Scorching the Grass Roots?

By Paul Gronke of Portland, Oregon. Paul is a Reed college professor of American politics and social science methodology. More at reed.edu.

I came across this article (subscription may be required) in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and thought is might be of interest to BlueOregon readers.

The article summarizes a new book by Dana R. Fisher, an assistant professor of sociology at Columbia. In Activism Inc.: How the Outsourcing of Grassroots Campaigns is Strangling Progressive Politics , Fisher argues that liberal organizations are losing the mobilization battle and alienating young people becauase because they rely on for-profit political mobilization firms.

Fisher studied 110 workers for "The People's Project" (her poorly anonymized label for The Fund for Public Interest Research.) You know them--they are the "PIRG" folks who come to your door and ask for small donations.

Surprisingly enough, just last night, after I'd read the article, I had a PIRG canvasser come to my door using precisely the pitch that Fisher describes: mention a bill that they are working on (in this case, a bill that would require Oregon to use 25% of its power from renewable sources), and ask for a small donation. The real money, apparently, is in the name and address, not the donation.

What's the problem here? Fisher claims that conservatives rely on more genuinely "rooted" mobilization efforts--such as churches and neighborhood organizations--while liberals outsource their efforts to profit driven organizations that chew through young people and don't create a long term base of volunteers or political supporters.

There's more grist in the article, including responses from Donald Green, a political scientist at Yale who has been a big promoter of face to face canvassing.

Does this impact Oregon? Is the Bus Project subject to this same criticism? Do liberals need to rethink their moblization strategy?

Comments

  • LT (unverified)
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    Surprisingly enough, just last night, after I'd read the article, I had a PIRG canvasser come to my door using precisely the pitch that Fisher describes: mention a bill that they are working on (in this case, a bill that would require Oregon to use 25% of its power from renewable sources), and ask for a small donation. The real money, apparently, is in the name and address, not the donation.

    Paul, I agree with you. An OSPIRG young person came to our door and what he asked for after the prepared speech was "members". He talked about lobbying the legislature. I asked if he was registered to vote and he said yes. I said "who is your state rep.? and his face was blank.

    I gave the young man quite a lecture about the importance of legislative elections--lots of members lobbying a Republican legislature is not going to be nearly as effective as people bending their efforts for the next several weeks to legislative campaigns so they have a sympathetic legislature to lobby.

    The look on his face was "totally new concept" but since he said he was 18 that is entirely possible.

    The problem comes from the definition of "grass roots". I don't think a young person going door to door for an organization fits that definition.

    I think true grass roots is the old fashioned "yes, Frank and I went door to door for that candidate on a very hot summer day, and Jane is going to go door to door for him this weekend". The sort of canvassing which elected many local legislators long before the caucus seemed to be more important than constituents--as sometimes seems true today. My district elected the first Democrat ever elected in the district by those "old fashioned" methods. But that sort of politics is an art, not a science that can be quantified on a spreadsheet or talked about as the R to D ratio being more important than talking to the residents of the district about their concerns. And with many districts having 8000 or more registered outside major parties, is the R to D ratio really valid when so many elections are decided by less than 1000 votes?

    I'm sure there are several "sacred cows" in this comment and people may get angry with me. Tough luck. Just has McCain has strong feelings about the treatment of POWs based on his life experience, I've donated thousands of hours of my spare time over 3 decades to Democratic efforts and feel strongly about this topic. I'm one of those people who has been burned out multiple times but was brought back into political involvement by Howard Dean and by quality local candidates.

    After years of believing in "money is all that matters and only professionals know how the game is played", finally there are Democrats who have come to believe the old fashioned door to door approach is best. There have even been canvassers in our neighborhood for the incumbent member of Congress who is also running TV ads.

    Willie Brown said it best. I once read that some political activists went to the former Speaker of the Calif. House and asked "You have been so successful--please tell us whether mailers or broadcast ads or door to door canvassing or phone banks are the most effective campaign tool" in a way that clearly implied they thought he'd select one from that group and say it was the most effective.

    But his answer was "do it all, and hope it is enough".

    I just got an email from Future Pac asking for money to help fund a commercial for a popular candidate (not Brading, someone else). An appropriate question for this topic might be "why send money to FP instead of sending it directly to the candidate?".

    A cynic might use the phrase "vested interest" in response to that question.

    It is long past time for an internal debate among Democrats about this whole concept. I live in an area which once had mostly Dem. legislators and might again if current candidates do as well as many of their friends suspect they will. But those candidates are doing it the old fashioned way-- that includes choosing their own campaign manager rather than having some organization choose the campaign manager for them; having printing done at the local small business; building a volunteer network through their own efforts and that of county parties in the district.

    I am old enough to recall when some very famous legislators ran for Oregon House the first time. I know they didn't get outside help, just local friends. They won their elections.

    But how could that be if it takes large organizations to run politics? Could it be the old fashioned way (helped along with email and other 21st century technology ) actually works better?

    I love the BUS. It was the first effort (followed by Howard Dean) to value volunteers after years of the "professional" attitude that the only people who know anything are on a political payroll.

    Democrats spent the end of the last century and the beginning of the new one "dissing" anyone who was a volunteer with institutional memory. This was done by cracks like "if you knew anything, you'd be on a political payroll somewhere". Of course people who had lives outside of politics weren't going to get involved in campaigns if that was the attitude.

    In 2002, I first met the Bus folks at a 4th of July small town parade (can't get more grass roots than that). They campaigned for 14 legislative candidates that year. They won 7 and came within 200 votes of winning 2 more. One of the campaigns they campaigned for that lost was one where the Dem. appeared to value mailings over canvassing.

    And all districts are not alike. If one used the same campaign tactics in Portland, Eugene, a rural coastal district and a rural agricultural district the tactics wouldn't work the same in all races.

    No group or indiv. (incl. the Bus and Howard Dean) can be a magic wand to solve all campaign problems.

    But if there is an attitude change where volunteers are valued at least equal to salaried individuals and large groups, that would be a big help. I heard a candidate debate the other night in a coffee house. The Dem. challenger said if elected the district would be his first, second, third priority. I suspect lots of people would prefer that to those who run saying if elected (or worse, not telling voters but then doing it after elected) they will vote the way the party tells them to vote. Parties are not mentioned in the Oregon Constitution (at least that I can find).

    I look forward to reading other comments on this subject. It is being discussed in small groups by Democrats across the state (in person at meetings, at lunch/ dinner, via email and phone) and it is time to discuss it here on Blue Oregon.

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    Paul, very cool to see your name at the top of the post. What you describe seems reasonable, though I'm uninformed on the issue. Though I do wonder--without having read the article--how churches skew the comparison. They are a unique and not reproduceable "rooted group." And I think there's evidence to suggest that their support, as a unified group, may now be in jeopardy.

    You compare the Bus and the PIRGs and ask if the former is subject to the same criticism. I'd say the opposite--in the Bus we have a far more "rooted" grassroots effort than many others in the state. My experience of the Bus is that it works more like a collective than the top-down PIRGs. The people who volunteer for the Bus share a vision and a culture and an enthusiasm that comes from within the group. I think their track record bears this out.

  • Bert Lowry (unverified)
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    Paul asks whether the Bus Project should be subject to the same criticism as the PIRGs. The answer is an unqualified no. Besides being on roughly the same side of the political spectrum, the Bus Project is nothing like OSPIRG.

    It is genuinely volunteer-driven. It is genuinely rooted in Oregon. It is genuinely not for profit.

    The Bus exists and is effective because it is rooted in the community. When I volunteer to go on a Bus trip, I often bring along a friend. Usually, he has such a good time he volunteers for other trips. He may even try to bring along another friend. That's grass roots.

    I see the Bus Project as an antidote to the problems Paul discusses, not a cause.

  • spicey (unverified)
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    LT, thanks for your comments. Made an interesting read, and you sound like you've thought well on this topic. And, it's good to hear about others who've burned out but returned as I have a few times. Again, thanks.

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    Here's my take on effectiveness: More personal = better. Less personal = not as good.

