Activism, Inc.: How Outsourcing the Grassroots is Strangling the Progressive Movement

Activism, Inc.: How the Outsourcing of Grassroots Campaigns is Strangling Progressive Politics in America is an indictment of the outsourced-canvassing model currently employed by the DNC and approximately 25% of all major progressive organizations. In this book author Dana Fisher – through a series of interviews with canvassers – examines the efficacy of the model and its long-term effects on the progressive movement.

Dana Fisher is dead-on with her research and assertion on how regimented canvasses are counterproductive to grassroots activism and to democratic discourse as a whole. Her book actually brought back some memories of my time in NJEF while I was looking for real work and figuring out what I wanted in life.

I joined NJEF after graduating college because the job market was not so great and I needed temporary work experience. In hindsight, I should have left NJEF soon after the company I am working for offered me the marketing position on the phone. It really wasn’t worth staying in an organisation that only sees you as someone who can help increase their bottom line and is even willing to invoke the “Two-Week notification” clause on the employee agreement just to keep me working for them despite my views on the process.

Interestingly, I was able to survive all 10 days of my initial training period and stayed long enough to become upgraded to a staff member while surviving the June heatwaves. My enthusiasm for NJEF and its ideals were waning with every passing day I was sent to canvass neighbourhoods for support and funds. I had found myself working for a group that saw canvassing as a full-time career and willing to work under a pay scheme that often pays below minimum wage and is largely dependent on the demographics of the neighbourhood to be canvassed.

The chart below illustrates the typical lifecycle of a canvasser and what it takes to get to “the top.”

The pay scheme in most of these groups is essentially based on straight commission, where you get to keep between 45% to 50% of your weekly earnings along with 30% of the money you made that was over the weekly quota. The extra money is great but it quickly disappears if you fail to meet or exceed your weekly quota, which was $900 in my case. This was a problem for me because I was still learning how to properly sell the organisation and respond to objections and it also meant that I could make well below minimum wage (I was paid $300 a week for 40 to 50 hours of work) without any real possibility of the wages promised.

I were expected to show up at 2:00 PM for an hour of training, which consisted of role-playing sessions where I can practice the NJEF “rap” with members who pretended to be a door. Most of the time, people don’t like to be spoken to and already made up their minds after the second sentence of my pitch so they taught us canvassers how to get around these objections and to push them to contribute anything (even if it is just a dollar). We were trained to personalise our raps but to keep the basic talking points so it builds on our personalities and makes us more appealing when asking for support and contributions.

So after an hour of training, we had the staff meeting where we played icebreakers to learn about each other and to announce the day’s agenda. Like a sales organisation, recognition was given to canvassers who met or exceeded their daily or weekly goals to stimulate enthusiasm and encourage others to do the same. After that, we are bused off into a random town that is visited once a year and we are dropped off into a random neighbourhood to begin collecting petitions and funds. The interesting thing about canvassing is that there is no preexisting data that is used for selecting these towns other than data of the funds collected in the previous year and voting patterns, which still means you will have no clue about people’s views or the exact people you want to talk to. From my experience, I received some form of support from about 5 to 30 houses in an entire neighbourhood during my 5 hours out there on an 8-hour workday.

Most of these houses will express extreme hostility because they have already been approached by a PIRG or mistake our organisation for being the same group. I don’t exactly blame these people since PIRGs are being trained to do the following:

As for at the door tactics, I’ve seen telemarketers with more scruples. I ghosted a couple canvassers with the best records and decided, quite quickly, that I wasn’t going to sink to that level for the sake of a job. They brow beat, guilt tripped, and walked to the very edge of lying in order to get money out of someone. They’d misrepresent [PIRG’s] stance on logging, overhype the organizations accomplishments (claiming responsibility for a victory that they only played a very small part in, like getting Clinton to protect all those forests), and generally just do anything for a sale. Sorry, sale? I meant donation. We were told never to accept a ‘no’ from someone at the door; I felt like I was in that scene in Boilerroom when Ben Affleck is ripping on the new hires about getting a sale.

