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(This will be the final post in this series. It will sum up the critique so far, and point to a way forward. I apologize for the delay between posts -- my time was eaten, first by YearlyKos and then in preparation for my next series. Oh, and I've moved the series summary inside this time, rather than fight the dKos diary intro word limit!)

Grassroots Campaigns Inc's canvassers are out in twenty some-odd cities right now, wearing Democratic National Committee t-shirts and asking citizens if they 'want to help end the Republican majority.' They say that they are 'working to build support for this November's elections'; they imply that they are part of the DNC's 50 State Strategy, and they claim that a 'big show of grassroots energy' in the x days before the election will ensure victory for the party. Finally, they say the best way to help is with a $100 check made out to the DNC.

This is all rather misleading.

First of all, GCI's canvass campaign is entirely separate from the DNC's 50 State Strategy (more about this separation here, 1/3 of the way down); it's not a field organizing operation, but a financial base-building operation. And as with most base-building operations, most of this money will actually go to cover the canvassers' own overhead -- the DNC's benefit is primarily in the long-term, from the new donors added to its membership rolls. When it comes to influencing the 2006 election, those $100 checks would be far more effective if given directly to state or local parties.

The underlying justification for the campaign is that each donation is an investment that strengthens the donor's bond with the Democratic party. But so far in this series, I have  argued that this is an unhealthy investment relationship. These canvassers are not trained to articulate the Democratic party's message, and they are uninformed about the state and local politics. They are instructed to direct every conversation towards the maximum possible donation, and to cut off conversations that don't appear to be headed that way. The young, passionate management staff works for less than minimum wage, 12 to 15 hours a day, seven days a week, and almost inevitably burns itself out. The result is a system that is efficient at getting names onto a list -- but at what cost?   

This canvass campaign is adopted from the same model (developed by the PIRGs/Fund for Public Interest Research) that has driven much of the non-profit progressive world for decades. Some have argued that this model of activism is a fatal shortcut that has inadvertently helped to strand the Left in a quagmire of civic disengagement. But we need models for effective collective action, now more than ever. This post will look for a way forward, towards a professional, sustainable, progressive model. (It will be specific to the DNC's campaign, but I believe it's an example of the kind of rethinking that is needed throughout the world of this model.)


The paradigm shift should begin, in this case, with the basics: carry voter registration forms. The argument against carrying voter registration forms is that it takes energy away from raising money, while other groups are focusing on voter registration. Allow me to suggest that a single voter created by a DNC canvasser is worth at least as much to the party in the long-run as a hundred dollar check from an existing member; allow me to further suggest that when a citizen discovers that a DNC canvasser does not carry voter registration forms, the citizen (voter or otherwise) walks away with a profoundly negative message. Ultimately, this issue has marginal cost-benefit implications but high symbolic implications. (Indeed, while I worked there, it was the first thing to signal to me that something was wrong with the priorities of our campaign.)

Somewhat less basic: canvass interactions need to be about more than just relentless pursuit of donation. It's necessary to train canvassers in professional sales techniques, but that is not sufficient for a progressive base-building campaign. And anyway, a smart salesman knows his product inside and out. So political education should be a component of training. This means more than just a 15 minute headline session every so often; canvassers should be engaged in the ideas of the party. We shouldn't expect or want canvassers to take up intricate policy discussions, but they need to be able to do more than just tick off the '6 key issues.' They are representing the Democratic Party, and for many people, they are the most immediate embodiment thereof -- so they need to be able to articulate the party's message. Even a moderate amount of investment in this regard will go a long way toward making a more professional corps.

Relationships with the existing base must be better served: The campaign's 'true' objective is to generate new donors, but canvassers are trained to lean as hard as they can (without being disrespectful) on people who've already given. It might be acceptable to ask for another donation, but the interaction is actually disrespectful to the donors as soon as it becomes clear that the canvasser has nothing more to ask of them: it sends a message that a member is only valuable to the Democratic party as a source of money. Base-builing should mean engagement. Canvassers should have something else to offer existing donors -- like issue-specific literature, information about their congressional district, or encouragement to volunteer for a particular function. Currently, canvassers don't even offer the option of volunteering unless a person first commits to a donation. Furthermore, in 2004, those who did check the volunteer box were never followed up -- so far, there has been no indication that 2006 will fare any better.

There needs to be more coordination with state and local parties. Canvassers should know their local politicians, should have some familiarity with local issues, and should be able to direct interested members to the appropriate contact points. State parties report that they are now at least in communication with the DNC about this campaign, as opposed to 2004, when most were never notified about it in the first place. But there is so much room for actual infrastructure building. One place to start might be with the volunteers mentioned above -- since the DNC canvassers are taking money out of the localities, they could give back by actively generating volunteers and directing them to state and local offices.

