Ruthie Kelly's Blog

Musings from a young journalist

Ruthie Kelly

Ruthie Kelly
Location
San Diego, California, USA
Birthday
December 31
Bio
I like to find the connections, explore the data, and seek out new information. I have a very specific view of the world; I grew up in a very religious, relatively traditional Christian household and became a feminist atheist, so I have an interesting perspective on both sides of the liberal/conservative coin. I'd like to think that gives me insight and empathy it's difficult for either side of the spectrum to have. I am a nerd, a gadfly, and a journalist. I am studying journalism and political science at San Diego State University. I am the editor in chief at SDSU's independent student newspaper, The Daily Aztec. I am hoping to make a difference in the world without sacrificing my life, economic stability, or all of my personal time. I doubt I'll succeed, but it's worth trying.

MARCH 9, 2009 11:16AM

Grassroots Campaigns: Using and abusing student workers

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I am posting a story I began working on for a journalism class in the summer of 2007, about the organizations Grassroots Campaigns, Inc., The Fund for Public Interest Research, and CALPIRG. These groups — organizations whose function is largely canvassing progressives for donations, contact information which is then sold to third parties, or signatures for ballot initiatives — have been trying to recruit canvassers and canvass directors from all over my campus, San Diego State University. My focus here is on the pay and working conditions that students who accept these jobs face.

A shorter, less one-sided version was published in the campus student newspaper, The Daily Aztec, which you can view online here. Full disclosure: I am the opinion editor at The Daily Aztec.

A picture of one of the dozens of posters found on billboards around San Diego State University in the summer 2007.

End child poverty. Save Darfur, stop genocide. Campaign to help elect Barack Obama and take back the White House. Help protect the environment, save the rain forests, and prevent pollution.

All while being paid up to $600 a week.

It's a job progressive college students dream of. Fliers advertising jobs advocating for  these causes have sprouted up on billboards all across campus. They promote not only the campaigns, but the corresponding earnings, which represent the salary of a full-time job at $12.50 an hour, before taxes. These postings represent a chance to get involved and make a difference without having to sacrifice paying the rent. It sounds too good to be true, and in many ways, it is. Most students who agree to work for these campaigns end up with more work and less money than they bargained for. That is largely due to the misrepresentation and mismanagement within the main company behind the postings, Grassroots Campaigns, Inc.

“I started working for Grassroots Campaigns because I wanted to get involved in the campaign, and I also needed money with a job over the summer,” said Ariane Myers-Turnbull, a junior at UCSD who is majoring in political science. “I would have done the same work as a volunteer, but I was excited to get paid for it. I'm vice-president of the College Democrats at UCSD. I've been very active in campaigns all my life.”

Myers-Turnbull began working for Grassroots Campaigns in June. What quickly became clear was that even though the causes seem noble and inspiring, the related jobs being posted on campus boil down to one thing: collecting money. The entry-level position is as a canvasser, which involves soliciting supporters for donations and collecting contact information. Canvassers memorize short speeches, or "raps," regarding the cause at hand, and are paid a percentage of the donation collected, plus a bonus if they meet set goals. The process seems simple, but the result is not the world-changing impact most of the idealistic applicants imagine. And then the discouraging problems crop up.

The first problem is the pay, which has two elements.  First canvassers must meet quotas for the amount of donations they solicit, quotas which are high and ambiguous. After meeting quota, canvassers are paid a percentage of the donations they solicit, usually 30 percent. This means canvassers could earn great money if they get a large amount of donations – or they could make nothing at all.

“The $500-600 a week is definitely slanted, but it's not quite a lie,” said Greg Bloom, who worked as a canvass director for Grassroots Campaigns in 2004.  “A canvasser takes home 30 percent of what they raise, and in 2004 in the big cities like San Diego, people could work six days a week and raise a thousand or more in a day. There were usually only one or two people in an office with that kind of canvassing talent; everyone else would scrape to make the advertised range.

“In the meantime, canvassers are forced to 'volunteer' several hours in addition the the time they're paid. Even for the lowest level people, it can be a 60 hour a week job. For the office directors, who are still just 20-24 years old, it can be a 90 hour a week job.”