After being lied to and pushed to donate into something they are either not interested or sure of, it comes as no surprise they would express such extreme hostility at another group that comes looking for support in the neighbourhood. Outsourced grassroots canvassing has become counterproductive because these outsourced groups see us as competitors rather than partners and they will do almost anything necessary to increase their bottom line. In addition, these lowhanded tactics by the corporatised PIRGs have alienated the organisation’s traditional support because we don’t return to the neighbourhoods for about a year and most of the time it is a new canvasser who will go to those same people and they’re unable to tell them of the things accomplished by the organisation because they are new. I remember that our group once went as far south as Colts Neck to solicit support from rich bastards to even going as far north to Cliffside Park to try to get money from the working class and pensioners there (this was the day I was supposed to meet up with the RONs people for a reunion of sorts before the new power structure took over).

I was already losing my enthusiasm working for NJEF and thought that this was how I was going to spend the rest of my summer until I got that job offer. Unfortunately, I was forced to stay again due to the employee agreement and I soldiered on. However, after the director knew I was quitting, he started to be extremely anal towards me and kept pushing me to exceed quotas even in areas that would make Sarejevo look like Beverly Hills, which were just unrealistic to be frank. Another item that kept bothering me was the lack of socialising among the group especially between the “permanent” staff and the “trainees” other than random icebreakers since turnover was very high in addition to a strong emphasis on remaining positive and sticking to “office rules” regardless of the day’s results.

According to Fisher, this outdated canvass has actually harmed the progressive movements by not only alienating supporters, but also burning out young leaders in the process. If I remember correctly, several of the more enthusiastic canvassers saw this as a long-term career despite the volatile pay scheme, and the limited benefits (no 401(k) or IRA) while others have been working there for over 5 years and are still in the same position. The staff members who I thought were in their early to mid twenties were actually in their mid to late 20s, which surprised me since they should have moved on to administrative positions after putting so many years doing field work.

There was actually one guy I met who exemplifies the typical burnt out canvasser whom I met in my travels to Union Beach. Apparently, the canvassing coordinator gave me an outdated map that led me to canvass in a town that is not in Union Beach, but it did give me an encounter with the guy who lives in 200 State St. in Keyport NJ. When I knocked at his door this guy was happy to see someone from NJEF and talked fondly about his days fighting for lower property taxes and travelling around the country doing grassroots activism. He informed me to comeback a little later so he can hear me out with no interruptions.

When I came back, he told me he had worked in the Belmar office during the early to mid 1990s and that now he is “affiliated” and working in a corporation. He kept playing mindgames with me by pointing out that what I am doing is pointless since the organisation’s goals are “vague” and questioned me on what my work is going to lead to. The guy insinuated that he left canvassing to become a corporate drone because he felt his efforts were amounting to nothing, and he thought he was just working to fund the liberal lobbyists in Trenton without getting any chances to advance. As a result of this unpleasantness, he switched over to the right and became pro-business like any other disillusioned liberal.

Although this guy was a typical idealistic liberal-turned-conservative hack, he represented what a canvassing organisation can do to idealists due to the lack of focused goals, limited advancement opportunities, and mediocre compensation at best. At that moment, despite being worn out and having my confidence beaten down by the apathetic, the disconnected and the deluded, I knew I was not going to end up like that cunt because I had the job waiting for me 2 weeks after I end my stint with NJEF. However, I am concerned that some of my former NJEF colleagues would turn into a cunt like that guy on 200 State St. especially as they get older and see many of their friends becoming relatively more successful than them without compromising their ideals.

“As civic and political organizations have become increasingly professionalized, the ways that they engage their members have become less personal,” Fisher writes. “Most national progressive groups do not require any actual participation from their members beyond writing checks.”

I left NJEF after finishing my final week and now I am relatively much better off than I was in that summer. I had some fun memories with that group although I will now only support them in principle because I feel my money can be invested in other places that provide tangible results. Nonetheless, I was able to learn a great deal about the selling process, which has served me well in my current work, while my travels around New Jersey has given me a clearer perspective on people and how I want to live my life.

On a side note, just tell a canvasser you’re “not interested” and they will generally go away, unless they are one of those PIRG bastards.

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