Strip-mining the grassroots (pt3): The DNC's 'Grassroots Campaigns' canvassers

(This is the third in a series of posts, cross-posted from DailyKos, 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 is unhealthy for the progressive movement -- that it saps vital energy and does not effectively advance our cause.)

My first post described the DNC's subcontracted fundraising campaign -- originally run in the 2004 election -- which uses canvassers employed by Grassroots Campaigns, Inc (GCI). Despite its 'beat Bush' banner, this was a base-building operation, not a tactical electoral strategy -- in other words, it essentially just paid for itself.  Now that the campaign has relaunched, it's important to reconsider the ongoing implications of the enterprise. In my second post, I sketched out a typical canvass interaction: the GCI canvasser does not carry voter registration forms, has no knowledge of local or state politics, and is not equipped to turn potential volunteers into active participants. In this post, I'll describe how the canvassers are recruited and trained to be effective salesmen. My question is: effective to what end?

(I know many readers here are acquainted with this world of fundraising -- much of what follows might be familiar to you.)

Let's start with the money -- a very good place to start. Most campaign recruits are first attracted to the job by ads that say something like "STOP THE BUSH AGENDA!" in large type, and "Make $300-500 a week" in smaller font. That's not bad pay to help save the world. In the interviews for the job, recruits learn that their 'base pay' is rather less than that--about $50 a day. The additional pay comes from a commission bonus for those who make over quota.

For someone with a certain amount of natural charisma, this quota is not necessarily hard to meet. Yet these canvass campaigns are open to almost anyone -- if you have the will, and you speak English, they'll send you out to canvass. People who are really not right for the job usually drop themselves out soon enough. But for everyone who shows up, the campaign does invest a considerable amount of energy into pushing them to make quota. The campaign wants its canvassers to succeed.

So every day starts off with a training session (two hours for newbies, one for regular canvassers). The canvassers practice how to greet a person as they walk down the street, or answer the door. They repeat to each other the greetings, and the scripted conversation that follows (known as 'the rap'), role-playing along with way through various scenarios.

The trainings are focused exclusively on sealing the deal. They even practice handing those clipboards back and forth; this clipboard is actually a tool, the hook on the end of their line, which puts the mark's hands literally onto the cause.

The office provides a few factoid sheets that a canvasser can take out on her clipboard.  These are optional; they are filled with bits of information, but they're never really addressed in the trainings. In the 2004 campaign, I tried to use the sheets but found them ultimately to be a distraction -- much of it was dated (the sheets stayed the same throughout the campaign), and they mostly consisted of typical snipes at Bush. The people who I needed to speak with didn't need to be convinced that Bush was bad. I would have been better suited by a big goofy mugshot of Dear Leader. If someone asked me about John Kerry or the Democrats' platforms, I'd have to wing it or direct them to a web site.

Canvassers don't talk to Republicans, of course. But neither do they spend time talking with people who are willing to engage but aren't committed. Trainings make it clear: either a person considers a donation, or it's 'have a nice day.'

For those people who are receptive to the 'rap,' canvassers are instructed not to ask someone to 'be generous' (because then people tend to give a dollar). Instead, they are supposed to ask for a hundred dollars, every time, even if it seems like the person probably can't afford it. The 'veteran' canvassers -- those who've been around for a week or more -- are instructed: if you think they can afford more, ask for two hundred dollars. Ask expansively. If the person hesitates, remind them how bad the Republicans are; how much work we have to do to catch up. Remind them that every hundred dollars counts.

These are standard sales tactics -- I learned a lot through GCI's trainings about how to work a conversation. For those of us on staff who understood, to some degree, that the money we were raising was not actually going to help 'beat Bush,' we were able to justify it to ourselves by believing that these interactions were creating bonds stronger than the value of the money at hand. That the donor was making an investment in the cause, the justification goes -- they're going to be that much more committed from now on. "When I make a sale, I make a friend."

As campaign06 noted in Tuesday's comments:

engaging a lot of inexperienced people to have daily conversations with other voters is ... a noble pursuit."


Quite true -- but the content and intent of these conversations must be taken into account. Let's put it this way -- a canvasser doesn't talk to 'voters.' A canvasser isn't even equipped to speak with potential voters; in fact, she's discouraged from doing so. Voting is something that happens somewhere else, something that someone else does. This sale that's being made -- it's not selling the party. It's selling the party war.