Grassroots Campaigns runs canvassing operations all across the country. Workers in other states report similar problems. In one article for The Daily Page in Madison, Wis., canvassers reported receiving $130 for 37 hours of work, $281 and $340 each for two 50 hour weeks, and once even $56 for 45 hours of work. That works out to $3.51 an hour for the best paid worker, and $1.25 for the worst paid worker. There's no way to predict how much, or how little, the canvasser may get in a given pay period.

Meyers-Turnbull ran into quota problems quickly. “Even with the poor working conditions I continued to work there because I liked the people I worked with, and I believed in the work,” she said.

“But soon it got harder and harder to make money and I began to see people being fired for not making quota, even when they were really fantastic workers. I really never had a problem with making quota, but every day became a struggle. I would have to basically beg people to give me twenty bucks so I could meet my goal.”

Arwen Hawks, a communication senior at SDSU,  canvassed for the Sierra Club in 1998 through The Fund for Public Interest Research, the non-profit alternative of Grassroots Campaigns. The pay scale was no better back then.

“We got a percentage of sales, which was not very much. If you didn't make a sale you didn't make any money.”

For Kate Burke, the pay scale was Grassroots Campaigns' biggest problem.

“I was an assistant director for GCI's canvass for the Democratic National Committee in 2004, in the campaign to 'beat Bush,'” Burke said.

“They sent me to San Diego. It's a hard place to raise money. I found myself in the position of being unable to explain anyone's pay scale. Nobody could explain the pay scale -- it was awful. We had these poor, poor people who worked for us and who just wouldn't get paid on time, or at all, in part because they were unable to raise much money.

“I think they make the pay scale purposely ambiguous,” Burke continued. “It wasn't based on how many hours you worked, and after all their conditions, you would make like $50 per day.”

Once the canvassers make quota, there are still difficulties getting the very little they've managed to rightfully earn.

“GCI was unethical with paychecks and reimbursements,” said Burke. “The canvassers would be asking, 'Can I please just get my $18 check, so that I can put gas in my car?' But we didn't have the checks. I was so severely embarrassed. One director gave someone $300 of her own money, just because she felt so bad because this canvasser's pay hadn't come.”

The second problem is the working conditions. In order to make the money being advertised, canvassers usually end up having to work 10-14 hours per day. Field managers and directors have to complete paperwork, answer phone calls, and coordinate operations, but they're still expected to canvass and make the quota. Canvassers work in unfamiliar neighborhoods, walking up to homes of strangers. These arrangements cause a lot of canvassers to worry about their health and safety.

“Grassroots Campaigns, which ran the DNC canvass, has a history of labor disputes, including several law suits settled out of court,” said Bloom. “And it is linked with the Fund for Public Interest Research, which is known for union-busting.”

“It was really hard and a lot of times it was dangerous,” said Myers-Turnbull. “Once I was locked in some Republican's yard as he ranted at me and wouldn't let me out. I was cursed at numerous times, harassed and told that I was a terrible person on a daily basis. But it was all about making quota, so I just tried to move on when that happened. A lot of times I left crying and shaking because of an experience. I know that happened to a lot of people.”

Arwen Hawks also felt unsafe.

“The next day after I was hired, I had my own route and was on my own. They had a van and would drop us off at different places. I remember feeling really lonely, and I hadn't brought food so I got hungry. There were no breaks, unless you liked sitting on the curb or sidewalk. I felt unsafe because I had to knock on strangers doors, and I was out in the open with no ride home or way out. You never knew who would open the door! They would drop us off for 5 or 6 hours or so.”

Kate Burke also experienced problems with working conditions, both with her canvassers and for herself.

“I'd hired a woman who had monitored elections in Bosnia, and she was getting screamed at on the street,” she said. “It was awful.

“After four months, I told GCI that if was time for me to find another way to help 'beat Bush.' I was so completely exhausted that I was ordered bed rest for 4 days by my doctor. But since GCI was closing down another local office, and there was only one other director, I stayed on for two weeks to help wrap everything up. Then after all that, they called me and told me that I 'wasn't pulling my weight' the last week, and therefore they weren't going to pay me for that week! Their reason was that I had not canvassed during that time. Never mind my four months of success as a canvasser and canvassing trainer. I guess running their office alone with one person while sick doesn't count as actual work.”