    My take From top to bottom -- in terms of effectiveness: -- candidate to person -- close friend/family to voter -- casualish friend/colleague to voter -- peer to peer (stranger you relate to) -- person to person -- in person (studies show that volunteer phones work better than paid phones. No published studies have pitted paid canvassing vs. volunteer canvassing -- but studies have shown that canvassing beats phones or mail) -- person to person over the phone (volunteer) -- person to person over the phone (paid) -- mail (I put it above t.v., but it's hunch more than data) -- t.v. -- radio -- newspaper ads (distinct from stories) -- (I don't know where to put autodial)

    I definitely don't wanna pit PIRG vs. Bus. True, the key distinction is the volunteer thing (and the cancass is different -- Bus volunteers don't ask for money, although it sounds neat!). The key smilarity is person-to-person public interest work.

    In 2004, Democrats invested in field in a meaningful way for the first time in years. This was ACT -- the multimillion dollar paid field effort. At that point...and to this point still...I thought that the Democratic Party had take the first step -- in favor of paid field in addition to paid media. I still thought (and think) that there exists a second step -- to volounteer-driven, community-based, built-to-last grassroots work.

    Doing just paid stuff is a fool's errand for the public interest. (Although a large measure of paid stuff is really really necessary, and donations are really really important -- but we can't rely JUST on paid stuff). The public interest will never raise money as easily as the private interest. It's a basic collective actuon problem -- it's in no ones' self interest to invest a million dollars to drink unnoticeably cleaner water, but it's in a myriad of economic interests to invest a million dollars for the relaxation of environmental regulations so a million dollars-plus-one.

    No question one of the most important (perhaps the most important) thing the public interest needs is an engaged citizenry -- necessarily including a volunteer-driven, public-interest democracy.

    As for the Bus, to me the future is working with more organizations, more volunteers, with a bigger tent, more community-based, and continuing to work to develop systems (still young) to engage more citizen volunteers, canvassers, community group liaisons, voter registrars, future leaders, and community activists (who don't think politics is a dirty word).

    The PIRGs do great work -- necessary particularly in an era in which people are not doing the steady work of volunteering or joining civic groups (one prominent take take is in "Bowling Alone"). Democracy requires an engaged active citizenry. Hopefully (and I actually predict), over time, there will be more volunteers and a more engaged citizenry, and the paid-field work will be not as absolutely necessary as it has been in the last 25 year "disengaged era."

    I haven't yet read the article mentioned. My guess is that I'd agree with its central premise. Indeed, from what I can tell, it's a significant part of why the humble-but-vigorous Bus exists in the first place.

  • Jeremiah Baumann (unverified)
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    I guess it makes sense for someone from OSPIRG to weigh in on this one! For anyone who doesn't know me, I'm one of OSPIRG's environmental advocates. I work mostly on global warming and renewable energy issues, but also some forest preservation and clean water work.

    I don’t disagree with what a lot of folks are saying here, but thought I’d clarify a few things.

    First, the original post has some mistakes in it. I’m not sure why there's an implication that OSPIRG is not Oregon-based or “rooted” or that we’re outsourcing canvassing to a for-profit operation. OSPIRG couldn’t be more Oregon-based. We were founded at the U of O in the early ‘70s (yet another milestone in Oregon's legacy of progressive leadership...first PIRG in the country!), we have 32,000 Oregon members who have supported us in the last year, and we have a full-time staff based in 4 Oregon cities that does research, media work, grassroots outreach (in many forms canvassing and non-canvassing alike), and lobbying the Legislature and executive agencies.

    I think the perplexing use of the word “outsourcing” could come from the fact that in the ‘80s, we teamed up with other PIRGs to start the Fund for Public Interest Research, to run canvasses. But the Fund is part of the PIRG network, so “outsourcing” is a weird choice of words. We’re just able to get more done because the Fund can train OSPIRG’s canvass directors and make the canvass go as well as it can, so our advocacy staff can supply them with the issue content, keep them connected to the politics & the issue, and then have more time and focus to do the advocacy work on behalf of the members that the Fund is signing up. (I’m not sure why someone would think either OSPIRG or the Fund is for-profit so I’ll leave that one alone.)

    The more important point though is that having a paid canvassing operation has been incredibly important for us at OSPIRG for a bunch of reasons.

    The membership we are able to build is critical. It lets us have a professional advocacy staff (yes, the contributions you give the canvasser directly support my lobbying for the 25% by 2025 renewable energy standard), and we can pay them without being dependent on donations from large out-of-state foundations, but instead with money raised from thousands of Oregonians giving something like 25 bucks on average.

    Not only that, but our membership is a political force to be reckoned with. In the last year, they’ve contributed to more than 5,000 public comments in support of the Clean Cars program, another 1500 or so in favor of cutting mercury from PGE’s coal plant, 1,000+ on protecting Oregon's forests, and that’s only 3 of our issues this year.

    And it’s not just the membership. We gain huge visibility and name recognition from the canvass (and with a name like “OSPIRG” we’ll take any help get build name recognition!) which helps our advocacy staff get in the door with decision-makers. The canvass is also a public education tool. Two minutes at the door may not seem like a lot (though in our 8-second-sound-byte world I’d argue it actually is), but in addition to that, we leave information on issues and we distribute tends of thousands of scorecards telling Oregonians how their members of Congress or the state Legislature have voted in the last year.

    The other key point is that it’s been a huge entry point to the political world for new activists. I can tell you from my personal experience back when I graduated from college in the ’90s, it’s not that easy to get a paying job in the political world without a law degree or previous experience. At OSPIRG we’ve got 22-year-olds who are running grassroots advocacy campaigns – training and overseeing staff, managing a very large door-to-door operation (80 canvassers at the height of the summer), and learning how to lobby and work with the press – and making a living for it. I can’t count the dozens and dozens of people in our network who got their start as canvassers and have gone on to be leaders not just with OSPIRG or other PIRGs, but in many many progressive organizations all over the country.

    The last point I’ll make (sorry this is getting long) is just that paid canvassing has been important for OSPIRG (and because we show up on most people's doorsteps it tends to get the most attention), but it’s not at all the only tactic we rely on and it’s not necessarily a tactic that makes sense for every progressive group. We also do lots of volunteer canvassing (thousands of volunteer door-knocks doing voter reg and GOTV in 2004), phone-banking (some paid, some volunteer), grassroots coalition building, and the whole array of grassroots tactics that it takes to reinvigorate our democracy while making social change happen. So I don’t think it’s an “either paid or volunteer” proposition. The more, the better.

  • M (unverified)
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    Jeremiah:

    With all due respect, your post is not intellectually honest.

    First, let's do away with the notion that the PIRG organization is committed to "grassroots activism." It's not. Almost all PIRG canvassers are paid to collect donations -- what your organization misleadingly calls "memberships." (The only privilege of being a "member" is that you get a phone call every year asking you to increase your financial contribution.) PIRG does not organize activists. (The Bus Project, by contrast, does organize and train activists.) PIRG is a money-making machine.

    Second, PIRG does not train its employees to be activists. PIRG is based on a sink-or-swim model: they hire hundreds of canvassers at the beginning of every summer, the vast majority of whom are fired within their first couple weeks of working. If you can't "make quota," then don't let the door hit you on your way out. (The result, of course, is that attractive, white, upper-middle class canvassers are rewarded for, predictably, being the most successful at door-to-door fundraising from a mostly white, upper-middle class donor-base.) Obviously, the few canvassers who happen to be very good wind up being rewarded and stay within the organization. But most people who have worked for PIRG have bad things to say about their experience. In fact, I have no doubt that PIRG alienates more potential activists than it mobilizes.

    Third, speaking of alienating its own staff: PIRG's labor record is atrocious. OSPIRG, an organization that calls itself "progressive," does not pay its own employees minimum wage! Canvassers work on commission, and, like I said, if you're not bringing in enough money, you're fired. (No, not trained to do better. Fired.) FFPIR (PIRG's fundraising arm) is notorious for union-busting, most recently in its Los Angeles office. Countless labor complaints have been filed against PIRG/FFPIR, but most employees just leave with no recourse when they're not paid. For more info on this subject, go here.