In my last post, I suggested a scenario in which a 'bad' canvasser tells his mark that the money they raise goes directly to a 'special grassroots fund for the key battleground races.' Again, GCI does not train them to do this -- in fact, when I worked there, we had to repeatedly instruct the canvassers against it. But there was a reason it kept happening -- the canvassers, who are pressured by their quota and by their peers to perform -- over-reach for justifications as to why this money is so important. When it all comes down to it (even from the  DNC's 'internal' goal of base-building) the justification isn't there.

A healthier ground campaign must give more reasons. It must be about more than fundraising -- it must be about advocacy, and true base-building, including "minor" things like voter registration -- even if this were to decrease the total amount of money raised (money that, to restate, doesn't directly help our cause).

Such a ground campaign would require an experienced, committed corps of canvassers and managers who are trained in more than just sales. It's hard work to effectively balance these conflicting priorities -- but it is the DNC's, and GCI's, responsibility to do so. In future posts, I'll talk about how GCI neglects this and other responsibilities to its campaign workers and its cause.

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

Comments

24 Comments

Re: Strip-mining the grassroots (pt3): The DNC's '

Hey, I just wanted to respond to a lot of the stuff I've seen here, especially some of the comments from the earlier posts.  I'm not going to respond point-by-point to everything, but I will tell my story with GCI, which is a lot more positive than everything I've seen here.

I worked for Grassroots as a field manager and canvasser the summer after my freshmen year of college.  I was 19 then, I'm 21 now.  I kind of got the job by accident; the recruiter came to my College Democrats meeting, and I took him out to dinner because he didn't have anyone else to eat with and I felt bad.  I was planning to work a non-political job that summer, when he offered me a job.  I was kind of reluctant to take it because I didn't think it would pay as well as my other job, but I wanted to help the campaign, and this would allow me to do it while living at home.

I was surprised to find that the job did pay well.  Very well.  I worked in the New York City office, which was the highest grossing and highest canvasser-averaging office in the country, but even there I stood out as one of the best, if not the best, canvassers.  I was making about $1,000 per week, which is not bad for a 19 year old living at home with his parents.  It was a lot of fun, and I made some of my best friends there.  The job clearly didn't work for everyone, and most people left after a few days.  But for the people who stayed for the whole summer, they enjoyed it and made a lot of money.  Even the people who did relatively poorly (~$400 per week) still were happy with the position.

So for the person who described it as being near slavery (or whatever you said), you probably either sucked as a canvasser or worked in a lousy office.  In NYC, I was working from about 9:30am to 4:30pm, and making $200 per day.  That wasn't a bad deal at all.

9:30AM?  Yeah, 9:30AM.  Because I didn't go to the trainings for about an hour or two like Greg Bloom describes.  I didn't have to, both because I was a veteran and because I was so good.  A lot of the description Greg gives about the job is how they told it to us in the first day of training, and is how it was officially supposed to go, but it wasn't how things actually worked.  For example, I don't know anybody who tried the "clipboard handover" trick after their first week.  I never did it at all, because it felt weird and it didn't work.  Or, for example, I adjusted the amount of money I asked for based on my impression of the person I was talking to.  If I was talking to a college student (which I avoided- they were unprofitable), I would ask for maybe $20 or $40.  When I was talking to people in suits on Wall Street I asked for a thousand dollars.  Generally, I felt that a lot of the official instructions and canvassing lessons were pretty bad, and most of the veterans just ignored it and canvassed their own way to raise more money.

The job actually did seem kind of bad for the directors, and seeing them and their jobs made me never want that.  They had to be there by about 8am and didn't get to leave until maybe 9pm, and they were paid about $450 or so per week.  That was a really bad job, and I'd never want it.  I really did admire the amount of work they put in.

And yeah, the job is about fundraising.  I didn't mind that, and liked that.  It gave me a clear purpose.  I wouldn't have taken the job if I was told I would be registering voters or "talking to people" in New York City, because in NYC that was a waste of time.  We needed money from New York so we could send it to places like Florida.

And about the money- yeah, a lot of the offices were barely self-sustaining or even money losers.  But the New York City office was very profitable.   Later in the campaign, they closed most of the offices, except I think NYC, Washington, and maybe Boston.  If Grassroots didn't send much cash to the DNC, it wasn't NYC's fault, it was the rest of the country.  We had the highest daily individual quota in the country ($200), and most of us didn't have any trouble making it.  I averaged over $600 per day.