Because of the working conditions, pay problems, and quota requirements, Grassroots Campaigns has a lot of difficulty keeping staff members. Workers can be promoted quickly if they're a successful canvasser, and are rewarded with an increase in hours and responsibilities. However, the promotion doesn't come with a significant increase in pay, and little to no training on how to meet those new responsibilities.

“My first week I had the highest average of the entire office so I was promoted to field manager,” said Myers-Turnbull. “However, I didn't have any training for that and was just told to do it. Its a very difficult job and easy to screw up, but I just barely managed to figure it out.

“My main problem with the promotion is that we weren't paid nearly enough for the extra work it entails. Its only five dollars more a day, and any overtime over 40 hours, but we usually don't get that. I ended up getting only about 20 more dollars a week for about two or three extra hours of work a day, and more responsibility.

“We also had to drive to the site. I don't like to drive, but  they forced me to. They also only pay 25 cents a mile while the government rate is about 55 cents. So I was losing a lot of money on gas. I lost almost 50 dollars a week to driving people around.

“The old director of the San Diego office, my old boss, was the most gung-ho activist I've ever met, but he had to quit Grassroots because he felt sick having to fire good people who didn't deserve it. He was also working about 12 to 13 hours a day for a very low salary.”

All of this results in burnout and disillusionment of progressive youth. This burnout has been documented extensively by Dr. Dana Fisher in her book, Activism, Inc.: How the Outsourcing of Grassroots Campaigns Is Strangling Progressive Politics in America.

“Canvassing does not foster long-term dedication and commitment or develop much local infrastructure,” Fisher wrote in an article for The American Prospect summarizing her conclusions.

“At the end of the campaign, you're left with nothing, basically, because all those canvassers walk out the door. It's not a job that most people do time and time again. So the organizations get members and money out of canvassers, and most of the canvassers go back to their schools or jobs, or move on to an entirely different campaign when it's over. As a result, this type of outsourced politics leaves the grassroots base on the left disconnected and disorganized.”

Arwen Hawks certainly didn't want to repeat her experience. “I would never do that again,” said Hawks. “It was one of the worst jobs I ever had. I would not recommend it to anyone. I think it is totally unsafe and unfair.”

Even though Myers-Turnbull  initially thought her sacrifice was for a good cause, she ultimately agreed.

“I left because I felt that the job was too dangerous, I was losing money on gas, I was tired of begging already supportive Democrats for a few dollars just so I could not get fired, I felt that the employees weren't appreciated and that they were firing good people who were also friends. I was tired in general from working 10 hour days and only being paid about 70 dollars a day. I basically lost faith in the organization's ability to truly make a difference.”

This is about more than just overworking some progressive, idealistic college students.

“We're coming up onto another election, and GCI is still operating with highly irresponsible and even immoral practices, still putting the Democratic Party's reputation in danger,” said Burke. “It's not just a matter of hypocrisy with regards to the minimum wage. It's a matter of corporate responsibility. For Democrats, it needs to start here.”

 UPDATE: I have received more comments about this story than anything else I have ever written!* Some of the comments were from young people who had been considering taking a job with Grassroots Campaigns and changed their mind after reading this. One comment (only one!) was from a current employee of Grassroots Campaigns. For those of you who have wondered where I got my facts and what I researched, feel free to check out my project notes at http://tinyurl.com/gci-truth. If you can get anyone from Grassroots Campaigns to talk to me (none of them would respond during the research process, despite my numerous attempts to contact an official spokesperson of some kind at some level, through multiple channels, so I have no idea what anyone at GCI thinks of this article), I would gladly do a follow-up with the perspective of the organization and the people in it.

* With the exception of one pro-gun-control opinion column I wrote that was briefly reposted to freerepublic.com. But those comments fizzled out long ago, and these comments are a slow but steady stream that has yet to end. 