But the most important change that needs to occur is in regards to the canvass staff. In much the same way that they present their campaign to civilians as the grassroots frontline of the Great Party War, the staff labors under the pretense that they are the Party's vanguard. But they do not participate in the party in any way other than as conduits for this money -- and after however many eighty to one hundred hour work weeks at 24k a year, an unacceptable majority of these people burn out. This work is important -- but so is the long-term cultivation of our young leaders. As I've said before, "If your system requires fifteen hours of work a day, your system is broken."


Several of the suggestions I just outlined have come up in the comments of a previous thread, when someone who was 'familiar' with GCI argued that my posts were only serving to 'weaken the cause.' When I proposed these solutions, this commenter mostly agreed -- but backed away, saying:

The solutions are 1) too expensive or 2) too time inefficient or 3) not what the client wants (it is all about the client, right?). So change isn't happening.

As I noted in response, this is a pretty good explanation for why our society is failing to act to prevent global warming. The market's to blame. Indeed, the central mission of many of the organizations for which the Fund raises money is to overcome the evils of the unbridled marketplace by forcing industries to provide a more environmentally-responsible product. The Right's reflexive response is to call these campaigns 'anti-business.' But as we good progressives know, the truth is that sustainable industry standards foster growth in the long-run.

Watch how that could happen:
If employees work two or three fewer hours a day, they do more and better work (again -- that's science, folks). They burn out less, which means less time must be spent on recruiting (which currently takes up at least a third of a GCI staffer's day) and training (which takes up about a fifth). Add in something resembling a weekend and even a modest pay raise, and you now have an exceptionally better staff (which will make better decisions, fewer mistakes, further reducing the workload and turnover, and so on). This crack team of professional party advocates will then be better prepared to handle the more complicated task of managing a truly progressive, politically engaged office. The canvass campaign could gradually become the vanguard that it imagines itself to be.

Will they raise less money? Yes. This 'improved' canvass campaign will probably not bring in new donors at zero cost. But that zero cost is an illusion, the kind of illusion most commonly found on the Wall Street Journal op-ed page. In more accurate words, the cost of this expanded donor list is shifted off the Democratic Party and onto its base and its young generation of leaders -- with nothing invested in return. It's time to recognize that while this strategy has fattened progressive organizations' membership rolls for more than twenty years, it's also left us with a desiccated base that has been taught to equate civic engagement with check-writing.

The positive change that I've outlined above is really just a matter of re-balancing priorities. But that can only come through accountability -- and currently there is none. Indeed, few of the points I've put forth here are wholly 'mine' -- they come from many interviews with people who have all kinds of experience with the model -- yet they have no chance of filtering up from below. The top-down canvass model is lacking in any transparency and unreceptive to change. Employees who believe that things should be done differently are efficiently cast out of the system. Like the consultant class in DC, these executives have spent decades up there at the top, where they wield a fierce sense of self-preservation. Even a string of breathtaking progressive setbacks cannot convince them that they might be on the wrong tack.

So how do we make these progressive organizations espouse the ideology that they purport to advance?

There are two ways to hold this system accountable. One is, as that commenter noted, through the clients. If the DNC is going to subcontract its operations, even in the short-term, it has the responsibility to ensure that there are tolerable work conditions and pro-donor practices. The DNC should expect (and be willing to pay for) a better product. I believe the netroots can be instrumental in pressuring the DNC to accept this responsibility. (And GCI also has another big client -- MoveOn PAC. In a future series, I will explain how the matter of accountability is even more important with regards to GCI's contract with MoveOn.)

The second way is through a concerted, organized effort on behalf of the staff themselves to take some control of the campaign to which they devote so much of their lives. This is by far the more difficult -- and I believe more crucial -- of the two options. In another future series, I will report on the story of one such group of staff that tried to organize, the repercussions they met, and a potential path forward.

Originally posted to greggish on Tue Jun 20, 2006 at 06:55 AM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  eating the hand that feeds you (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    buckhorn okie, peraspera

    Several years ago I did a stint with a 'liberal' polling group here in Vegas.  We were hired as 'independant contractors' but treated like migrant workers.  It was obviously a tax dodge but hey, we were working for truth and justice etc.  The regular staff were fairly sincere but moved from one community to the next, reminding me of a magazine subscription scam I once tied up with back in high school.  We did everything from pro-pot to anti-smoking.  The initiatives turned out to be mealy-mouthed and designed to pass while giving the illusion of political progress.  The entire enterprise was designed to make good money off any good cause.  It was my only personal experience with a professional political group and very disillusioning.