So I guess my point is, Grassroots really was good in a lot of ways.  It's not knocking on people's doors to register them to vote, and it's not "talking" to friends and neighbors, or whatever all that stuff is.  I've done that stuff, and it's important, but I also find it kind of boring.  I wouldn't have wanted that for a full time summer job.  Maybe doing that makes 40 year olds feel better, but I wanted more action, and Grassroots gave it to me.  While I was working, 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 20 and 21 year old 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.  It really was a lot of fun, and I wouldn't have done things any differently.

by MitchF 2006-05-30 09:28AM | 0 recs
Re: Strip-mining the grassroots (pt3): The DNC's '

Ohh, and I remembered I wanted to respond to one more thing.  One of the posters to part 2 wrote about the canvassers doing all these horrible things.  I worked in an office for almost three months, and I didn't see any of that.  Nobody was smashing kids' fingers on doors, or throwing clipboards at people, or anything like that.

The two worst things I heard about canvassers doing in all my time there were this:  one canvasser, on one of his first few days, told people that he actually supported Nader.  He was promptly fired.  Another canvasser, who had been there for months, stopped at a bar and canvassed drunk on one of her last few days.  For her, it ended up being her last day because she was fired.

As far as abuse went, it was almost all in the other direction.  I had one crazy man spit on my face, another ran up to me in his underwear and told me that he wished a skyscraper would fall on top of me.  I was training this girl on her first day and somebody threw ketchup on her.  One (little) guy got pushed in front of truck by a very angry woman; luckily he was ok.  One girl I was canvassing with was groped on Times Square.  On and on.  New York City had plenty of angry Republicans.

The abuse was actually one of the worst parts of the job.  Most of us could take it and just laughed most of it off, but some of the more extreme incidents, like those I described, were genuinely horrible.

by MitchF 2006-05-30 09:44AM | 0 recs
Re: Strip-mining the grassroots (pt3): The DNC's '

Mitch the Jeweler, I presume? A legend! I came in after you, but your name lived on...

by greg bloom 2006-05-30 10:16AM | 0 recs
Re: Strip-mining the grassroots (pt3): The DNC's '

I really don't see the point to these expose diaries and I don't know why they keep getting recommended.

I had a friend who worked for Grassroots Campaigns and it didn't sound like the best job ever, but it's all part of the business of keeping a non-profit organization afloat.  Just like their is a cost involved for direct mail, or phone solicitation there is a cost for running a paid-canvass.

What exactly is your problem?  There is no villian here.

It seems like the job wasn't for you and you are going all 20-20 on us.

by Gerbera 2006-05-30 12:07PM | 0 recs
Re: Strip-mining the grassroots (pt3): The DNC's '

Sure, I can restate my premises -- in fact, now would be a good time to quote directly from this article to which I link in the first paragraph of each entry in this series, where I announce the point to these diaries.

'What went wrong for the Left?' Dr. Dana Fisher asks of the results of the 2004 election. First she offers a suggestion of what went so right for the Right: they turned out their base, with incredibly efficiency, by way of their 'sophisticated grassroots campaign.' The Democratic Party, on the other hand, 'outsourced much of its grassroots campaign to independent firms' which employed inexperienced young people to do their campaign work. 'There's nothing inherently wrong with that,' she notes. But the problem is that these subcontracting firms plopped these young people into situations where they hadn't the experience, political capacity, or even tactical ability to truly make a difference in the election. The result -- a stunted, sickly grassroots. These firms continue to operate, the Right continues to build smart.

You're right, dear daisy, there's no villain here. I'm talking about some lame-ass good guys. The death of the American liberal dream. That sort of thing is my problem.

by greg bloom 2006-05-30 05:59PM | 0 recs
Re: Strip-mining the grassroots (pt3): The DNC's '

Well it just seems like you are attacking the DNC with your title and tone.

Do you know how hard it is to get the kind of man power necessary for a ground operation?  Of course they sub-contract out, it's the most efficient thing to do for that particular operation.  Activists aren't going to do it. You can barely get a committed activist to knock on doors for votes, without serious work, let alone for money.

grassroots campaigns doesn't do anything but raise money.  That is the job of those canvassers.  They don't build the party - that's not their job.  They just have a crappy name for what they do.

It seems like you have a passion for the party that ended up in the wrong place.  Instead of writing a book complaining about your 2004 experience, or a series of blog posts that don't help the cause - why aren't you finding a job working for a candidate you love and working to build the party the right way.

by Gerbera 2006-05-30 07:15PM | 0 recs
Re: Strip-mining the grassroots (pt3): The DNC's '

I'd be happy to debate with you about the points that I'm bringing up here -- after all, this is a forum for discussion about progressive political strategy. However, you seem to find it important to dismiss my arguments on face -- and you seem insistent upon attaching these claims to me, personally. But it seems pretty clear from the discussion here that this is a topic that a lot of people also find worth talking about.