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'corporate responsibility', ahhh, isn't that what you get 10 years later, if you win the law suit?
Sadly, the answer is often "Yes." I know that The Fund for Public Interest Research is being sued by several former canvass directors right now, and I think Grassroots has been sued in the past too.

It's sad that these companies will just keep using and abusing people until they're slapped with a lawsuit, and then change only as much as they have to. I expect more from so-called "progressive" organizations. There are major "conservative" corporations that don't pull stuff like this.
I had this job several year ago; your analysis is spot on. This model has to change. There are better ways of raising money and garnering lasting support for progressive causes than this.
Hello. My name is Joey and I am a former canvasser for G.C.I. I am not sure about in 2007 but I would like to state that I was completely satisfied with working for Grassroots. First of all if anything in this blog were true then it would be illegal for them to operate. They have a base pay of above minimum wage that you recieve hourly and then you recieve commisions on top of your base salary. Working for G.C.I was more then a job. It was a way to be involved with my community and help educate them on very important issues that matter so much to me aswell as be able to be a 35 yr old single mother of a 5 yr old boy. Not only was I able to financially provide for us but the best part was telling my son when he asked what I do for work I responded "Mommy is a super hero hunny. Im trying to save the world." :) It was awesome. The best part is its "pragmatic" solutions... Non violent and completely law abiding... In fact G.C.I. Has a very strict no tolerance for dishonesty and make sure that everyone understands the rules.... They are truly doing great things for great reasons and theyre not about to do anything to jeopardise this. That being said everyone must understand that in a pragmatic world money talks and bullshit walks. Great causes take alot of private funding do to lack of government interest. And thats where G.C.I comes to the rescue. If an employee is not making the very low goals set daily that are easily accomplishable with enthusiasm and understanding of the issue at hand. The bottom line is at G.C.I you are what your worth... With a little research and intelligance and a true desire to fix an issue you can go very far.
Im very dissapointed that a disgruntle "college" girl is trying to knock a great progressive supporter (and one of the only) just because she had a hard time meeting her goals. I mean your let go after your 1st 3 days of working if you dont get one membership. It one membership in 3days... I used to get 3 a day.... Its only hard to do if your afraid to speak to people face to face and make them aware of the facts. But since some cant I guess we should shut it down and tell Sally Struthers sorry we cant help pay for all those kids in Third world places shots and educations anymore... All because some girl wadnt as progressive and effective as she thought. Hmmm?
Im very dissapointed that a disgruntle "college" girl is trying to knock a great progressive supporter (and one of the only) just because she had a hard time meeting her goals. I mean your let go after your 1st 3 days of working if you dont get one membership. It one membership in 3days... I used to get 3 a day.... Its only hard to do if your afraid to speak to people face to face and make them aware of the facts. But since some cant I guess we should shut it down and tell Sally Struthers sorry we cant help pay for all those kids in Third world places shots and educations anymore... All because some girl wadnt as progressive and effective as she thought. Hmmm?
@jkcada,

I don't know you and I don't know what your experience was working for Grassroots. What I do know is that your arguments have so many logical holes I could drive a truck through them. From what I can tell, it sounds like you've drunk the Grassroots Kool Aid. If you had a good experience working for GCI, great for you. Really. But understand that others -- many others, judging by the emails I have gotten about this -- have not had your experience, and that does not make them stupid, incompetent, or not "progressive" enough.

That last accusation is one that I find particularly offensive. Being "progressive" means you should accept poor working conditions and low pay without complaint? Working 10+ hours a day and getting the equivalent of $1.50 an hour -- or even $4 an hour, should we be expected to be *grateful* for that, or think, "hey, at least I'm saving the whales" (because yeah, that helps me eat and put gas in my car)??? Being "progressive" means you should accept it when those higher up in the organization lie to you, deceive you, or deliberately fail to provide you with relevant information and blame *you* when you trust them or take it on faith that they will behave in your interest, that they have your back? Being "progressive" means you should just take it?

Being "progressive" means collecting the public's personal information so that the organization in question can heckle them for more donations and more money (since that's what Grassroots is about -- building donor lists, nothing more; most of the money doesn't actually go to the cause)? Being "progressive" means of the $5 you raise to "Save the Children", only $3.50 of it actually goes beyond you? (And you can bet that Grassroots takes a chunk itself.)