    Fourth, PIRG may not technically be "for profit," but it sure comes close. The organization is primarily committed to its own perpetuation: the more money it raises, the more chapters in opens in new states. Plus, PIRG is practically indistinguishable from "Grassroots Campaigns, Inc."--created by PIRG's executive director and run by PIRG staff--which is indeed a for-profit industry. The most hilarious recent development is that state PIRGS all over the country have split into purportedly separate "environmental" and "consumer advocacy" groups. But the organizational structure and mission haven't really changed at all: the point of the split was to try to raise twice as much money from the same people. ("Now you can contribute to two organizations instead of one.") It may not be technically "for profit," but it sure does seem driven by the bottom line.

    Fifth, Jeremiah claims that membership dollars go to pay for his advocacy work. He's wrong. When you write a check at the door, almost all of your money goes to pay for FFPIR's canvassing structure. Jeremiah's salary is paid by FFPIR's phone bank, which calls to ask members to increase their contributions every year.

    But let's be honest: What do PIRG advocates really do, anyway? As far as I can tell, they just piggy-back on other folks' environmental/consumer-protection initiatives that seem to be gaining traction (Willamette River clean-up, stopping ANWR drilling, etc.), and then use those issues to do more fundraising. Does this mean PIRG doesn't do anything good? I’m not saying that. The causes it supports are laudable. But the organization is not on the cutting edge of the progressive movement either. It is mostly committed to galvanizing its supporters for fundraising purposes.

  • Ted (unverified)
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    There is another way of looking at books like this and that is to see them as disinformation. It's a bit like the Regnery type of publishing where hit books on Anita Hill, Bill Clinton, John Kerry, etc, are released more as propaganda than a real discussion of the issues. It's one key tactic of the right to get people to vote against their best interests, sort of like framing tax cuts for the rich as death taxes for everybody, though the argument is fundamentally disingenous.

    So there's been a lot of recent publications, some ostensibly by progressives, talking about how Democrats keep blowing it and Republicans are so in touch with their base of patriotic, god-fearing Americans. The more plausible explanation is that the fascist element of the Republican party has become extremely adept at manipulating elections and disenfranchising voters, usually along racial or geographic bases. Then add to that voting machines produced by companies led by Bush Pioneer contributors that have been proven to be easily manipulated without any paper trail, and you have the real reason Democrats can't seem to get it together. Dozens of the nation's most famous statisticians have publicly asserted that the shifts between exit polls and election day results, as in Ohio in 2004, are statistically impossible and go against all historic precedent.

    While the bizarre change in the laws of physics, I mean statistics, since Bush became president in 2000 have attracted mainstream media attention in Canada, England, France, etc., the U.S. media moguls have deemed the matter be about as interesting to the American masses as the Downing Street Memo, for example.

    I don't buy the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth argument that John Kerry wasn't nearly as heroic and patriotic on the Mekong Delta as GW Bush was in the Texas Air Nat'l Guard, and I don't buy this spate of books trying to explain why Democrats keep losing elections, despite record setting achievements in getting out the vote in 2004.

  • Ross Williams (unverified)
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    (yet another milestone in Oregon's legacy of progressive leadership...first PIRG in the country!)

    While the first PIRG organizing effort, Minnesota was the first PIRG actually created. I was OSPIRG's Executive Director, as well as the organizing director for Minnesota PIRG and several others.

    The FUND for Public Interest Research was created by PIRG staff in Massachussets and has centralized a lot of things like management of the canvass. That leaves the local organizations free to focus on advocacy work rather than administration. Anyone who had managed an organization with a paid canvass knows that they can eat up the time of the leadership to the point that the canvass takes over the organization.

    The value of a paid canvass is less its immediate fundraising than its ability to identify supporters who contribute botrh financially and with their political support over an extended period of time. They are also great training for activists, as are the PIRG's campus organizations. The PIRG's, including their canvasses, have provided leaders to a wide variety of progressive groups in Oregon including at one time the Executive Directors of CUB, Oregon NARAL, and the Environmental Federation of Oregon. I am sure there are many others I am unaware of or don't remember.

    The basic point that the right has done a better job of community building is, I think, correct. The churches in particular are communities that get together weekly and provide support to one another far beyond their shared political agenda.

    I think Jefferson's point about personal contact is correct. The left puts way too much emphasis on issues and not enough emphasis on relationships. It seems like the bus project is at least a step in the right direction. But the progressive movement needs many more missionary efforts that bring new people in and cement them with solid relationships that extend beyond the work at hand.

    One place to start is to consider every campaign a capacity building effort for the next campaign. That means phone banks are not just about getting the calls made. They are also about building relationships among the callers. Its not that that never happens, but it is rarely conscious with a plan that extends beyond the current campaign.

    Unfortunately, more often campaigns exhaust themselves and don't build on the work they do whether they win or not. People should take a look at some of the stuff Wellstone Action in Minnesota is doing. I am not familiar with the details, but Paul Wellstone was an organizer first and a politician and elected official second. I assume Wellstone Action is similar.

  • M (unverified)
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    BTW, the read more about PIRG's record union-busting, go: here, here, and here.

  • Progvoice (unverified)
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    I would think that the main criteria for classifying and org as "grassroots" is to define where the money comes from.

    OSPIRG seems to get the lions share of it's money from door 2 door canvasing.

    Where does the Bus get theirs?

  • jrw (unverified)
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    I really, really agree with the premises put forth by the article, by LT and by Jefferson Smith. When the PIRG canvassers first hit the road around Portland in the early 80s, I checked them out...and decided that I absolutely had no desire for this sort of organizing, and that it was Not A Good Thing. This was after several years of doing grassroots organizing the Old Fashioned Way, slogging door to door to talk to folks and meet voters.

    Later, when I was working on the Jerry Brown 1992 campaign, I met an organizer who swore up and down that Canvassing Was The Wave of the Future and It was The Only Way To Go. I was still not impressed by it in the long run.

    My take on it is that it promotes the professionalization of politics, and focuses participants on making money off of political action rather than being motivated by ideology or belief. Call me old-fashioned, but I saw it as tearing down effective local community activism instead of building it up.

    1982, 1992, 2006...almost 25 years and I've yet to see any significant improvement from the canvasser concept.

  • Ross Williams (unverified)
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    Oh yeh, canvasses are terrible employers by and large. They have huge turn over and are largely dead end jobs. The pay lousy and rarely provide any benefits. They run on idealistic young people who come to change the world and are often are disillusioned by the crass focus on money and fund raising.

    The PIRGs canvasses are actually better than most in that respect since they move people from canvassers to campus organizers and into advocacy work. You will find a lot of the program staff of local PIRG's started out canvassing. But there are still a lot of people around who found their experience disillusioning.

    But I don't think the choice is either paid canvassers or volunteers. The truth is that the paid canvassers work every day rain or shine in a very focused and systematic way. Volunteer canvasses are a much different animal. And they ought to be focusesd on empowering the canvassers as much as they are getting the work done.

  • Ross Williams (unverified)
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    when I was working on the Jerry Brown 1992 campaign, I met an organizer who swore up and down that Canvassing Was The Wave of the Future and It was The Only Way To Go. I was still not impressed by it in the long run.

    Anyone who talked about canvasses as the "wave of the future" in 1992 was living in the past. OSPIRG would not exist if it were not for the canvass that revived it under the leadership of Tom Novick in the early 80's. The same is true of most of the PIRG's around the country. So by 1992, the canvass was the wave of the past. By 1992 most door to door efforts were break even operations. They had gone through neighborhoods many times and built up support to the point that fundraising through direct mail and phone was far more efficient. What those couldn't do, was the recruiting new members that face to face contact at the door will do. From a fund raising perspective, canvasses had largely become systematic prospecting programs.