In the meantime, I have several more posts to go--and the next one is even longer (and more '20/20') than this. I guess I'll have to apologize in advance for boring you or something?

by greg bloom 2006-05-30 07:54PM | 0 recs
Re: Strip-mining the grassroots (pt3): The DNC's '

OK, now that I have a moment to comment upon Mitch's remarks -- I know lots of canvassers that had a good experience for the summer, and probably had great interactions out there on the street. Mitch here was exceptional in that regard, so much so that months afterwards I knew about his legendary hauls. But I'm pretty sure, Mitch, that your big donations came from a near-evangelical belief in the power of our grassroots movement in the swing states -- that our operation would bring this 'safe states' money there, where it was needed -- while this just wasn't true. The real objective of the operation was to sign up donors to help the party out in the long-term.

I'm not saying, Mitch, that you personally scammed anyone -- you were just playing the game, really really well -- but I am calling into question whether this game really helps us in the long run. I'm wondering whether we could have done better for the party, both its members and its image, without a relentless (and, knowingly or not, disingenuous) focus upon donation 'for the swing states.' I'm suggesting that the hidden costs of this operation were significant, and especially problematic when we're talking about a long-term operation.

You also mention the issue I'll bring up in my next post -- the plight of the directors (i.e. managers) of this model. The hidden costs there are, as you hint, even more dramatic.

by greg bloom 2006-05-30 12:08PM | 0 recs
Re: Strip-mining the grassroots (pt3): The DNC's '

Yeah, that's me, the Jeweler.  Somebody even made up a theme song for me ;).  I still don't know if I actually was #1 in the office, there were a few other outstanding canvassers there, and everybody had their up and down days.

As far as where the money went (apologies if I ramble, I'm tired):

Yeah, I knew that most people who donated thought that 100% of their money would be going to swing states like Florida.  And I knew that it just wasn't true.  I wasn't telling anybody that I was a paid canvasser unless they asked- if I told everyone that I was getting almost 1/3 of the money myself that I wouldn't have broken quota more than a few days.  I sort of felt bad about this, but I justified it to myself by thinking that I brought in enough money that wouldn't have been donated to more than make up for my commission.

I also knew that on top of my commission of nearly 1/3, Grassroots had to pay the directors, rent the office, pay all other expenses, pay for the lousy canvassers who got fired after three days, pay for the hq in Boston, etc.  So I guessed that maybe only about half or less of the money raised in NYC was sent to the DNC via Boston.

But that doesn't include the financial effects of offices outside big liberal cities like New York and Boston.  I'd heard stories about those offices, even in relatively wealthy liberal suburbs of NYC, where canvassers struggled to raise their quotas of $140 or even less per day.  And those canvassers were still being paid the minimum $50 per day, and they still had directors that needed to be paid, office space that needed to be rented, etc.

To maximize revenue for the DNC, it was probably a mistake to set up those offices.  Maybe only three to five Grassroots offices should have been set up in the whole country, but there were a lot more.  Those offices clearly weren't profitable, and I suppose it's possible that the profitable offices like New York might have been subsidizing them.  I still have trouble believing that not a single penny of GCI money made it to the DNC- they couldn't have been that inefficient, could they?

But supposing that GCI really did spend all the money from the profitable offices on the unprofitable ones, I'm not sure if that was necessarily a waste.  Getting those lists of donors from the smaller towns and cities did have value for the future, even if it did nothing for the 2004 campaign.  It wasn't really honest- people contributed to me because we both believed that (at least a big part) of their money would be going to the DNC for regular campaign operations, not so that GCI could open up offices in random towns across the country to expand their donor list.  So I almost feel scammed personally, if that's really what happened.

But I'm not sure if this really damaged the party or our election prospects for the short or long term.  The impression I got from my donors was that most of them wouldn't have contributed, or wouldn't have contributed as much, if I hadn't spoken with them.  So it doesn't seem like much money was redirected from the DNC to a "wasteful" GCI operation.  As far as the image of the party, I guess that depends on the location.  I know one of the posters said that canvassers in Miami weren't allowed to carry voter registration forms- that's disgusting on multiple levels.  But in Manhattan and Brooklyn, where I worked, there really wasn't anything anybody could have done except contribute financially.  And out of the probably 200+ people who worked in the New York office that summer, I doubt more than 5 would have gotten a poltiical job in a state like Ohio or Florida if Grassroots hadn't hired them.  So I'm really not sure how the operations in New York and Boston and Washington hurt the party.