    The only thing I can conclude is that making money off of political action is an express ticket to hypocricy.

  •  my first hand experience with fundraising (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    buckhorn okie, peraspera

    My job with an enviromental fundraising group(which will remain nameless) ended after 2 days of frustration. When I initially was hired I was told that the first 2 hours of the day would be spent "training".  I assumed this meant become well educated on the issues.  Nothing could be further from the truth. It was all about raising money.   Basically the training consited of making sure the lyrics were completely memorized.  Here was a great oppurtunity to really educate young people about the problems saving the environment. An hour a day of environmental eduaction would have been tremendous.    

    Again, to echo something written by the OP, The money raised seemed barely enough to cover the costs of the canvasser/FM's/Directors/Materials/ ect. ect.

    We did'nt register people to vote, we did'nt collect email adresses of people who did'nt want to donate money. Wasted oppurtunities.  

    The problem that needs to be resolved is how do you afford funding for canvassing without having canvassers concentrate heavily on raising money?   I am dissapointed that the DNC is relying on the FUND model.  The DNC should be willing to spend money on canvassing, not hope canvassing funds TV ads.    

  •  recruit, register, turnout (0+ / 0-)

    I think we should forget about political education at a retail level.  Is a canvasser going to have more credibility than national speakers or opinion leaders?  More than Jon Stewart?  More than strong political voices?

    I doubt it.  This is a numbers game.  How many people can we recruit?  How many can those recruitees register?  How many can we turn out on election day?

    All the rest is fluff.  We cannot afford to waste time any more.  Stick to the basics and hit the numbers.

    •  re: numbers (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      buckhorn okie, BB10

      If you'd notice, my point is that this numbers game is wasting our time. You'd be surprised how little the numbers add up to in the end. After all, there are still more registered Democrats than Republicans. Yet we still lost the game. This particular kind of campaign is one of the reasons that's happened.

      •  numbers (0+ / 0-)

        First, I am not just a former Republican, but a former operative.  I worked in many GOP campaigns.  I deeply regret it...but that's another story.

        It is true that there are many more registered Democrats than Republicans, but elections are not decided on registered voters, but the final vote count.

        Republicans have devoted themselves to GOTV--they have no problem calling their people 12-15 times on election day to make sure everyone gets out to vote.  I think Democrats are far more casual about election day and that's why Republicans hold the power.

        •  re: numbers (0+ / 0-)

          It's my understanding (and I haven't worked on republican campaigns, so that's how much my understanding here counts) that republicans only started taking GOTV 'seriously' after 2000. And yet, in 2002 and then again in a big way in 2004, they got out some serious vote.

          I don't think this was because they called people 12-15 times on election day. I'm pretty sure the volume of phone calls isn't as important as who's making them to whom. Strangely enough, the Republicans do seem to take 'grassroots' more seriously than the Democrats -- they actually reached down into communities and established the kind of relationships that fuel serious turnout drives. The Democrats, on the other hand, pour huge amounts of resources into methods that don't deliver results. Why? Because they're scrambling, short-cutting -- not building. The killer thing is that the people who don't deliver the results keep getting hired. Democrats lose; progressive 'leaders' keep winning.

          (Mind, Dean seems to be trying to start over. That's good. But this particular campaign is still running. That's bad.)

  •  Amen! I'm sick of those bastards. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    buckhorn okie, lorenzodow

    And yes, I think those organizations (like are bastards, even if they do fund

    And I hate Green Peace for showing up on my college campus to raise money, but declining volunteers because they had "more than they knew what to do with."

    It's a 1980s model. It's been a tremendous failure for all progressive causes. It's a phenomenal waste of resources, and opportunity, and energy, and faith, and...

    I really do have some hope that something good can come out of YearlyKos in that way.

    I've bookmarked this diary for later use, btw.

  •  Instead of saying 'end the Republican majority' (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    BB10, lorenzodow

    wouldn't it be a better tactic to ask citizens if they want to end the Republican "monopoly" on power?  It appeals to a potentially wider audience; it portrays the Republicans properly as abusers of power; and it strongly hints that the "people" of the U.S. have been victims of that abuse.  

  •  Lots of misunderstanding and innacuracy here (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    First off, canvassing serves different purposes for different things.  The GCI canvass for the DNC is a pretty small thing in the overall DNC fundraising and grassroots strategy.  It does do a few things:

    First, it raises a public profile that actually does do something to make people on both sides feel like the DNC is out doing something on a grassroots level.  That's the small thing.