    Anyone who thinks in terms of issues will never understand or approve of a paid, professional canvass. They are fundamentally organization building programs that function like political programs. Not only are the petitions second to fundraising, but both the politics and fundraising are second to establishing a relationship between the organization and the people at the door. Its that relationship that has value both financially and politically.

  • Ross Williams (unverified)
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    BTW, to be clear. I am not just talking about PIRG canvasses. There are a number of organizations that have been built around the canvass and the successful ones have similar histories and similar problems. The FUND has its own problems, but the canvass is not very different from every other canvass operation.

  • Michael Connery (unverified)
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    Hi everyone,

    Great discussion and thanks to Greg Bloom for pointing me here.

    Just wanted to let everyone know that I did a podcast interview with Dana Fisher last week. The podcast is now up at Future Majority.

    Additionally, Dr. Fisher will be stopping by Future Majority tonight to respond to comments and questions about the book. If you have anything you would like to know directly from the author, please stop by this afternoon and leave a comment.

    Strategy, Infrastructure, and News for the Millenial Generation.

  • Greg Bloom (unverified)
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    Seems like I might be a little late to this discussion. I've been blogging about Grassroots Campaigns, Inc at MyDD and DailyKos all summer. This has been a great back-and-forth, but one thing that is missing from the discussion is a notion of what, exactly, can be done about the system--if Fisher's argument that the PIRG/Fund is almost like a monopoly in the activist industry, and thousands of people pass through the system a year, most of them having bad experiences, then declaring this to be a "broken model" is just the first step. We also need to think about ways to try to make it get better, since it isn't going away any time soon.

    Since PIRG/Fund is quite resistant to internal pressure for change, this means that pressure must be brought to the clients who outsource to them, to demand a better product. You can see here one group of Grassroots Campaigns Inc veterans who have organized to try to get MoveOn to hold its (PIRG/Fund-based) field operation accountable. Please contact [email protected] if you or someone you know would like to be involved in this effort.

  • Jefferson Smith (unverified)
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    Sheesh,

    It sorta seems like we're letting perfect be the enemy of the good. Does anyone really think the public interest movement would be stronger without the PIRGs? I must admit, to me that seems a bit ridiculous.

    Many of the best political organizers now got their start in the PIRGs. The PIRGs have also been responsible for a goodly share of the relatively few positive ballot initiatives -- such as renewable energy portfolios -- in the country over the last several years. They have registered thousands upon thousands of voters, and engaged thousands upon thousands of people. There was a silly thread several weeks ago comparing the Bus to Labor. I said that was like comparing an acorn to a forest. This is a bit similar. The PIRGs have moved a lot of public interest units when the rest of their generation were calculating their stock options.

    Starting out as a paid canvasser is not a great job in terms of pay and benefits. The public interest in general isn't really a place for great jobs. But for great callings. Indeed, when in the earlier days of the Bus (and after I stopped lawyering), I had to scrounge together 80 cents so I could get a corn dog at 7-11 with lots of chili and cheese. But I wouldn't trade a day. (Well...maybe that corn dog day...nothing against corn dogs). And as we do our work, we can remember the monks and school teachers and Teach for America folks and PeaceCorps folks and AmeriCorps folks who all sacrifice in varying and different ways for objectives that are hard to monetize -- as long as they come in with eyes wide open and understanding the personal sacrifice that hundreds of people make for for the cause.

    Another thing: raising money door-to-door means that the PIRGs have a much larger base of financial support -- and are accountable to a broader constituency. One of the best solutions to the campaign finance problem is building a larger base of public interest investors. No one does that as consistently and broadly as the PIRGs.

    We do our work differently, and there are reasons for that. I do believe that we need systems of fundraising and staffing and organization building that encourage greater volunteerism in this country. But that's not INSTEAD of steady, occasionally revenue generating, paid political work -- grassroots or otherwise. We don't need grassroots INSTEAD of media. To make the case for the public interest, we need both and more.

    Finally, none of the work done anywhere is perfect. Let's not let a myhical perfect be the enemy of the good. And the PIRGs have done some tremendous good. Let's focus our attention on the challenges that really face us -- greed, apathy, and a philosophy that it is fruitful to reward the powerful at the expense of the powerless -- and on a principle that binds us -- that we are stronger together than we are apart -- individually, economically, environmentally, and spiritually...and even organizationally.

    Wow, that was a lotta pixels spilled. As my friend James Mattiace would say,

    Love, peace and elbow grease.

  • RuthAlice Anderson (unverified)
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    Canvassing can be as good an organizing tool as the organization's campaign plans make it. At Oregon Action, we use the canvass as an integral part of our organizing. Our canvassers sit down with folks while they write letters and post cards. They collect stories and identify folks who are interested in more active involvement. These members do hear from us with invitations to our annual meeting, candidate forums and other community events.

    What folks here are forgetting is that for many people, their contribution at the door or over the phone is all they can or will do other than voting. People live busy lives and for many this is the only thing they can do. The vast majority of our members don't belong to any other progressive organization in Oregon -- if they had not been activated by contact with a canvasser, they would not be active. The idea that if folks did not join an organization through a canvass, they would then become active in a campaign or donate to a candidate is a non-starter. The canvass is critical in reaching people who usually tune politics out.

    As to the employment situation of canvassers, I do wish the PIRG's walked their talk and paid their canvassers better. Oregon Action's canvassers earn minimum wage during training. Once they make staff, the canvass base pay is a living wage. How could we advocate for a living wage if we did not pay it ourselves?

    Canvassers are constantly trained -- and many move on to other things. The President of USAction and Executive Director of Illinois Citizen Action started as a canvasser. Minnesota's political podcaster Peter Idusoge started as a canvasser. NWFCO's ED started as a canvasser. Rep Mike Schaufler is a former canvasser. As am I. Everywhere you look, in the leadership and staff of great organizations, you will find former canvassers.

  • Greg Bloom (unverified)
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    Jefferson, all due respect, you're glazing over the points with the "perfect as enemy of the good" stance. The question isn't quite "would the progressive movement be better without the PIRGs?" -- at least, that's not my question, since it's not quite helpful to pretend like the PIRGs will just go away. The question that Fisher asks in her book is: is PIRG/Fund actually failing too many potential leaders, as opposed to the small number who make it through? Could it be better, even much better? That's a fair question to ask, especially for people who are trying to think about how to restart the progressive movement from near-total collapse.

    Less pointedly, I still haven't seen evidence of all the "great work" that you allude to -- though I've heard plenty of anecdotal stories from all sorts of sources (lobbyists, renewable energy industry people, environmental science professors, etc) who say they simply don't see the vaunted PIRG presence. I've mostly stuck on the means side of the equation, as opposed to the ends, but I think that if you're going to try to wave off the discussion of means by trumpeting the supposed ends, you should be ready to back it up. Fisher, for her part, quotes Fund clients who note that the vaunted "public interest investors" from the PIRG canvass have attrition rates that are as high as those of the canvassers themselves. As M said upthread:

    What do PIRG advocates really do, anyway? As far as I can tell, they just piggy-back on other folks' environmental/consumer-protection initiatives that seem to be gaining traction (Willamette River clean-up, stopping ANWR drilling, etc.), and then use those issues to do more fundraising. Does this mean PIRG doesn't do anything good? I’m not saying that. The causes it supports are laudable. But the organization is not on the cutting edge of the progressive movement either. It is mostly committed to galvanizing its supporters for fundraising purposes.

    Remember, no one is saying that canvassing is inherently bad. This is a discussion about a specfic canvass model that hasn't changed at all in more than two decades.

  • Ben (unverified)
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    Since PIRG/Fund is quite resistant to internal pressure for change, this means that pressure must be brought to the clients who outsource to them, to demand a better product. You can see here one group of Grassroots Campaigns Inc veterans who have organized to try to get MoveOn to hold its (PIRG/Fund-based) field operation accountable. Please contact [email protected] if you or someone you know would like to be involved in this effort.

    (Full disclosure: I am an employee of Grassroots Voter Outreach, the sister non-profit of Grassroots Campaigns. I started my career in social change work as a canvasser on the New Voters Project in 2004.)