It's possible that a better combined model might have worked in a large city in a swing state- say Miami.  The canvassers might have registered voters and spread our message, while paying for themselves when they took contributions from the true believers.  I hope that model is tried in the future, but it would have been pointless in New York in 2004.

As for the directors, yeah, that was really bad.  I know that full time workers on political campaigns normally do have horrible hours for low pay, but it still didn't seem fair that I was making more than twice as much as people who were working twice as long.  I knew one director who lived in Long Island because his salary was so low.  He had to take the train in every morning and back every night, so he was maybe home for 6 or 7 hours per night.  I still don't know how he did it, but I really admire that he did.

by MitchF 2006-05-30 10:20PM | 0 recs
Re: Strip-mining the grassroots (pt3): The DNC's '

Ohh, and I'd say that the contribution I'm most proud of wasn't one of the big ones, it was when I convinced a Republican to give me $20 and join the Democratic Party.  

But realistically, that couldn't and shouldn't have been a goal of the canvassers in New York.  And running that kind of operation in place like Miami would have required far higher quality control in the recruitment process.  In the regular Grassroots offices, if you made quota sometime in the first few days you were hired, if not you were fired.  Evaluation was very simple.  But when you're expecting people to be able to talk about complex issues, you're going to need a far more complicated (and expensive) recruiting process.  Any swing state office operating this way would have been understaffed and there's no way it would have been financially self sufficient.  But that probably would have been better than the spectacle of canvassers in Miami banned from carrying voter registration forms.

by MitchF 2006-05-30 10:35PM | 0 recs
Re: Strip-mining the grassroots (pt3): The DNC's '

You said:

Despite its 'beat Bush' banner, this was a base-building operation, not a tactical electoral strategy -- in other words, it essentially just paid for itself.

But that's not true.  Maybe that is how Grassroots Campaigns sells it company to recruit, but they run paid fundraising canvass programs.

That is their job.

It isn't "strip-mining" the grassroots to ask a guy on the corner for 100 bucks to beat bush.  

"Strip-mining" to use your term, the real grassroots is a bad idea.  Any good fundraiser doesn't burn through their list of activists for money like that.  If the DNC did that, they'd be sending a money e-mail everyday.  I don't know about you, but I don't get those.  For good reason, everyone would unsubscribe, and your list would be useless.

Grassroots Campaigns brings new random donors to the party, which can possibly be turned into recurring donors, but that's about it.

It's not about building the party.  It's about fundraising, like calling for money or sending direct mail.

I've read your post.  I've been to your site because I was confused as to why someone would spend so much time and energy talking about a bad work experience, especially if you are truly politically motivated.

Why aren't you being part of the solution?  

Yes this site is good for debate and discourse, but at some point you have to step out from behind the keyboard, stop the "debating" and just do something.

by Gerbera 2006-05-30 08:12PM | 0 recs
Re: Strip-mining the grassroots (pt3): The DNC's '
Gee, for a person whose 'friend' worked for them, you seem to know an awful lot about Grassroots Campaigns, what they do and why it's worth defending them anonymously against someone with a multifacted critique.

It's funny -- when former employees question these operations, I've heard a few responses over and over from the people responsible. They say, almost without fail, something along the lines of:

* Do you know how hard it is to get a campaign this size off the ground? Of COURSE things are going to go wrong. We did a good job, don't worry about it!
* Rather than wasting time complaining, you should focus on being part of the solution. Build your own grassroots organization/work for a candidate who inspires you, then we'll talk!
* Maybe this job just wasn't for you. It happens! Why you gotta be so uppity?

There are other tactics they have of dismissing criticism, but these are the most prominent. I just thought I'd lay them all out here -- I won't be spending much time responding to them.

In the meantime, my next post will pick up on several of the points that dansonome brings up below.
by greg bloom 2006-05-31 04:17AM | 0 recs
former GCI employee

I worked for GCI for quite a while.  I'm not quite sure how to write this post without identifying myself, but heck, if you are going to burn bridges then you might as well dance you way across.  Guess I'll try my best not to spill anything confidential.:)

I was an office director for several months, and yes, it was a worse job then pure canvassing or even field managing.  You had longer hours and less pay.  I was also one of the first directors in the field, I went to the very first national training, and have some information from waaay back then that Patton and Greg don't have.  I also was in several central staff roles, both in recruiting other directors and working in the finance office trying to make sure that people actually got paid.  I would first like to talk about what GCI did right, then what went wrong that shouldn't be blamed on GCI, and third what GCI did that was just poorly done.  I'd like to finish with a few words about the model of organizing that GCI is using, and that Greg is rightfully criticizing.

