seem that there are similarities.

My question is this; what to you call an organization that mistreats its workers, ignores gender and racial issues, violates labor laws and opposes worker democracy through unions, all in pursuit of the bottom line? I'm not sure, but the answer certainly isn't "progressive."

I think canvassing is important work, because it's really the only way to have face-to-face conversations with people about important issues.  However, how you do things is in the end what you are doing.  This canvass model might bring in more dollars, but I've also seen it turn dozens of idealistic young people away from activism and social engagement, and train dozens more to accept and promote atrocious working conditions in pursuit of the bottom line.  If that's representative of the world we're working for, count me out.

by former PIRG employee 2006-06-21 07:10AM | 0 recs
Re: Strip-mining the Grassroots (conclusion): Towa

No, you cannot just burn through your base. Bush is about to demonstrate that.

by blues 2006-06-21 03:32PM | 0 recs

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