    Greg, rather than trying to tear down the efforts of other people, wouldn't the time and energy of these disillusioned veterans be better spent building something better? It's true, the PIRG canvass model doesn't work for everyone, but it does work for those who are doing it. Rather than telling them that what they are doing is wrong, why not make something that is right for you? If there is a better way to run a grassroots effort, go ahead and build it. The Fund is not a monopoly in any meaningful sense, because there are no real barriers to entry in the field (as evidenced by the Gifford Pinchot Task Force and Bark, to name just a couple of local canvass start ups) so go ahead and jump in.

    Or better yet, come up with something new! Fighting for the public interest is not a zero-sum game -- the success of the PIRGs does not imply or cause the failure of any other effort. It just means more citizens involved and more people working for the public interest. I'd love to see thousands more groups start up all accross the country, trying out different models, seeing what works, and winning campaigns along the way. That's why the Bus is so exciting to me: it's a completely new model (or at least a wonderfully inventive amalgamation of existing models) which is effecting serious political and social change in Oregon. That's thrilling as hell.

  • M (unverified)
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    Jefferson,

    This line about "letting perfect be the enemy of the good" is just a way of quieting all criticism of any organization that "does good."

    The point is: We can do better. And we should. And the best way of improving the progressive movement is by identifying where, exactly, we're going wrong.

    Finally, I have serious doubts about whether an organization that turns potential activists away from politics, busts-up labor organizers within their ranks, and fails to pay their own employees minimum wage can actually be said to be "doing good." (Sure, Walmart also "does good" in many important respects -- employing many people in low-income, rural communities, for example. That doesn't excuse their poor labor practices.)

    This doubt, however, is incidental to the more important point above: We can, and should, do better.

  • Ross Williams (unverified)
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    though I've heard plenty of anecdotal stories from all sorts of sources (lobbyists, renewable energy industry people, environmental science professors, etc) who say they simply don't see the vaunted PIRG presence.

    I think you will find those same folks saying the same things about any grassroots group. The more influencial the group, the louder they will say it.

    Could it be better, even much better? That's a fair question to ask, especially for people who are trying to think about how to restart the progressive movement from near-total collapse.

    Yes it is a fair question to ask. Esepcially if they are preparing to launch a new effort that corrects some of what they see as the failings of the PIRG movement. Many people who have left the PIRG's angry have done just that. They have created new organizations or applied what they learned working with the PIRG's in other progressive movements.

    But there are people who aren't really asking that question. They aren't trying to figure out how to improve on the PIRG model or even improve the PIRG's themselves. They are angry and are interested in paybacks. That does not serve the progressive movement.

    Those angry folks will always find an eager audience for the PIRG's "failures" among smaller groups who have their issues co-opted by a larger organization with more resources. Its that environmental science professor who spends ten years of his life pushing an issue, only to find the PIRG lobbyist in the picture when the bill is signed. They, not entirely unfairly, take them to be interlopers. But they ignore the reality that without the PIRG's muscle they would still likely still be talking to legislators. That is not a problem for those of us who care about the issue, not who gets the credit.

  • Greg Bloom (unverified)
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    Sorry, Ben, but I don't buy that argument. For one, there are other models of positive, progressive activism out there--even ones that perform tasks similar to the PIRG/Fund. I could name them for you, and I'm even learning more day by day about how and why they are better.

    But you know what they don't do? They don't provide the sheer number of boots on the ground that PIRG/Fund/GCI does. They don't build out as furiously, with as much disregard for the effect therein. They aren't as "cost-effective," i.e. cheap, because they do a number of things that the PIRG/Fund/GCI model fails to do, including respecting their employees and respecting the communities in which they organize.

    This is the first reason that WalMart is an apt comparison. WalMart is so big because it's so big because it has been willing to do anything to keep getting big. And as a result, WalMart has changed the entire economy. That's the second reason. If you go onto Craigslist in the non-profit section, you see half a dozen PIRG/Fund/GCI ads for each ad from another smaller more progressive organization. Fund has something like a quarter of the major progressive organizations on its client list; GCI has the two largest partisan entities on the Left. So, yeah -- it's important to have at it if it's this big.

    Ben, do you think it's fine to run a "long-term political organizing" campaign that suffers 95% attrition every few months? Do you think that the mere fact that such a campaign keeps running in the long-term necessarily means that it's working?

    [On preview, Ross: I laid out a proposal for a better DNC canvass campaign here. ChangeGCI laid out a set of recommendations that can rescue GCI's failing MoveOn campaign here. The primary response from PIRGers is "you're not contributing any solutions," but that's just not true.]

  • LT (unverified)
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    The question that Fisher asks in her book is: is PIRG/Fund actually failing too many potential leaders, as opposed to the small number who make it through?

    Hey folks, some of this discussion sounds like urban areas (esp. Portland and Eugene) are the same as rural areas or places like Marion County which are both urban, suburban, rural.

    I live on a heavily traveled street in Salem not many blocks from the city limits. We see PIRG volunteers once in a great while. I have friends who live in Monmouth, Independence, Woodburn, Prineville, coastal communities.

    What about the potential leaders in those areas?

    Jefferson is right that we are stronger together than apart. He is also right when he says "We do our work differently, and there are reasons for that. I do believe that we need systems of fundraising and staffing and organization building that encourage greater volunteerism in this country. But that's not INSTEAD of steady, occasionally revenue generating, paid political work -- grassroots or otherwise. We don't need grassroots INSTEAD of media. To make the case for the public interest, we need both and more. "

    But I would maintain Democrats are stronger when those living outside major urban areas don't feel ignored.

    So much of the conversation here has been about the BUS and PIRGS and Oregon Action and Grassroots Voter Outreach.

    What are the chances that someone in a rural area (even as close to a city as Monmouth, Independence, Dallas are to Salem, Prineville is to Bend, Jacksonville is to Medford) have seen anyone from even one of those groups? My guess is no one in those communities has seen people from 2 of those groups.

    Yes people have busy lives, whether they live in a city or in a more rural area. But I met someone at the latest Dem. State Central Comm. meeting who had previously run for state legislature from an area E. of the Cascades. When asked how much help came from any Democratic group, the response was "zero, zip, nada".

    Time to make a decision. Either "grass roots" is only about places in the reach of PIRG, BUS, etc. or it means all of Oregon. A friend of mine sent me an email recently--upset that in Douglas County there are growing numbers of Republicans and NAV. Here is one paragraph from that email:

    We can argue until the cows come home about party philosophy and our direction, but the fact is (at least according to the numbers) the party is not reaching the rank-and-file, and the result (again, according to the numbers) is that the fastest growing party is “Non-Affiliated” while the fastest shrinking party is “Democrat.”

    This is from someone who doesn't live in Portland, who isn't happy with current organizational efforts incl. the BUS.

    Does that concern matter? Or is it all about whether Portland organizing is going well?

    Looking at one of today's topics, how many of the groups discussed here has been to Yamhill County to volunteer for Sal? (Or for that matter to volunteer for Chuck Lee running in Yamhill and Marion counties.) Or is this just a discussion about a book and not about the real life campaigns going into their last weeks?

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)
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    All things considered, progressive/liberal grassroots organizing is healthier now than it has been in decades. Th enemy of grassroots politics is big money politics that puts power in the hands of consultants who decide how to spend big bucks on media buys, and who see grassroots volunteers as unreliable and uncontrollable amateurs.

    The internet has helped, both by educating activists and by allowing organization by groups like MoveOn, Democrats.com, BusProject and others. Some support candidates, some work on issues. All are important.

    Fundamentalists organize through their churches. So be it. Are we expected to order libs/progs to churches, temples and mosques in order to organize them? We need to go where our folks are. I think we are.

  • LukeW (unverified)
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    As an outside observer, I really admire the Bus's volunteer approach and think it's a step in the right direction. I can abide the PIRG model. And I applaud Mr. Smith's enduring positivity and diplomacy.