First, I want to re-emphasize, the point is to build a party that will defeat the Republicans.  In the long term, that means getting massive donor lists, and then recontacting those people to volunteer.  Making the initial donor lists pay for themselves is remarkable, but that had more to do with the campaign then with the organization, in my opinion.  GCI did an amazing job in hiring a large number of generally very good people, at both the office director/organizer level, and at the canvasser level.  Putting together 50 fundraising offices in a few months, and then building a multistate field organization from scratch, as GCI did for the Moveon campaign, was no small thing.  

Second, GCI had little or nothing to do with the recontacting.  All those donors in swing states should have been contacted about volunteering within days, and people outside of swing states should have been followed up on.  That is the fault of the DNC, not GCI.  And I really think that with Dean's influence, that could be something that will change this time around.  At least I hope so.  Also, those of us in that initial training were told we were not allowed to contact state or local parties.  We were told that it was "sensitive" and the DNC was going to be telling each state party when we were canvassing that state.  Didn't happen.  Again, DNC at fault, not GCI.

Third, GCI made some large mistakes.  The largest, again, in my opinion, had to do with the rather silly growth rate.  They did not hire enough central staff people to deal with all the issues building an organization from a dozen offices (pre-summer) to 50 offices (in late june) would bring in.  That meant things like getting payroll accurate and on time, and reimbursing people for campaign expenses, fell behind.  It created a large amount of bad will, and meant that people depending on rather small pay checks went disappointed all too often. People almost universally were paid what they were owed eventually, but eventually really isn't good enough when you're talking about that kind of thing.

The lack of forward planning in general was a problem.  The Moveon project was started VERY late in the day.  The DNC canvass wasn't given materials in a reasonable time frame.  The higherups over planned things like the Democratic convention, and underplanned the basics. The post election planning was a mess.  Rather then focusing on retaining people and getting something together before the election, there was a mass exudus of some VERY good people, partially because there weren't jobs available.  Considering part of the point was to build a partison canvassing network, there was no excuse for that.

All that being said, I agree with Greg that there is a problem with the basic model of organizing.  The GCI model (stolen from the PIRGs) is to basically burn your donors and staff.  Donors are recontacted repeatedly with more calls for cash, and little outreach for anything other then money.  Canvassers are forced to focus on the fundraising.  Canvassers are generally college students who could be turned into wonderful, engaged citizens.  Instead, the training provided is focused on making quota.  The entire feel of the operation would change enourmously if each week just ONE of the daily training sessions was focused on politics, whether national or local.

Directors, well, lets just say that the turn over rate should be telling people something.  It's not, that's the way the PIRGs have done it for half a century, no reason to change now.  The assumption is that there will always be more young college grads who will do the work "for the cause" for low pay and little respect.  

The basic problem is that the people who have been doing this for 20 or 30 years all believe that everyone should do it "for the cause."  They think that the "cause" is so important that they don't have to do things like pay a living wage, encourage unions, or heck, even recycle.  They don't buy into the whole "be the change you want to see in the world" thing.  

Anywho, that's more then enough bridge buring for tonight.  Cheers.

by dansomone 2006-05-30 08:53PM | 0 recs
Re: former GCI employee
dansomone, thanks for your post. I'd like to make contact with you personally, if you'd be comfortable with that. You can email me at [greg dot bloom at gmail dot com].
by greg bloom 2006-05-31 11:32AM | 0 recs
Re: former GCI employee

Your comment sums up a lot of how I feel about GCI.  I was not one of the first directors in the field, but I came on in June and worked as an assistant director on the DNC canvass and a field organizer for the MoveOn project.  I remember constantly feeling like this company was a great idea, but that it was executed poorly.

I disagree with you on one thing, though, when you say: They did not hire enough central staff people to deal with all the issues building an organization from a dozen offices (pre-summer) to 50 offices (in late june) would bring in.

I think this misses the point.  There is no number of activists (no matter how smart and hard-working) that is adequate to turn office-work into activism.  GCI's higher ranks were smart, accomplished political people trying to run a business, and this led to both critical mistakes and a fundamental misunderstanding of how to treat employees.  I think the answer to a lot of their problems is probably as simple as hiring a company like Paychex.

