Strip-mining the grassroots?: DNC fundraising in 2004, 2006, and beyond

(This is the first entry in a series I'm reposting from my diary at DailyKos. I'll be writing in the next few weeks about a particular breed of ground operations that is increasingly popular among progressive organizations -- including the DNC and MoveOn. I'll argue that this model of 'grassroots' activism is unhealthy for the progressive movement; that it saps vital energy and does not effectively advance our cause. I'm not the first to have made this argument, but the story has not yet gained traction. I think it's crucial to the Left that it does.)

In 2004, the DNC launched a campaign unlike anything the party had done before -- thousands of canvassers hit the streets of all the major cities, raising money to 'beat George Bush.' "It's the greatest thing I've ever heard," Terry McAuliffe said of this novel enterprise. Others were not so impressed. "Political panhandling,"it was called in Dkos. "Astroturfing." You probably saw the canvassers yourself, at your door or on a busy sidewalk. But in the frenzy of that year, the massive operation blended in among the noise.

After the election, the DNC direct-fundraise campaign was announced to have been an unprecedented success, shooting several million dollars past its goal. The catch (does there always have to be a catch?) was that very little-if any-of this money actually made it to any concrete effort to beat George Bush.

When away from the podium and out of the press, McAuliffe himself was quick to acknowledge the slippery financial truths of this operation. He was (as we know) not engaged in winning an election -- he was base-building. Unbeknownst to the people who gave money to the nice young canvassers on the street or at their door, the real objective of this operation was to expand the DNC's membership rolls. The money these people gave just paid, for the most part, to keep the canvassers out there asking for more money.

To be clear -- this is something of an open secret within the fundraising industry: successful fundraise canvasses just break even, at least at first. In the meantime, the 2004 DNC canvass operation added three quarters of a million names to the DNC's super-weak database. That's a serious number, especially for a party that's seriously soft on small donors.

But as someone who personally hounded thousands of people on the streets of New York City, pushing them to give hundreds of dollars, again and again -- turning away people who wanted to volunteer, shrugging at people who wanted to register to vote, cutting off conversations about what the Democrats and John Kerry actually stood for so that I could make my quota, working sixteen hour days under the false pretense of beating George Bush -- I had to question whether the ends justify the means. I have come up with difficult answers.

It's a question that has been brought up before, but we need to keep it up. I'll continue to pose it in the next several posts. It runs broader and deeper than just the DNC; but this is a good place to start.

Last point for now, though certainly not least: The DNC fundraising campaign was McAuliffe's pet project, but Howard Dean has extended its life. The DNC has renewed its contract with the subcontracting outfit, Grassroots Campaigns, Inc, that operates these canvasses. They've just finished the 2006 national training for the staff that will be running 20 offices across the country. For millions of people, GCI's DNC canvassers will continue to be the most visible embodiment of the Democratic Party. Let's talk about what they're doing out there.

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



Re: Strip-mining the grassroots?: DNC fundraising

GCI is a wretched organization - canvassers are massively underpaid (sometimes not paid at all) to work 80+ hours per week.  I interviewed for a field director job last year, and was smart enough to do some research before driving to Washington for my final interview.  Howard Dean and Eli Pariser should terminate their contract immediately.

As we've discussed recently, Democrats need to walk the walk, not just talk the talk, when it comes to supporting living wage jobs for all Americans, including our own Party operatives.  Exploiting the idealism of just-out-of-college 20-somethings for fast bucks (which then, what, go to DCCC and DSCC-approved consultant beach house funds) is beyond reproach.  If we use contracted fundraising labor, there should be guidelines regarding the fair wages, benefits, opportunity to organize (GCI fights unionizing efforts) and work hours.

As a former officer on a large Democratic city committee, the use of these "astroturfing" groups was highly problematic, particularly when we were never, ever informed that they would even be utilized in our state.  I remember running a party booth at a local street fair, and there they were, dozens of red shirts with DNC on the back, soliciting money a few yards from us, yet we didn't even know if they were legit, who sent them or why they were there.  And their sole goal is to fundraise - they offer no information whatsoever on Democratic policies or even the platform itself.

So I'm with you, Greg, 100%.  These groups undermine our cause, and Dean should cut them off immediately, if not sooner.

by MBW 2006-05-25 06:47AM | 0 recs
Re: Strip-mining the grassroots?: DNC fundraising

finally. I pray that the people who need to read this, read this in time.

They could learn a lot about real organizing by talking to some union organizers I've know over the years.

by Our Gal in Brooklyn 2006-05-25 07:42AM | 0 recs
real organzing

whew. and about time. Someone needed to say it. I hope that the folks who need to read this, read it.

Real organizing is about empowering people and educating them. Talk to any sucessful union organizer.

by Our Gal in Brooklyn 2006-05-25 07:43AM | 0 recs
Let's Split Hairs!

I agree that GCI is--on balance--a crappy company.  Basically, their leadership includes a lot of great political minds but no one who knows how to run a business.  I worked for them for almost a year, and while I can say I learned a fair bit, I also got treated like something other than a valued employee.  

The worst part was that (other than Doug Phelps, the CEO and a world-class jackass) I could tell that the leadership of the company actually DID value the employees.  But they were all lifelong activists who had become OK with making $20G/year and they never had a person with real business experience to explain that, in general, getting good people means paying them enough to eat and wear clothes.  Ultimately, it ends up with GCI having the same problems with retention and class/ethnic diversity as the PIRG.  This isn't shocking, as GCI is modeled as a for-profit (I mean that in a legalistic sense, not a derogitory one) PIRG clone.

Now, I do have to disagree with the (implication?) assertion that there is something wrong with running a break-even membership canvass.  People complain--and VERY rightly so--about grassroots dollars pouring into consultants' "beach house funds," but none of this cash did.  It went to build a grassroots donor base that (over the medium-to-long-term) is going to leave the Democrats in better shape after McCain/Feingold than before it (and nothing worked better at the door than telling people exactly that).  Any kind of startup fundraising (be it for business/politics/non-profit) has a to-be-expected break-even prospecting period.  Do you think it would have been better to take people's money and blow it on crappy commercials?

In my opinion, there are things for which GCI ought to be seriously criticized.  And treating their employees poorly is only one of them.  However, the basic model of running a fundraising canvass as a party-building tool is smart and effective.  It is also in NO way "astroturf": the canvassers are realy local people and they are obviously not just doing it for the money.

by Patton 2006-05-25 03:16PM | 0 recs
Re: Let's Split Hairs!

Even PIRGs don't pay a real living wage.  When I graduated in '03 I had job offers from them and their fundraising spinnoff (who does work for the Human Rights Campaign and others).  They were offering $21k, with health for a leadership position, a step above the every day canvassers.  I turned them down to go work for another non-profit that paid just a couple grand more.

Democrats may talk a good game about wanting a living wage, but the only organizers that get paid one are the unions.  Now working for unions I appreciate being compensated for the professional that I am.

Greg, good work and glad you cross-posted over here.

I do think that changing how CGI operates will cost the party $.  However, there are ways to make that up with added value to the movement.

by juls 2006-05-25 04:05PM | 0 recs
Re: Let's Split Hairs!

Stay tuned: I'll be talking about the canvassers and the issue of base-building in my next two posts. You're right -- there was a 'legit' justification for this campaign, and I certainly don't want to suggest that GCI (or the DNC) is running a scam. I'm arguing that it is weak strategy, bad business, and bad politics.

by greg bloom 2006-05-25 06:13PM | 0 recs


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