That doesn't sound like any definition of "progressive" worth fighting for. That sounds like a scam. That sounds like a variety of cult-like organizations I could name, including but not limited to certain churches, expecting followers to sacrifice themselves for "the greater good" and blaming THEM when they fail or doubt, even though the situation is set up for failure and set up to use people and disregard them when they burn out.

That sounds like corporate greed.

Just to throw a few more problems with your argument up:

-- As the Wall Street brouhaha has illustrated, just because something is wrong, or even illegal, that doesn't mean the organization isn't doing it. It just means there isn't enough evidence to prosecute in the court of law. Even if there is, that doesn't mean they won't settle out of court and never get convicted of anything. This isn't a court of law, it's the court of public opinion, and everything I found can be backed up. What's more, there's a lot more that I found suspicious but did not have the resources to pursue. If this story prevents one student from taking a horrible job, or encourages one current employee that they're not insane and they can leave without shame, it's worth it.

-- GCI lost a long-running lawsuit filed by a GROUP of former employees for pay-related problems, INCLUDING its failure to pay them above minimum wage or overtime. This isn't just hearsay.

-- Putting "college" in scare quotes...what's that about?

-- The kind of personal attacks you resort to here are EXACTLY the atmosphere I was trying to capture in this piece. It's my understanding that attitude positively soaks through GCI, and that has been spoken of by tired, burned out, formerly enthusiastic workers.
I only lasted two days at Berkeley's grass root campaign center and I could not take it. It was a job and out of desperation I applied but I figured I may be doing 'good' work while making some money. The drive a script down and you spend about an hour or two rehearsing the memorized script before you go out into the field with a leader. They make sure that you always have a response to a 'no' as well making sure you walk away with a donation.There is pow wow in which everyone has to state there goal the longer you have been there the higher the bar from $600-$1000. The key is to get member ships of $10 a month. When I was out there I felt like I was manipulating the public and I would direct people to the actual nonprofit. We would mislead the public by wearing the nonprofit's tshirt or sweater and they would assume that we were actual representatives instead of a fundraising/consulting firm. It's a joke. I spent 10 hours in the hot sun thinking that there must be some labor law violations. I also received my paycheck mid november when I worked in late august. I had terrible employers but they are by far the worst and I feel bad for their future employees and the public at large that they will someday swindle.
Thanks so much for this post. I was feeling bad about quitting, even though I felt like I was misled during the initial job offering. It seemed too good to be true that should have been the clue. One thing, I might have been ok with if they truely were out to educate the public, I didn't feel that at all.
I was wondering if by chance Grassroots Canvassing Inc. was the same as Grassroots Campaigns Inc.? Just under a different name.
I have a job interview with them in a week and since I've read this article I am a bit weary of the whole idea. Also couldn't find them in the Better Business Bureau, so that could be bad as well. Any information would be very helpful. Thank you.
Hey guys,

I have worked for GCI for 11 months. First I was a Field Manager for 4 months and really enjoyed it, so I went up to being a director and recruiter for 6 months. The director hours were a bit much for me, so I downgraded myself back to being a canvasser.

Anyways, I really... have not had any issues and the organization does stick to pay and hour laws now. No hourly Field manager ever works more than 10 hours a day. Even me doing some extra stufft o help out the directors, I never work more than 50 hours a week. Also, I can easily pay rent.

Along the lines of the people who don't make it through the 3 day observation training period, it means they are not good at fundraising. If you want a job in fundraising face to face, one should be able to communicate well and be friendly. If you are passionate for the issue you are fighting for... it won't even be a question that you will find people that truly want to become members of the organization that we're working for.

Anyways, I know there were some infrastructure issues in the past for some states, but it has worked out the kinks...even more since I have worked there over the last year.