Generally, they had a scorched-earth approach to recruiting and treating their employees that I think was grounded in a campaign mentality--and a lack of business mentality.  I probably personally had 50 conversations with individual canvassers about why their paychecks were f'ed up, and I wasn't even the director in charge of such matters.  Yet, when illness caused me to miss lots of time on a campaign in Winter, 2005 (yes, I went back for a while after the election), GCI's central staff were extremely accomodating and caring.  They're all good people, they just need to subcontract the boring business shit to reliable business people.  But their failure to do that in 2004 cost them long-term relationships with literally dozens of the most bad-ass 20somethings in America.  For a company with GCI's long-term mission, that should be horrifying.

If this costs more, they should ask their clients for more bread up-front.  It will be worth it for everyone involved.

by Patton 2006-05-31 12:04PM | 0 recs
Re: former GCI employee

Patton, I know exactly who you are, and remember those conversations.  I even remember exactly what went wrong with your pay checks.

::sigh::

GCI did NOT have a lack of "business" types to deal with the finance end.  They had a brilliant guy (MIT MBA) running the finance operation over the summer, he could have whipped it into shape.  I don't think "outsourcing" would have worked, those kind compassionate people you spoke to were mostly kind and compassionate because we had mostly been directors, and knew what was happening.  Most finance companies would look at the situations and laugh.  I mean, I could tell you some of the !$#@!$ ups from different offices that are soooo pathetic.

The problem in finance was that the higher ups didn't understand that you couldn't run a finance office like a campaign office.  You and Greg both know what cash out was like.  Well, I ran the Boston cashiering operation.  (now I've really identified myself...)  Imagine cashing out 50-70 offices every day.  Got that picture in your mind?  Now imagine that they wouldn't let me hire new staff to do it.  I had to make due with directors from closing offices (NC and the Cape), who were great people but not finance types, and stealing a few canvassers from the boston office.  Brilliant!  :(

The finance staff worked hours just as long as directors/organizers.  But we weren't interviewing, doing phones, canvassing, and a variety of other tasks.  We were sitting in front of computers all day.  Mistakes happened.  On the canvass, if you !@#$#$ up, there is always another door, or another phone call.  In finance, if there is a mistake, it means someone has a bad pay check.  If there had been, say, double the staff, it would have been doable, since people could have had reasonable hours.  Heck, we could have done two shifts, and not even had to buy more computers.  :)

That being said, all those problems were mostly fixed by the end of last summer.  The finance staff has most things under control now.  That, along with Dean in charge at the DNC, makes me much more hopeful for the new canvass.

anywho, greg, if you read this, feel free to email me at dansomone at a yahoo account.  
I'm not going to give you any confidential information, but I'd be happy to talk.

by dansomone 2006-05-31 12:20PM | 0 recs
I hate sales people

I never donate to people coming to my door. I can't stand the bottom feeding layer of business where overhead eats up a huge chunk. Whenever a charity person comes to my door and I ask for a website so I can do some research on them, they have no information.

I donated online to Howard Dean and I am hoping that becomes the wave of the future where the party draws people to the website and then the person coming there feels like donating without feeling pressured.

What Mitch did was pure short term benefit for the party. Other than getting 20 bucks from a repub, he seems happy about the job just because he made some good money. Money he could have made hawking Cutco knives or some other sales stuff. The party is better off using some of that money they pay salespeople to pay volunteers to register potential democrats in swing states.

by Pravin 2006-05-31 11:04AM | 0 recs
Surviving McCain/Feingold

How would you suggest the Democrats become financially viable in the wake of campaign finance reform that crippled our big-donor/institutional fundraising base?  How do you build a from-scratch donor list without "overhead eating up a huge chunk?"  

Should the DNC just accept a permanent disadvantage?  Do you know of a way to use mail/phones/internet for donor prospecting in a way that isn't as expensive (hint: nobody else does)?

by Patton 2006-05-31 11:39AM | 0 recs
Re: Surviving McCain/Feingold
Clearly the Democrats have a problem and need large-scale small donor engagement; a canvass operation is potentially a good solution. The 50 State Strategy also sounds like a good start. But I'm suggesting that this particular strategy (subcontracted work in general, but Grassroots Campaigns' model specifically) is a step in the wrong direction. The Right has built a massive small-donor base and voting presence by engaging with people, by giving them a clear sense (however unfortunate) that it is a party working to serve their interests, not just take their money. The Republicans don't take shortcuts to get to that point -- in fact, they go every extra mile. They are very professional about this game. We deserve better.
by greg bloom 2006-05-31 12:04PM | 0 recs
Re: Surviving McCain/Feingold