    Second, it builds a small donor list.  Small donor lists, as I'm sure you know, are the key to the new Democratic fundraising strategy.  Small donors will do $100 with someone knocking on their door or talking to them on the street and then they'll give $50 with an email every couple of weeks or months.  Want to know why Kerry is still considered a legit candidate for 2008?  He has an amazing list.  It's huge.  Biggest one ever.  Most responsive one of its comparable size too.  Lists are incredibly powerful.  

    Now as far as not using the canvass as effectively as what it could be, I don't disagree with you 100%.  But doing a lot of the things you talk about would diminish the results of the true aim of the canvass.  Saying "OK, you didn't give money after the ask, but now, I'll give you an easy way out by saying you can just sign this petition or promise to volunteer."  You'd be amazed (I'm not really) at how much that discredits and diminishes the results of good canvasses.  

    Should they carry voter reg forms?  Hell yes.  But that should be like a tertiary thing.  Like after someone firmly commits to a yes or no (and a good canvasses can figure out when that is, and really good canvassers actually know how to turn soft nos into yeses), they can be asked about reg.  The Fund ran the New Voters Project and registered more young people than ever in US history.  And the Pew Trusts that gave them the grant to do it, continued the money, so long as the State PIRGs (the actually grantee, which is part of the Fund/PIRG network) continued the work.  So now, the Fund does carry voter reg forms when canvassing in many places.  GCI, I have no idea.

    Here's the rub: the Fund has been around in some form for just about 25 years, consistently growing as literally the premier grassroots organizing network, doing some huge work, building up a no-name social change group (PIRG) into an actual powerhouse on the state and national levels.  They did it by developing techniques and treating organizing as a craft.  This is part of why running a canvass is important too.  The summer and winter canvasses are for many people, their first opportunity to get involved in grassroots politics on a professional basis.  It's not their end all and be all of grassroots politics, but it gets them exposed, and teaches them the skills, some basic, and some very advanced.  But while the Fund has developed a core leadership staff and national and regional leaders and infrastructure, GCI is very new.  Actually, GCI's core national leadership is now 100% former Fund or PIRG people, and they are arguably stronger than what the Fund has now.  They will pick up the quality of their work as that national leadership talent filters down into the regional directors and organizers and the local staff (which I think right now are about 2 steps below the quality of the Fund CDs and organizers - I have experience with both).  

    The "retail politics"  of canvassing is actually an incredibly successful thing.  People are about 3 times more likely to do what you ask of them politically if you talk to them face-to-face versus phone, which itself is about 3 times more likely than email.  Retail, face-to-face politics might have been a failure for progressive causes in your mind (it definitely has not, and unless you've been involved in grassroots politics you probably wouldn't know it, and that's not hard to understand), but it has been a tremendous success for the right.  So if there is a lesson to take away, it's not "ditch it" with respect to this kind of grassroots organizing, it's do it better and do more of it.  That's why the Fund/PIRG, and to a lesser extent right now, GCI, are so important.  They see organizing as a craft to be learned, with skills that can be learned by anyone, and a practice that professionals can ply with talent.  And they want anyone interested, who can handle it (if you think you'll win a Democratic progressive majority in Congress and the statehouses and on liberal progressive issues no matter where by working an 8 hour day, as opposed to a 12-14 hour day, you're aboslutely ridiculously out-of-touch and naive) and who has the basic skills (and right attitude - ferfucksakes, it's about having the right attitude) to come work with them and be part of it.  Does some energy get wasted and are some peoples' faith in progressive organizing get shaken?  Oh hell yes.  But it by and large overcomes all that in the amount it maximizes peoples' energy and builds the passion of those who continue with it, be it with the Fund/PIRG or GCI or whatever, or building on that with someone else.  By the way, issue-based and electoral groups look at 2 years with the Fund/PIRG as like 3-5 years experience with any other kind of org because having that professional experience with them is so hard-core.  

    Retail politics like canvassing and phone-banking are the basics, and are the most effective.  The problem is that some people don't like doing that, and they can't handle not being effective with it.  A small percentage of people don't like its effect on them as the canvassees, but that is about 0.5% of the population.  Get over it, this shit works, and it's better than posting on a message board.

    And as far as GP not needing volunteers, I'm sure that's true.  Volunteers are great, and important, but they don't always fit into the campaign plan that is going on.  So don't get all pissy because they don't want your help.  Oftentimes, volunteers can bog something down.  If the strategy has specific tactics where the goal is to talk to 5000 people about some issue, having volunteers might help.  But if the tactic involves a goal of raising $5000 for some reason, having some volunteers might not pay the rent.  So many times, I've worked with volunteers that dragged things down in different campaigns.  More often, I've had amazing volunteers, but it takes much more time, effort, and energy up-front to build a corps of talented volunteers (whose time you can't count on quite like paid staff - and accountability is another thing all together).  And that sometimes doesn't fit into a campaign plan.  Sometimes it does.  Don't think you know better.  You might, but chances are with some groups, their professional organizers (who are very different from professional political consultants, in that the former are passionate, radical, talented, and principled and pragmatic both) know what's up.