  • Ross Williams (unverified)
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    Greg -

    Your links aren't proposals, they are mostly kibbitzing about the Fund. They don't seem to reflect an understanding of how canvasses work or, more importantly, how they might fail. That is not inconsequential since there are lots of people and organizations out there who have failed in the canvassing business.

    While my direct experience with canvasses is pretty limited, I was executive director of a non-PIRG organization for three years that depended on a non-Fund canvass as its primary outreach and fundraising mechanism. And I observed the failure of the FUND in Florida when it first attempted to establish a canvass there.

    Just to be clear. I did not start my activism in the PIRG's and I worked for the PIRG's before the FUND for Public Interest existed and they were still almost entirely campus based student organizations. My experiences with the FUND were not entirely, or even mostly, positive. But I saw them consciously training literally hundreds of activists and giving them the real political skills and discipline required to be effective. There are plenty of valid criticisms to be made of the FUND and PIRG's, as there are for all human institutions. But it serves little purpose to publically chastise progressive organizations if your goal is to build the movement. Especially one that has an outstanding track record of recruiting and training skilled activists who are providing leadership to a lot of other progressive movements.

    I have also worked in a very wide variety of other progressive organizations and a variety of organizing models. I am not a true-believer in the Fund's model. But it has shown itself over a couple decades to be effective. You can learn things from its flaws but you can also learn a lot from what makes it effective. And frankly, without understanding its success, you can't really understand its flaws either.

    I think some of the criticism comes from people who simply failed at the PIRG model. And rather than acknowledge their failure, they blame the system that demanded more than they could provide.

    Ben, do you think it's fine to run a "long-term political organizing" campaign that suffers 95% attrition every few months?

    I have actually canvassed only on a few occasions to show my solidarity with the canvassers. I was a terrible canavasser - I could never make quota. That applies to most people. Any canvass is going to have high turn over because the economics of a canvass require the quota to be quite high and making quota is going to be hard. Moreover canvassing is largely a dead-end job that stops being an interesting challenge for a lot of people pretty quickly. The simple truth is that turnover is just a part of the process.

    Most people want to move on to something else and most canvasses promise other opportunities for advancement in the organization. What is unique about the Fund is that it has actually fulfilled that promise better than most by systematically providing non-canvass opportunities for people to continue to develop their skills. Those often involve jobs as campus organizers for the people who look like they have that ability. And they provide opportunities for further advancement as advocates, organizers and to deveop as leaders.

    Developing leaders is, afterall, one thing that will build the progressive movement. Tearing them down isn't.

  • Greg Bloom (unverified)
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    I'm not going to pretend for a moment that I have enough experience in canvassing to know how to run one -- however, everything in these posts came from extended conversations about the canvass with people who had many years worth of experience more than I. Who, yes, "understand its successes" as well as the ways that this model is failing. These people made all of these suggestions on the inside, and they were always outright dismissed. So it seems to me that going public with the flaws serves a lot of purpose, since the internal atmosphere is staunchly resistant to change.

    I mean, I could quibble about all this at length (for instance: no one is disputing that a lot of people working in the progressive industry have background in the PIRGs, but that doesn't address our points; my question to Ben about 95% attrition was specific to GCI's MoveOn field organizing operation, not the canvass; and almost all of my work has been specific to GCI, except this report on the union-busting incident in LA). But my main question is: if you know that the PIRG/Fund model has its problems, what's the point of publicly chastising someone who is calling for it to be better?

  • Liese Schneider (unverified)
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    While I respect your resume and your history within the progressive left, Ross, I find fault with this claim:

    I think some of the criticism comes from people who simply failed at the PIRG model. And rather than acknowledge their failure, they blame the system that demanded more than they could provide.

    What exactly is the definition of failure here? I worked for 8 years within this PIRG model; I worked as a chapter student (4 years), a student board chair (1 year), a campus organizer (3 years) , a canvass director (8 summers) and a founding member of GCI (the Fund model) and I lost every campaign I worked on. I acknowledge that failure - but it wasn't a failure based on my inability to provide for the organization. I gave it my all - as, in my experience, most everyone who passes through the PIRG model. But, my colleagues don't see it that way. There is an attitude within these organizations that success means being around for another year (we called it "organization building") - not making serious headway on program.

    Simply put - the top brass in these organizations are not learning from their mistakes, listening to their staff or winning actual victories. The model has failed us.

    We need this organization. The left needs this organization. But we need it to perform much much better. Its present and future employees need a better employer and its present and future clients need a better model. Greg and I have outlined ways to make it better - we will continue to do so.

    (ps: I developed many leaders in my time, and I'm proud of each and every one of them. I would also give 'em all back for one real win)

  • Ross Williams (unverified)
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    if you know that the PIRG/Fund model has its problems, what's the point of publicly chastising someone who is calling for it to be better?

    There is nothing wrong with calling for it to do better.

    These people made all of these suggestions on the inside, and they were always outright dismissed. So it seems to me that going public with the flaws serves a lot of purpose, since the internal atmosphere is staunchly resistant to change.

    Frankly the suggestions I have seen seem naive and reflect a lack of experience or understanding of a 30 year history with progressive organizations using professional door-to-door canvassing.

    The fact is that canvassing is hard work and not very intellectually stimulating after the first few weeks. It makes a great summer job for college students because about the time they get bored, its time to head back to school anyway. And they have learned a tremendous amount about how people think about political issues and how to move people to action (even if the action is only making a donation).

    The descriptions I have read of the GCI are essentially similar to the canvass. A highly structured process with numeric quotas for very specific results that most people won't be able to reach. They are really looking for the people who can reach those goals because they are the ones that will continue with the organization.

    You describe your experience as "soul-crushing". Failure can be that way sometimes, especially when you are doing something you are deeply committed to. There are going to be defeats, both personal and organizational. But politics, especially progressive politics, requires one to raise above those failures to continue the fight. The folks that can't do that aren't going to last very long as positive agents of change.

  • Bert Lowry (unverified)
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    I agree with most of LTs post about bridging the urban/rural divide. And I want to honestly answer his question:

    What are the chances that someone in a rural area (even as close to a city as Monmouth, Independence, Dallas are to Salem, Prineville is to Bend, Jacksonville is to Medford) have seen anyone from even one of those groups [Bus Project, PIRGS and Oregon Action and Grassroots Voter Outreach]?

    I can't speak for any of the groups but the Bus. I can tell you the Bus works almost exclusively in smaller towns and suburbs. I even canvassed Prineville (my home town) with the Bus.

  • (Show?)

    I've posted the full article here: http://www.reed.edu/~gronkep/scorching.html

  • Greg Bloom (unverified)
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    Let's give some context to that description of my own experience: I was on GCI's MoveOn 2004 GOTV campaign. Right as we headed into it, the campaign was set behind on several counts--but rather than adapting to the circumstances, GCI/Fund management ordered us to stop working with our volunteers because GCI still wanted to meet its contracted recruitment goals. I've already gone into this in greater detail so I won't take the time to walk through it here--but the bottom line was that the "soul crushing" had nothing to do with it being "hard work." It was that the work wasn't working, and people who tried to make it work were intimidated, degraded, or simply fired.

    And Ross, I didn't fail. I was one of two people (out of 14!) in my office to meet my goals during that campaign. I'd never organized before in my life, but the model worked for me -- in its fundamentals. In order to implement the model right, I had to disobey my superiors, kick their insane recruitment obsession, and almost get myself fired. You'll hear the same thing if you ask the managers of the only offices that actually performed well and didn't lose a quarter to a half of their staff. The model was being mis-implemented, and continues to be misimplemented, and I think a strong argument can be made that the misimplementation goes beyond GCI and into the Fund itself, which is why it's so important to brush past all these arguments ("It's hard work! Don't be naive!") and bring this discussion out into the open. Good progressive politics requires accountability too, right?

  • (Show?)

    I posted the full article above, which may help some learn more about the book.

    The main thrust of the book is that the paid canvassing model is, in the long run, damaging, because it burns out young activists in paid canvassing roles (thus losing potential future leaders).