You describe the way in which the right built their grassroots ELECTORAL/VOLUNTEER network.  The right built their national DONOR network with expensive, painstaking, and often money-losing direct-mail prospecting (which was always sub-contracted; see Rove, Karl).  The DNC canvass is an alternative to that, not an alternative to grassroots volunteer mobilization (which should also be happening, and not through GCI's model).

by Patton 2006-05-31 12:27PM | 0 recs
Re: Surviving McCain/Feingold

Maybe some neighborhood free food socials. It's not there yet. But the local meets organized through meetups are just in their infancy. Give it time. It's a less pressure, but more effective way to get someone involved. Someone comes to my door, most of the time I am just trying to go away as fast as possible. And I know a lot of people like me who don't have the patience anymore to stand at the door and soak in some generic sales stuff. Set up camp where people are waiting with nothing to do like lines at rap concerts before the concert begins. Music fests have a lot of downtime. Buy booth space and offer free filtered water and some free or some promotions and get people to register. Choose events where the attendees are either democratic leaning or independent. Ramp up registration efforts in liberal leaning events.

I am not saying eliminate the fundraising efforts through door to door sales. Just don't waste too much time on it. If someone is going to door to door, you might as well have that person check with the resident of the house whether they are registered or not and have a form ready if you think they are likely to vote democratic. The sales guy can get a bonus for signing up so many independent voters and a bigger bonus for registered so many democratic voters especially if the voters gel with those who donated.

I am just throwing out ideas. I am sure with some time in this thread, we can come up with better ideas.

by Pravin 2006-05-31 02:53PM | 0 recs
Re: I hate sales people

Actually, we weren't doing door to door fundraising, we were talking to people walking on the streets.  A few people we spoke with sounded like real jerks with attitudes once they realized we wanted money from them; they were the exception, and you sound like you are one of them.

It's great that you're motivated enough to give online, but most of the people we spoke with had never given before, or had given before but weren't planning to give again.

You say that the party would have been better paying volunteers to do voter registration, whatever that means.  But it's not like the money paid to me and the other canvassers came from the party budget.  It was raised by us, and whatever was left after expenses added to the total resources of the party, so that it could be spent on things like voter registration in swing states.  It may have been unfortunate that so many unprofitable offices opened that not much money actually got to the DNC, but that was a poor business decision, not a problem inherent to the fundraising model, and certainly not the fault of the canvassers.  We did our jobs.  

And it appears that the real purpose of the operation was to build the party's fundraising base for the long term, not the short term, because Grassroots and the DNC chose to spend the money expanding their donor list as much as possible, rather than maximizing profit.

by MitchF 2006-05-31 05:42PM | 0 recs
Re: I hate sales people

It should also be noted that the money raised during the DNC canvass gave the DNC a LOT of flexibility they wouldn't have otherwise had.  They got ALL the money from the canvass sent to them daily.  They then paid GCI.  (I don't think I'm giving away any secrets here... checks from donors were made out to the DNC, pay checks to staff were disbursed by GCI)  That swing of money (millions a week) was likely a big help during the summer through November of 04.

I do not know enough about the internal financial workings of GCI to really comment thouroughly, but the cash brought in on the DNC canvass allowed for a lot of ADITs to be brought in to running offices to canvass for a few weeks before the GOTV campaign, that had to have helped the inexperienced people.  Yes, of course the offices like NY, Boston, San Fran, LA all subsidized the lower averaging offices.  But that isn't a bad thing, if you think having canvassers in places like NC and NH is a good thing, and I do.

by dansomone 2006-05-31 06:00PM | 0 recs
Re: I hate sales people

Good info here. I was just giving my perspective. I remember working for a Nader fundraising organization on Long Island in the 80s and felt like none of the salespeople gave a crap about the environment. They were there just to recite some talking points and get as many funds as they could. I have had better success when I was able to steer some of my colleagues to Dean related websites in 2004 primaries and they ended up donating when they I suggested they could donate if they wanted to.

Mitch, as far as people with attitudes, I think your comment showed why people like me have contempt for sales people. If we don't want to spare any time for salespeople, that is our prerogative. You are in no position to feel entitled to my time. You approach me at an event which has some synergy with politics or if I am waiting in line somewhere, then I will be open to some conversation. Otherwise, I would rather not be bothered.

by Pravin 2006-05-31 07:32PM | 0 recs

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