    Were I in charge of grassroots Democratic and progressive politics, the canvass would be used slightly differently, but for sure it would retain much of its character.  And canvassing and phonebanking would be a huge part of it.  GCI and the Fund/PIRG don't necessarily have it all right, but simply because you had a bad experience or think you know better doesn't necessarily mean they have it wrong.

    •  let me get this straight (0+ / 0-)

      Greg is 'inaccurate' because:

      a) small donor lists are so powerful (see how powerful John Kerry is!)
      b) 12-14 hour workdays win races (as opposed to 8 hour days, which no one has argued for anyway)
      c) it discredits a canvass to ask people to volunteer
      d) volunteers are not helpful
      e) 'get over it, this shit works.'

      What bothers me so much about this post is that you  wrote it on the assumption that Greg is trying to
      'ditch it.' He pretty explicitly says these posts are intended to show how it could be better. You ramble, blindly assert, and condescend.

      I feel like your defensiveness (which i used to share) is getting in the way of really having a conversation about this.  Someone needs to present a defense that doesn't rely on misrepresentation and unblinking allegiance to the status quo.

      Hey, maybe that person could be you (maybe that's on me)-- but please go back and re-read the series without assuming that the author is a moron on a spite-trip.

    •  Meh. Sure. (0+ / 0-)

      Small contributions are a valuable indication that someone supports your cause. But not that they have money to give you. A $50 donation doesn't mean "come back and ask me for $100 next month." It means "I can do something to help."

      Sure, I might give the first donation, but I'll refuse any further request for money unless I'm asked to take action. All those follow-up phone calls and mailing asking for more money are wasted on me: it ain't happening. Case in point: my $300 contribution to John Kerry in June '04. The bastard sold me to every list left of John McCain but refused to answer persistent requests to volunteer.

      I'm a supporter, not friggin cash cow.  If the follow-up asks me to do something, cool. Set me up with a group of volunteers to register voters on a Sunday afternoon and we can talk about a regular monthly contribution. I don't even care if any of us know what we're doing: we'll figure it out (humans are smart like that).

      I can't tell you how many regular people I've talked to who are pissed off about the focus on money in modern campaigns:

      "I wrote him a $300 check and he didn't say thank you without asking for $400."
      "I gave him a $100 and I didn't get an invitation to a single event."
      "All they want is my money."
      With a grassroots campaign focused on money, is it any wonder voters think our candidates are beholden to people with more money than they?

      Ask me for a day's income, and then do it again, and again and again. But what do I get out of it? Losing candidates and a bunch of junk mail. If I want to meet people, my money's better spent at or the bar. ESPECIALLY if I'm young.

      And that's the crux of it. If you can't handle all your volunteers, give them to an organization that can.

      I know these groups do a good job of training professional organizers. That's wonderful, but I really don't care whether we have an elite class of professional political organizers. If they don't mobilize volunteers, they're part of the problem (IMHO).

    •  I don't want to overstate this, but.. (0+ / 0-)

      When you say:

      the Fund has been around in some form for just about 25 years, consistently growing as literally the premier grassroots organizing network, doing some huge work, building up a no-name social change group (PIRG) into an actual powerhouse on the state and national levels.

      I think about what the Left looked like 25 years ago...and then I think about where this country is now...and then I think you might need to bring a better defense game.

  •  A heartfelt post (0+ / 0-)

    Reading through this I really get a bit disturbed at the mis-emphasis placed on some parts of GCI electoral canvass.