With the turn over rate... its high, but I also know plenty of people that are happy and have never had an issue with potentially getting fired and working there for 2, 4, or even 6 years. Also, I am not a college student. I consider this my job and I take it seriously. I think the best people are the people who are the most serious about it instead of thinking it'll be a fun summer job.
Hey weathergirl,

Thanks for posting your experience. As you may have read, many of the GCI workers (no formal response from the organization itself) who respond to this story do so by trying to attack the credibility or deny the experiences of those I interviewed. It's understandable that people feel defensive when they hear negative information about an organization they care about, but denying or minimizing what happened to others just hurts rather than helps. I appreciate that you did not do that. It's good to hear that you have had a positive experience with the organization, and I hope you continue to do so.
Well done. My experience at Sacramento was much the same as described. The lack of professionalism was astonishing. It was obvious that the directors were more concerned with putting young, "diverse" people on the street teams, and older persons were sent door to door. Anyone not in lockstep with the underlying Group Think were subjected to ridicule. The only people whose jobs were safe from the quota pogrom were in the management clique, or the young, idealistic, collegiate women, one of whom allegedly became impregnated by the director. Preying on idealistic young people, and exploiting that idealism could be considered a "new low," if there weren't so many awful examples from history to compare it to. I LOVED working for the human rights campaign, and the Sierra Club, but found that programs whose agendas went beyond single-issues, such as Amnesty would benefit from a completely different fundraising/education model. While GCI didn't exactly harm the causes, their labor policies, along with big D, democratic party line conformity will continue to dog them.
Should there be an effort to ban Grassroots Campaigns Inc. job recruiters off of college campuses? Many college students (and college professors, for that matter) are unaware of how these progressive organizations operate and the way they treat their workers. Where I live in Sacramento, they operate largely unnoticed and have their job recruiters make their sales pitch to unsuspecting college students. They also post jobs in the non-profit section of craigslist on a very regular and (very) annoying basis.
I wish I had read this before I joined up with them. I am not a college student, but working in the non-profit sector for over 8 years, I thought, "Hey, this can't be that bad". Pay is pay, and they said they would pay more than I thought possible for a Non-Profit. Except, that's not what happened. I had a job, not a well paying job, but a job that could at least support me. I left that job with the promise of a Field Manager position with the local office. I was very excited. The day I started I was told I had 3 days to raise $120 or I would not be put on staff and let go. Talk about pressure. After about 15-20 minutes of trying to recite the "rap" I was sent out with 3 other people into the heart of the city. After 30 minutes of watching the Field Manager of the day talk to a grand total of 2 people who didn't donate I was on my own. They don't go door to door, at least not while I was there, however limited my time would be. They stand on the street in what they call a Gauntlet. One person takes people waling in one direction while the other person takes the other direction. You basically get passed by the entire day, but you have to stay positive. Except you have no training, no real information, and you are at least 30 feet away from anyone who might know. The information you have is the "rap" which you cannot deviate from, because you don't have anything else. I made more money that day than everyone else on my team, but I cannot tell you how I got home. Keeping up that level of energy for that long for basically pittance was one of the most difficult things I had to do. Well, my adventure wasn't over. The second day, I received another 15-20 minutes of training, where you learn more how to close the deal. And once more, we were out on the street. It was a shopping district and there were a few people out sure, but it was practically desolate when people were not venturing out into the 90 degree day for food. I watched as people cleverly crossed before they could run into our bright red hard to miss "Save the Children" t shirts, which have been worn by other people and not washed. Regardless. I talked to 11 people that day, which according to the Driector/Field Manager I was with was about right. I did however only raise $17 dollars for the day (which brought my total for the first two days to $55. Remember that). At the end of the day I was discouraged, because I had done moderately well the day before. The director told me that the next day I would get the rest of my training and it would be easier for me to seal the deal.

When we got back to the office, they fired me.

They said it was because I hadn't raised $50.

I had been told on the first day that I had 3 days to raise $120, and now this first name only Director, who was not the person I had been with all day, was telling me that I hadn't done well enough to keep the job.

It took me nearly a month to get the paycheck I had earned in that 2 days. And that was only after I had to send a certified letter because my phone messages had gone unanswered. Apparently it is not the policy of the Grassroots Campaigns, Inc, to mail out paychecks to employees (which was not in line with what the first name only director had told me when he fired me, having given me the option of having it mailed or picking it up).

If I had seen this article I wouldn't have gone through the trauma of actually working for them.