    Second, the author claims that "rooted" activism (whether this be a church, a community group, a labor union) helps build a more permanent and more effective political organization.

    Jefferson, I don't think you'd disagree with either of these sentiments. This is not making the best the enemy of the good, just asking whether progressives are ignoring the hard work of building community based organizations because we have this influx of big money and ready armies of young activists.

    So in response to Ross, the author (rightly or wrongly) claims precisely the opposite of what you say, that the PIRG/Fund is NOT training young activists, is NOT teaching political skills, but is simply running young people through a canvassing sweat shop.

  • Ross Williams (unverified)
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    Good progressive politics requires accountability too, right?

    Accountability to who and for what? In the article sited above even Dana Fisher acknowledges that the project in 2004 may have been the difference between Kerry and Dukakis in 1988. Apparently results are not the measure of success. What is?

    I don't disagree at all that a canvass does not build relationships between people. And I said earlier, that it is the failure of progressives to focus on relationships and community building that have been our downfall.

    So I think an organizing models that did that successfully would be great. In fact there is such a model at the Industrial Areas Foundation (or whatever its called now) and the Metropolitan Alliance for the Common Good (formerly Portland Organizing Project) uses it. As do a variety of other organizations. But it is a retail model, that has not ever translated to large scale organizing.

    And, as someone who has spent a fair amount of time trying to figure out how to take people who donated to a canvass and turn them into active members, I am painfully aware of the difficulty of using a canvass as a starting point. People often give money as a way of avoiding more active engagement.

    So in response to Ross, the author (rightly or wrongly) claims precisely the opposite of what you say, that the PIRG/Fund is NOT training young activists, is NOT teaching political skills,

    And on that she is obviously wrong. There are former PIRG staff who started as canvassers and are now providing leadership to organizations all over the country. She might as well argue that Paul Wellstone never inspired his students to be organizers and activists.

    And, according to the article, she started with her beliefs and confirmed them based on a research that followed a group of young people for one summer. She has no idea what those folks thought, upon reflection, six months later or what they will choose to do with their lives in the future. Or how they will use what they learned.

    And frankly, if she really is claiming that canvassers don't learn political skills or gain useful experience from their work, I can understand why she would come to the conclusions she does. But I also would not pay a whole lot of attention to them. They are divorced from the real world of making change. She is the classic academic more interested in new and interesting ideas than in practical results in the real world.

    Second, the author claims that "rooted" activism (whether this be a church, a community group, a labor union) helps build a more permanent and more effective political organization.

    Try to find someone who disagrees with this. I don't think you will be able to. As Heather Boothe points out, this is not an either or question. That is Jefferson's position. I think it is the position of virtually anyone who is really working at making change.

    I was one of two people (out of 14!) in my office to meet my goals during that campaign.

    I have never agreed with the "set goals impossibly high and some people will meet them and the others will do more than they would if you set them lower" approach. But it is pretty common and it seems to work with some people.

  • (Show?)

    Yes!

    We knock on doors and bother people as they're watching FOX news. Our standard grassroots strategy of doorbelling and phone banking is weak. We may win an election but we lose the debate.

  • (Show?)

    It's exciting to see how much attention is being paid to canvassing during this election. It seems clear that, in general, person-to-person contact is a more effective campaign tool than any other, whether that contact is paid or unpaid, experienced or not.

    Post-election analysis of my primary campaign showed that voters we canvassed were 10-20% more likely to vote than others with the same voting history.

    I agree with others here, however, that the spirit of the canvass really makes a difference. Some thoughts from my own canvassing experience (admittedly, drawn mostly from a Democratic primary, but perhaps still relevant to the more important work ahead):

    Recently, I have met several people who were canvassed by one of my middle school students. They report that the kids were awkward and not terribly well informed (often the way I have felt as a volunteer canvasser), but they were impressed that 13-year-olds would give up time on a Saturday to talk with strangers about their teacher running for office. It felt “real.” It influenced them.

    The purpose of the canvass matters. Are we just trying to pitch a candidate? Or are we serious about building a relationship with the voter? Start by listening at the doorstep, follow up by phone or e-mail, keep in touch as the election draws near, and ask them to stay involved after the election. We shouldn't be hoping that a voter will agree with the candidate all or even most of the time; by listening and responding genuinely to voters, campaigns can build a much more durable variety of trust than that which arises from momentary agreement on issues.

    Like middle schoolers, voters have very keen radars for "adult phony." For months, my volunteers and I walked with literature that was designed by my sister, written by me, and printed black and white on 8.5 by 11. People liked to hear that story. When I hired someone to revamp the design, it was a friend with serious graphics arts and writing skills, not a seasoned campaign professional.

    Asking for a vote is corny. Asking for volunteer help isn’t. As the election drew close, 25 of my best friends personally contacted 250 voters who I knew were supporting me. We didn’t just remind those voters to turn in their ballots, we asked them to walk a small packet of campaign literature around to their friends and neighbors in the district. Not only did this help spread the word, it gave 250 people – even those who declined to do the work – a larger stake in the race.

    LT is right to point out that every campaign is different. What worked in a Portland primary may be very different from what will work in a swing district on the coast. I hope that the conversation may continue to be fruitful.

  • Dan (unverified)
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    Ross, it's great to hear from someone who seems to want to engage in this discussion. Please don't get discouraged! I worked for GCI for almost two years, as a canvass directer and central staff person.

    I have two questions:

    1) Has anyone ever calculated how many people the Fund model drives out of the system? How many people get crushed on their first day out, and decide that activism just isn't for them? How many potential future town committee chairs Democrats lose because they canvassed for a summer for a PIRG office, and will never go door to door again. How many people did GCI drive out by calling for Busby in CA when there were local races to focus on? Negative externialities are annoying, but as far as I can tell, no defender of the PIRG model has any data showing that they aren't burning the grassroots. And anecdotally, at least, it appears they are.

    2) The PIRG model of forcing people to work for sub-minimum wage to prove that they can canvass before moving them "up" keeps out people who can't afford to spend a summer being supported by their parents. How does the PIRG model address the lack of class/race diversity in its ranks?

  • Ross Williams (unverified)
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    How many people get crushed on their first day out, and decide that activism just isn't for them?

    I doubt anyone who is "crushed" by spending a day canvassing is going to be able to handle a lot more meaningful frustrations of being an activist.

    anecdotally, at least, it appears they are.

    That depends on what anecdotes you listen to.

    will never go door to door again.

    I have never talked to a canvasser who spent a whole summer canvassing who was afraid to go door to door about something they cared about. I know a lot of people who have canavassed a lot who try to find other ways to help because they no longer enjoy it. It has nothing to do with who they canvassed for or how much they got paid.

    How does the PIRG model address the lack of class/race diversity in its ranks?

    I doubt it does. But how do you address the lack of class/race diversity in the ranks of donors or volunteers?

    SANE - the peace group - tried to address this issue with their canvass. The fact is that in many communities it is difficult for African-american men to make quota. SANE addressed this by trying to create different quotas. The canvass eventually was dropped as at tool because they couldn't make it work. SANE became SANE/Freeze and there is probably a descendent group still around. Think about how different the leadup to the Iraq war might have been had there been professional peace canvasses operating across the United States mobilizing opposition to that misadventure.

    The PIRG model of forcing people to work for sub-minimum wage

    I believe that is a misrepresentation of the model. The fact is that canvassers are subject to minimum wage laws. Successful canvassers make well over the minimum. There is no doubt that some of the stress of canvassing comes from the connection between the money someone raises and the amount they get paid.

    keeps out people who can't afford to spend a summer being supported by their parents.

    How is this different than relying on volunteers, who work for free? The fact is that most canvasses have far more economic diversity than groups that rely on full time volunteers. They also reach far more people than most volunteer efforts will be able to reach. And, because they have measures of success for their staff that most volunteer groups can't/don't impose, they produce better results at the door.