    First and foremost is the view that GCI is consultant-class venture for business as usual in the political world.  Quite the reverse, GCI is a new venture of grassroots organizers coming into the electoral world and bringing their expertise.  I mean I really find it a bit hilarious as I've seen a number of critiques at how issue organizers should be bringing their strength into the party, now some do and they're classified as consultants.  Of course, the expertise that was brought in for the 2004 elections was running large small donor fundraising, which the Democrats sorely lacked.  As I'm sure folks saw, leading up to and immediately following McCain-Feingold being passed, Democrats were in an absolute tizzy that the Republican party had a huge base of small campaign donors while the Democrats were mostly reliant on huge soft money donors.  GCI was an organization that could help fix that.  As Greggish notes this is mainly a long-term effort - small donors always are - their value is not in the first contribution (which is expensive to procure through almost any fundraising technique since it involves buying lists, contacting a huge swath of people and getting a quite small percentage of return).  And for acquiring donors, canvassing, while expensive, is an incredibly powerful form of initial outreach.  Peter from WI was dead on at how effective face-to-face contact is, it also typically builds far more loyal members than direct mail or other outreach, because it's based around a direct personal interaction.  Most importantly canvassing brings in a more diverse group of members than other forms of outreach - if you're a canvasser you're talking to everyone in the neighborhood or everyone who crosses the street and you end up with a greater and more unique membership base than if you're just buying lists of similar organizations for direct mail (which is honestly making a lot issue groups appear almost inbred these days).  So you can build a large, diverse, and stronger membership base with canvassing then with many other forms of outreach (I'll leave out internet here which also is quite strong but like all outreach has demographic restrictions - my point is not that one form of outreach is the best, but that canvassing is a good base-building tool to incorporate in building up any organization/party).  That's point A.

    Point B is in regards to voter registration.  What I see as lacking in this post is that this was the 2004 elections, when 527 money was pouring in like there was no tomorrow for voter registration.  OK, so ACT was clearly a letdown in 2004 and was a poor plan overall, but with that much focus already in the party and the 527 community on registration, and a clear need for small donor base to be built up, I'm fine with GCI not muddying it's mission by adding in voter reg FOR THE 2004 ELECTIONS AT LEAST, and insteading doing the one thing no one else was doing - getting small donors for a viable long-term Democratic party.  

    And that's where in general the criticisms of canvassing or groups like this just rub me the wrong way.  Because inherently they come from the perspective of "we already have the money."  The whole problem in the post McCain-Feingold world was that really, the Dems couldn't financially go toe-to-toe with the Republicans in 50 states without building up a whole new small donor network.  It always annoys me when the criticisms are not from a perspective of how one builds up a group from nothing but assuming the movement is financially and organizationally secure and then looking for the icing on the cake.  That was not the case with the DNC in 2004, it's not the case with many organizations, tons of orgs shut down all the time because they weren't attentive to the fundamentals.  That's where I look at the PIRGs and their vein of groups with fundamental admiration.  In the late 70's the PIRGs were campus groups - that's all just campus groups with a tiny national office helping to found more chapters.  U MASS PIRG, U Oregon PIRG - just small campus groups.  Today they are network of over 30 state citizen groups, 100 campus chapters, 500 staff (excluding their thousands of canvassers in the summer) with hundreds of thousands of members and a presence in all 50 states.  And they did it through just campus and canvass citizen organizing.  They built that all up from small citizen contributions and students.  Today they are engaged in lots of great organizing, not just by canvassing, but deep-level organizing (though they don't do citizen chapters like Sierra - that's not their model) and are able to because of the continued investment in their fundraising from a citizen base.  I look around at a whole host of progressive groups and see their members all being the same people, I see so many of them founded by and utterly dependent on a small core of rich donors and those donors' interests as they fluctuate, talking a mean game about deep citizen organizing and shuttering their doors the second those donors leave them.  The organizers are coming out of the groups who are most engaged with the citizenry, folks who's beginnings in the career were rooted in going out and talking with thousands of ordinary citizens.  If we're serious about a sustained grassroots movement, then we're talking about folks like those at GCI and PIRG and Clean Water Action and Greenpeace and Sierra Club and ACORN and from ordinary workplace union organizing like SEIU.  I mean seriously, what's the game here - let the rich funders run the machine but if we're asking for volunteers the game will change or connect hundreds of thousands of small donors, ordinary citizens, to the DNC, make the DNC dependent on them, and then we'll see a real progressive platform?  I mean I'm responding a bit to what I see here and some stuff I've seen elsewhere on canvassing, so sorry if this a bit all over the place, but it fundamentally pains me when I see folks talking about how their activists and then looking at operations like GCI and not seeing that this is citizen organizing moving on to a bigger and bigger scale, a scale that  might finally let us push through the progressive values we've wanted for so long now.  Because it's getting big now, it's starting to seen as being corporate, versus a continuation of the practices that little small groups, ordinary organizers, started to build with so citizens could have a say in the political system.  The folks at the top of GCI, PIRG, so many of these other groups, they started on the canvass - 5 years ago, 10 years, 20 or 30 years ago - and they've been working those 10-12 hour days for all those years now trying to build it to this scale, and instead of celebrating - folks act like they're corporate!?!  Jesus H!!

    2 other quick notes.  First I know GCI canvasses were pouring into MoveON PAC's voter mobilization offices right before the election, switching from fundraising to mobilization, so GCI is not just focused on fundraising or one type of organizing, that was just the project the DNC needed and they worked for.  

