Strip-mining the grassroots? (pt 2): the DNC's 'Grassroots Campaigns' canvassers
by greg bloom, Fri May 26, 2006 at 06:00:59 AM EDT
(This is the second entry in a series I'm reposting from my diary at DailyKos. I'm writing about a particular breed of ground operations that is increasingly popular among progressive organizations -- including the DNC and MoveOn. I'll argue--and I'm not the first to do so--that this model of 'grassroots' activism saps vital energy from the progressive movement and does not effectively advance our cause.)
In my last post, I wrote about the canvass fundraising campaign that the DNC launched in 2004 through a subcontracted outfit, Grassroots Campaigns Inc (GCI). The campaign successfully added three quarters of a million names to the DNC membership. These people gave money under the pretense of 'beating Bush'--but the money they gave mostly went to pay for the operation itself. I questioned whether these means justified the ends.
In the comments, people noted that this is a tough reality about most canvass fundraising campaigns: they don't directly raise money for the cause--they are about establishing relationships with new donors, and building the base. Indeed. The 2006 DNC canvass operation has recently launched. Hundreds of city streets will be manned with GCI's canvassers every day from now on--for millions of people, they will embody the Democratic Party. But what kind of relationships are they building?
As one Dkos member who participated in the 2004 campaign wrote:
"[This is] indicative of the national Democratic party's penchant for missing opportunities."
To illustrate these missed opportunities, I'll run through a typical interaction with a GCI canvasser:
The canvasser says something to you like, "Hi do you want to help stop the Bush agenda?" Let's say (and this will not be a stretch) that you are a person who does, in fact, want to help stop the Bush agenda. You say 'yes.'
The canvasser will introduce himself by name. He'll say he's 'with the DNC,' and they are out here working to win back seats in Congress for the Democrats this November. He'll ask you if that's something you want to see happen.
You say 'yes,' but you hesitate. He'll remind you how important this election is.
If you say something like 'I'll just give online,' or 'I'll send in a check,' he'll ask you, 'Have you given before on a grassroots level?'
If you're thoughtful, you might ask, 'What do you mean by that?'
If he's a bad canvasser scrambling to make quota, he might say something like, 'The money we raise here is crucial in developing the grassroots operations in the most important races in the country.' This is not true--no one seems to be able to say specifically where these funds go. (This response is also NOT officially taught in GCI trainings, but a canvasser who has been trained to push every potential mark and who is desperate to make quota will say anything.)
If he's a good canvasser, he'll say something like: 'Well, if you give to us right here, it's sending a message to the Democratic party that we need people like me out here, face to face with our supporters, talking about the issues and spreading the word.'
So you bite: 'Go on -- talk to me about the issues.''
This canvasser is equipped to rattle off a list of the important issues-- 'health care, the environment, the war in Iraq,' maybe a few others. Then, because he's trying to make the deal, he'll steer you swiftly back towards the imperative to give. But ask the canvasser what about these issues, and his response is going to depend entirely upon bare wits. Now, this job attracts some bright, articulate people, but it attracts many more who mean well but have no innate skill for political speech. GCI trains its canvassers daily, but trains them only in methods that direct a conversation toward donation. Even a bad canvasser can make quota if their blunt persuasion skills are forceful enough -- but think about the quality of those interactions. Think about the quality of the interactions they have with the people who do need to be engaged with skill and care, people who might be willing to listen to a flesh-and-blood representative of the party. Or people who are frustrated and disillusioned with the party.
If you ask the canvasser about state or local political issues, he will not know anything about them. If you ask the canvasser about the local or state Democratic party, he will not know anything about it.
If you tell the canvasser that you or someone you know needs to register to vote, he will likely not have voter registration cards.
If you tell the canvasser you want to volunteer with the Democrats, he will point you to a checkbox on his form that you can tick off. Or they will send you 'to the website' (at which point you might ask, 'why, again, couldn't I donate on the web site?') As juls and jbou commented over at Daily Kos, this opportunity was fumbled in 2004. My experience, in fact, was that these volunteer requests were ignored entirely.
If you say you've already given before, the canvasser will dig in on you even harder. You've identified yourself to him as a donor, and donors will give again -- a 'well-trained' canvasser will ask you three to five times to give again, even in the face of your increasingly-insistent 'no.'
When I canvassed for GCI, harried people would often tell me that they'd given to us four or five times already, that each time they checked the volunteer box, but never were contacted again except by a flood of direct mail asking for more money.
One argument that is often put forward in defense of canvass campaigns is that -- even though the money itself is not put toward the cause -- it serves as an investment, a personal bond between the donor and the cause. I agree with this; I had many positive experiences when canvassing, in which I know that I made a person a little more politically active.
But the responsibility on that investment runs both ways -- and it's dangerous to take shortcuts to building donor relationships. The risks you (we/GCI/the DNC) run of not doing this include alienating and burning out our core base, leaving potential connections and appeals unmade, while diluting the potency of our appeals.
To conclude, I'll turn to my hands-down favorite source on fundraising philosophy and good works, Jeff Brooks of Donor Power Blog. Part of Brooks' mission is to identify and warn against 'anti-donor' fundraising tactics. He lays out three key elements of powerful, progressive fundraising:
Empower your donors.
Serve your donors.
Respect your donors.
In future posts, I'll write about the environment within GCI that fosters potentially anti-donor practices; I'll also write about their history as an employer.
(I should note again that I am basing my knowledge of GCI from my own experience and from many months of research and interviews with other staffers. I hope that GCI employees who read this can comment here, especially if they can clarify and further the discussion.)