    That is not an argument against volunteer efforts. But neither are volunteer efforts an alternative to paying people. We need to do better at both. But even more importantly, we need to start putting more energy into community building and relationship development and less into defining "issues".

    One of the things that is interesting about "rural" organizing is that people often will vote for someone from their area over someone who lives on the other end of the district. They may not even know the person. But they believe that someone who is a a member of their community will better represent them and their friends than someone who is not part of their community. Issues have nothing to do with it.

  • LT (unverified)
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    Wisdom from Ross:

    One of the things that is interesting about "rural" organizing is that people often will vote for someone from their area over someone who lives on the other end of the district. They may not even know the person. But they believe that someone who is a a member of their community will better represent them and their friends than someone who is not part of their community. Issues have nothing to do with it.

    It seems to me that the Rural Organizing Project has been successful in some areas (mobilized rural activists, defeated an awful Columbia County ballot measure a few years ago as I recall).

    Also, I recall talking to a friend who lived in a rural area and trying to interest her in a young man running for state rep. in her district. She said "my friends and I ignore ads, and just discuss among ourselves who we will vote for". Voters have the right to that form of political decision making, whether the folks from organized political groups like it or not.

    I submit that in such a situation, whether the canvassers are paid, make quota, or all the other things discussed above aren't really relevant to winning districts in rural areas.

    How many SANE or PIRG or GCI or any other organized urban group activists are going to be sent out to a district where many residents live on an acre or more?

    Ben Cannon had it right, " What worked in a Portland primary may be very different from what will work in a swing district on the coast. I hope that the conversation may continue to be fruitful."

    The way to majority is in winning districts that don't fit into an urban model. But that means lots of face to face contact in a variety of ways (canvass, social events incl. county fair, BBQ, etc.). It helps if the candidate already has local connection (local government, part of a local institution --small business, school, etc--or maybe a well known farmer, doctor, lawyer, dentist, etc).

  • Ross Williams (unverified)
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    How many SANE or PIRG or GCI or any other organized urban group activists are going to be sent out to a district where many residents live on an acre or more?

    I believe MassPIRG tried a bike canvass on Cape Cod at one time. It was prime canvass turf with a lot of wealthy progressives who lived in beach towns and rural country homes.

    But your basic point is correct. In fact, I am not sure that getting urban folks to go door-to-door in rural communities is going to be all that effective and may be counterproductive. Thinking about how the urban folks can help/inspire more activism from local residents is going to be more effective. A group of urban volunteers can be a catalyst for local recruiting.

    If you have 30 urban volunteers, you need 30 local folks to pair with them going door-to-door. Train the urban volunteers to 1) build relationships with the rural volunteers 2) Put the rural volunteer in the lead role at the door 3) Use the door-knocking as training by talking about what happened at each door, what worked, what didn't. Have report backs with volunteers introducing and telling a little about one another at a social event following the canvass. Make sure the volunteers exchange personal contact information and follow up with one another later. In other words, start to build a community of people who have worked together.

  • jrw (unverified)
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    I wouldn't do door-knocking in a rural community. Waste of time and resources. You'd have to drive miles to hit a small number of people, and often in a rural community, folks are out and about on their land working rather than hanging around the house watching TV. Comparing Cape Cod--a small and densely populated area compared to rural Oregon, either East OR West--and talking about "bike caucuses" ain't gonna work in the rural West.

    Rather, I'd identify community gathering areas and target those. County fairs. Bazaars. Local community group meetings. Watering holes. Livestock auctions. High school sports. Middle school sports. Read the local weekly and see when the seniors meet, the mothers meet, the volunteer firefighters meet, and start there. Create networks. Find the favorite coffee shops, and get locals to introduce you.

    Every small community has a diner or some such spot where a group of local men meet to swap stories in the morning over coffee and maybe breakfast. Local women have their own gathering spots.

    Find 'em and exploit 'em. Much more effective, but takes a bit more analysis and planning to be effective.

  • Ross Williams (unverified)
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    That depends on what you mean by "rural". A lot of people consider Seaside and Tillamook "rural", but they certainly have densities that work for canvassing. Same with a lot of smaller communities. The rural west is no different than the rural anywhere. Most of the people actually live in the small communities that provide services. In Eastern Oregon those communities are more spread out than they are in Central Oregon, Southern Oregon or along the coast. Or the rural Willamette Valley for that matter.

    But my point had nothing to do with the best way to reach voters. It was the best way to build communities and relationships while contacting voters.

  • LT (unverified)
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    But my point had nothing to do with the best way to reach voters. It was the best way to build communities and relationships while contacting voters.

    Now here's a radical notion to consider in that context--rethink Future Pac. Either disband it (seems like there were more Dem. House members before it was created, if Dems win the House majority this year it will have taken 16 years since the majority was lost, and what if this election brings new Dem. House members who were not the darlings of FP?) or totally rework the concept with totally new leadership from somewhere other than Portland. In most cases, Portlanders don't understand what it is like to live in smaller communities in "purple" counties. Or for that matter to have friends who are members of all parties, no party, not particularly involved in politics.

    As someone who was an active campaign volunteer involved with the party at all levels during the 1980s, it seems to me there was more building of community and relationships around various activities (party work, statewide and other campaigns) back then than there is now.

  • jrw (unverified)
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    Ross, you're playing word games when you start bringing small cities into the equation of "rural."

    How much actual experience do you have with living in a small city or small town? Of political organizing in those places? I would submit to you that a canvass operation in Seaside or Tillamook is not going to be cost-effective due to economies of scale. Not so much because of transportation costs but, especially with outsiders coming in, you aren't going to get much.

    In small communities, often it is who you know that matters as far as influencing people and building relationships and communities while contacting voters. There are no good shortcuts for an outside canvass-based organization to do this. It must be local.

    I agree with LT about past community-building being more effective than it is now. My suspicion is that canvass organizations have had a lot to do with this. They're essentially urban in orientation.

  • Ross Williams (unverified)
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    Ross, you're playing word games when you start bringing small cities into the equation of "rural."

    No, I'm not. I think when people talk about "rural Oregon" there are usually including Baker, LaGrande, etc. If they weren't, the rest would be all but politically irrelevant. Even in Harney County, most people don't live on ranches.

    Not so much because of transportation costs but, especially with outsiders coming in, you aren't going to get much.

    That may well be true depending on the community. In fact, most small town's demographics would make canvassing unlikely. There just isn't enough money. But what I was responding to was this:

    "I wouldn't do door-knocking in a rural community. Waste of time and resources. You'd have to drive miles to hit a small number of people, and often in a rural community, folks are out and about on their land working rather than hanging around the house watching TV."

    That did not appear to me to have anything to do with "outsiders". It was a comment on the logistics of canvassing, discouraging anyone, local or outsiders, from going canvassing door-to-door in rural districts.

    In small communities, often it is who you know that matters as far as influencing people and building relationships and communities while contacting voters. There are no good shortcuts for an outside canvass-based organization to do this. It must be local.

    I agree. Sometimes one of the barriers to local people doing the work is that those who currently hold the power in a community by force of their personal relationships are reluctant to broaden that network to include others. Some local leaders would welcome an effort that helps add 30 enthusiastic people to their local organization. There are other local leaders that would be very threatened by that. And even more threatened if those same 30 people were committed to building their own personal network of relationships in the community.

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    Regarding the Rural/Urban definitions and strategies, a couple of points:

    The Bus will never come to Sandy or Brightwood or ZigZag.

    ROP is made up almost exclusively of very educated, hyperinformed, and very left wing people who have chosen to live in a rural environment.

    Just to be clear, I donate annually to the Bus and will be riding next weekend. I also sat briefly on the ROP board.

    That said, what seems to work out here is the Howard Dean model of neighbor to neighbor communication through both calling and canvassing. These are broad spectrum Dems, housewives, retirees, clergy, small business people, and back-to-nature-hippies. Admittedly, we are so far not too effective at getting people under 40 involved, but we are really the Face-of-the-community.

    When I say that it "works" I'm not speaking to winning this election, but to the broader effort of long term party building.

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