    The other is about sacrifice.  I completely disagree with the assertion that a "sustainable," as defined by greggish, atmosphere would lead to greater politicization and growth.  And I do so from experience - I've certainly seen all the folks who walked off because of hours and pay and many were walking off eventually anyway, and with some it was certainly regrettable, but you lose people all sorts of stuff - you'll lose members,  staff, volunteers all the time for any venture - it just happens.  But I've also seen the people who stayed and stayed because sacrifice was required.  Because they wanted to change the world and rejected out-of-hand that any group working for big money and short hours would ever do it.  Because their heroes, my heroes, likely for many on Kos your heroes as well, went to the wall and inspired them to do the same.  At SNCC they raced in around at night on backcountry roads going 80mph with no headlights on so the Klan couldn't lynch them, slept on the floors of ordinary folks homes, moving from house to house for years, marching right into the water cannons and police batons and dogs.  Gandhi marched them right into the army and into the jails.  The suffragists marched themselves right into prison, hunger strikes, and being force fed.  They marched into bullets at Kent State.  The abolitionists went to Kansas with their guns and basically marched into war.  And jesus don't even get me started on labor.  Those are our heroes aren't they?  But oh hell no, they bled and died so we could actually get to the point where all the sacrifice citizen-focused organizing requires is long hours and low pay  (how few of our heroes were even paid for all those struggles!) and now we want to work less, to earn more? Sacrifice is politicizing - it is a greater force for politicalization than any comfort is - it is fundamentally what breeds activists.  If I had started in a 8 hour job with comfy pay I never would be an activist today, hell I looked at a few places that did that at first and I jumped right into a down and dirty work-til-you-drop organizer job and fell in love with activism because
    of it.  I know a lot of folks who feel the same way, some of the best and most talented organizers I've ever seen - folks who are real hope for our movement.

    Sorry if I rambled, but I've seen a lot of posts by folks who didn't get canvassing, and didn't stay long enough to see that it's merely the base in building up strong citizen organizing.  And that really gets to me, not because folks like me are now getting called corporate or what have you - I have a thick skin (and yes obviously I'm part of the world critiqued here though I'm not with GCI), but because I see activists out there disconnecting from the fundamentals of how to get it done.  So what I post to the folks is a question.  Start as just yourself, maybe add a couple of friends - no funders, no money, no members.  How would you build up your social change and make your ideals come to power.  The folks critiqued here at GCI, etc, they started with nothing and what they are building and how they are building it is rooted in what they found to be the answer to those questions.  So how would you go about it?

    •  Thanks so much for using your heart (0+ / 0-)

      It would be even better if next time you used your brain.

      •  ok hold on (0+ / 0-)

        While I agree with the basic point, that's not a helpful tone.

        Look, ahisma, I understand the commitment of the people who do this work; the personal investments are incredible (all the way up the chain) and with so much sacrifice being made, I understand how anyone involved will be defensive about it. I don't want to denigrate your commitment to the cause. But I don't think you're really engaging with the points I'm trying to make.

        To be frank, I think that comparing this work to the civil rights and abolitionism is simply not helpful to the discussion. Those were social movements based on diverse groups of people collaborating, competing, growing, making new connections, making mistakes, learning from their mistakes, learning from other people's victories, using strategic agility to create solutions to problems when previously those problems weren't even recognized as such. Your model of activism is entirely antithetical to that -- it reduces political work to a basic, all-encompassing script. It's a business, an industry, not a social movement. I'm not saying that's inherently a bad thing, it's just a fact. But since the people involved don't recognize that fact, and put in inhumane hours under the belief that they are doing almost sacred work, they also are disinclined consider the idea that their business might not be efficient; might have negative externalities; might be -- like most large institutions -- deeply conservative and more concerned with protecting itself than serving its participants (or even its cause).

        Are you willing to consider that? If you are, and you find you agree with some of the things that I've said, what are you willing to do about it?

  •  Re: heartfelt post (0+ / 0-)


    I definitely didn't go through your points and am interested in doing so. There are some conclusions I'd disagree with and some things that are interesting, but I got into making an emotional point because I have gotten annoyed seeing some folks who've had quick interactions with the canvass, which by now has gotten to be a large organizing tool because of it's success, deconstructing it from a perspective of being a large business, versus building up from the perspective that if a group starting out needed to build a preliminary funding base and wanted that funding base to be rooted only in citizens, vs. wealthy donors on their board, this is one of the natural mechanisms of doing so, and that is still run on the same principles that allowed those groups to come up from nothing.  

    I'm afraid I don't have time right now to go into your various points, but I definitely will come back and post on that in the next few days.  But again, my main point is that the canvass only serves a certain function - it effectively builds a large, broad, and loyal small donor base in ways many other outreach techniques don't (I'll get into a comparison in the next post).  And that is a fundamental base that allows the higher level organizing to then be carried by the group by other staff.  Right now we have top Dems bickering with Dean about the 50 state project and the low reserves of the DNC - building that donor base allows work like the 50 state project to happen over the long-term.  Now when I post again, I'll go through some of the reasons why a canvass has to be so money-focused and the results that occur when it isn't (from having seen both poor and good canvasses at work), and thus why a canvass inherently needs to focus on it's function and why other aspects of organizing are therefore attended to by other staff.   or groups - but in short no one running canvass operations ever sees them as anything but a small component of successful grassroots organizing.

    I will say quickly, that certainly the folks running these types of groups are well versed in deeper organizing as well.  I don't have too much insight, but my general understanding is that work that GCI is doing with MoveOn PAC is focused solely on building volunteer networks.  And that's my overall point - in labelling folks like these as DC consultant class or business you're missing the play that's happening - that very experienced organizers who've always been focused on grassroots power, are now engaging entitities like the DNC, starting where those entities are at - such as their need for a small donor pool, and thus building a point of entry where the large swath of organizing talent in the grassroots community, that historically has been focused in issue advocacy, can help with building electoral power.  In short, very natural allies for netroots/grassroots power-building are entering the game, not the consultants that dominated party politics for years, not the vendors that made the DNC a direct-mail only organization for years, but folks deeply entrenched in the power of organizing, and the canvass is just the jump off point.  

    •  jumping off points (0+ / 0-)

      I'll write more about this in my next post, but it was actually the MoveOn campaign in 2004 that was my 'jumping off point'. What I experienced there was a failure of leadership. It was only when I went back to figure out 'why' that campaign had failed that I began to learn and develop this critique about the canvass model (of course, I'm not the first to make these general arguments).

      So, please read carefully through my posts next time. Think about what I mean by 'strip-mining' (I didn't pick that phrase out of the blue). And I hope you stick around to read about what happened in the MoveOn campaign.

  •  You are so right (0+ / 0-)

    The model used by GCI and others is very problematic.  My problems with them are these:

    1. They lie.  They attempted to recruit me for a canvassing job.  I was an experienced campaign field worker and canvasser.  I told the recruiter up front at the very beginning of the conversation that I was not interested in canvassing door to door for money.  (I had done an "observation day" with Clean Water Action and hated the model.)  This recruiter informed me that they had some jobs that involved canvassing for money, but they also had other jobs that were strictly organizer positions.  This was a lie. Despite my making it extremely clear in the beginning that I was not interested in their model (I wouldn't have gone any further if I'd known it was their model) they tried to recruit me anyway! With lies! WTF? Why would you hire someone for a job you know they would not be happy in? Why would you lie? Why? When I got to the interview and figured out they were talking about having us all canvass for money I asked what was up with that - and was told that some jobs were "part canvassing and part organizing" - whatever! They were still trying to suck me in.  Ultimately I was not offered a job but would not have accepted it if I had been.
    1. They make life harder for REAL field organizers doing REAL voter contact.  These groups tend to target the wealthier neighborhoods, obviously.  But, various groups using this model will hit the same neighborhood so often that after a while, people stop answering their doors.  The assumption is that canvassers are going to hit you up for money.  So GCI and its ilk are directly hindering the voter contact efforts of actual campaigns who are actually trying to persuade voters and get them out to vote.
    1. There is little to no investment in young leaders. Greg hits on this a lot in his series so I don't need to reiterate that here.  But people, this is vitally important.  These canvassers are learning how to shake people down for money.  They are not learning how to talk to people about issues, get them to volunteer, or get them to vote for our candidates.  If they are lucky enough to go on to a job that involves doing those things, they're not prepared for it by their experience - they are starting from square one.  So there's no investment in training leaders.  There's also no investment in the lives of leaders.  If you pay people shit and make them work 80 hour weeks (this goes for candidate campaigns too) it's not a sustainable lifestyle and they will go on to something else after a while.  If you invest in your people - people who are investing a significant portion of their lives in YOUR cause - they will be loyal workers and do quality work for you for a long time.  It's not a hard concept.

    So I have a big problem with GCI in particular, and with groups like these in general.  They are just not helping.

    How can we get over it when people died for the right to vote? -- John Lewis

    by furryjester on Fri Jun 23, 2006 at 10:45:04 AM PDT

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