Saturday, October 13, 2007

My first and last day of working as a canvasser

I will admit that I am having deep reservations about writing this post, let alone publishing it on both my own blog Oh Well, and on The Daily Kos. It usually is good advice not to burn your bridges with a former employer, but this is also a situation to write about politics, and my own impressions of working on the front lines in the ongoing political battle between liberal and conservative ideology. This is a situation where I can see contradictions and criticism within the canvassing program, and perhaps within the Democratic and progressive political establishment. This is a post describing my first, and last, day of working as a canvasser.

I’m going to start this with a little background. I have ten years worth of desktop publishing and database administration experience in a printing company. I was dismissed two years ago. Since then, I’ve been looking for work in this rotten Bush economy where the only jobs are “manufacturing” jobs at Burger King and McDonalds. I came across the website The Fund for Public Interest (the Fund). They were apparently hiring, and I thought why not? I write my own political blog Oh Well, and I also post political commentary on The Daily Kos. I figured this might be a way to jump into progressive politics, and still get paid something. I submitted my resume around three weeks ago, and on October 5, 2007, I went into an interview at a local Fund office.

My first thought when I stepped into the local Fund office was rinky-dink. It was a small, single-room office with a couple of folding tables set up against a wall, three filing cabinets, two computers, boxes of papers and files, and some folding chairs. There were three employees there—the field office manager, the assistant field office manager, and, I’m guessing, the canvass director. They were all young kids, perhaps in their low to mid twenties. They were all dressed in jeans, tee-shirts and sweatshirts like university students would wear. And I’m coming in wearing a charcoal gray suit and red power tie. I was told that the job I’m interviewing for is a canvassing job, with the pay starting at around $400 a week for eight hours a day. I interviewed with the assistant field manager, answered a few questions on how I would respond to an indifferent voter, and was hired as a canvasser. The field manager told me that her entire canvassing staff consisted of college students working for the summer, and they left to go back to school. I told the assistant field manager that I would be willing to commit myself to this job for a month. My interest here was to use the canvassing job as a stepping stone to get into more interesting work of research, or policy analysis. I was to start on October 10th, but my first scheduled day was changed to October 11th. I was also told that for that first day, I would be canvassing for the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), which is a non-profit organization working for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender equal rights. The assistant field manager told me that canvassing was the most important job there is in the democratic process.

On my first day at work at the Fund, I came in at 8:45 am. This office hired one other young lady, and we were both to be trained that day for canvassing. There were two trainers—the canvass director and another canvasser who has been working for that Fund office for a week. The training was very simple. First, I was given a script to say to people in order to solicit new members and contributors. That is the whole goal behind canvassing—raising money for the Fund, and for whatever cause they are working with. I was given the script on the day I was interviewed and hired, along with the rest of the employee documentation package. The field manager told me that this script was created out of so many hours of brainstorming, writing, test canvassing, rewriting, and focus groups. In other words, lots of time and money was spent creating this entire script. Here is the script for the Human Rights Campaign:

Greeting: Hi! Do you have a minute for the Human Rights Campaign?

Intro: Great. My name is ____. What is your name? Nice to meet you. The Human Rights Campaign is the nation’s largest gay and lesbian civil rights group. We’re out here today signing up members so I’m really glad you stopped.

Binder: Here, take a look at this (hand over binder, point to appropriate section). Right now, we’re continuing our work against discrimination.

Problem: As you probably know, the past few years we’ve had to fight off attacks from the religious right and the Bush administration.

Solution: But with new leadership in Congress, we now have a chance to promote equality by ending employment discrimination, expanding hate crimes laws, and granting same-sex couples equal rights and benefits. To make this happen, it’s really important that we keep building public support, and that’s why we’re here today!

Membership: So the best way you can support this effort right now is by becoming an HRC Partner. Partners make small monthly contributions with a credit card, which is a great way to give because it keeps our overhead costs really low and gives us the ongoing support that it takes to keep having a big impact. And it’s really easy to sign up right here!

I have to admit, this script reads like a direct mail campaign letter, only it is much shorter—a minute to two minute presentation that is enough to hook the contributor in to give money. And this is just one script—there are probably more scripts out there, created by Democratic Party strategists and marketing writers, to solicit campaign contributions for global warming, the environment, food or toy recalls, and a whole host of other progressive issues to consider. It is a science on creating a sales pitch here. And it turns out we had to memorize this pitch, to practice this pitch during our training day, and use it for canvassing. I found it especially difficult to memorize this sales pitch.

So let’s get into the training day. The training day was basically an hour and a half of practicing canvassing and the sales pitch in the office. The first part of the training was that we’d get into a circle, and one person would stand and give the greeting, while the rest of us would walk by and either say no or yes. We did that for a few minutes, each of us practicing the greeting. I’m guessing this was done to instill the fact that we’re going to get a lot of rejections—no big surprise there. After that, we broke into individual groups, where we practiced this script with the trainers. It is here where I couldn’t completely memorize this script, and recite it back verbatim. During the practice session, I was able to get through the greeting, intro, binder and problem. But I couldn’t get through the solution or membership part of the script. It is an easy script to read through and comprehend, but it was difficult for me to speak it, to find the pauses to catch my breath, and then continuing to recite the script. The assistant field manager told me that the best way to get through the script was to keep repeating it. She also told me again that canvassing was an important part of the democratic process. That was the problem I was having during the office training.

But the training in the office is only around an hour and a half. After that, we headed out to the field—myself and the young lady who were just hired, the canvass director, and the second canvasser who was hired a week ago. We headed out to a community college to sign up students to become members. We got to the college at around 11am, after which we took a half hour lunch break. Then we started canvassing. I was paired with the second canvasser, to which we staked ourselves out along a pathway which lead to the college’s campus center courtyard. For the next half hour, I watched the canvasser work the students walking by, trying to get them to stop and listen to his pitch. And here it was reciting the greeting over and over again to students, until one would stop to listen, and then he’d go into the rest of the script. He was able to sign up a contributor, which allowed me to watch how the form was filled out and a student gave a credit card number to become an HRC Partner. Then it was my turn to start. I gave the greeting to students passing by—Hi! Do you have a minute for the Human Rights campaign? Do you have a minute for gay rights? Some politely said no thank you. I gave the greeting to others. Some gave me dirty looks. I started getting a couple of students saying sure, after which I tried to recite the rest of the script, but I still couldn’t memorize it or recite it. I ended up having to pull out the script, and quickly glance at it while I’m talking to the student. This is something I have never done before, so I knew I was completely untrained. I even apologized to students, saying this is the first time I’ve ever done this. I was able to get one student to sign up to be an HRC Partner and give his credit card number out. We stayed at that spot until around 1:45pm, where I was taught how to expand my greetings from greeting students walking one way, to greeting students walking both ways. Then the number of students walking that pathway trickled to almost no one.

The canvasser thought he could find another pathway where there would be a greater number of students to solicit, but I knew that it was almost a lost cause. College students take their classes during the morning, where you will find a greater number of students walking the paths between class sessions. After around 2pm or so, the morning rush leaves and you get a lower number of afternoon students taking classes—hence, a lower number of students walking the paths. I’ve seen this plenty of times while I was taking classes at both a community college and at San Jose State. I tried to explain this to the canvasser, but I realized it was useless. So I just followed along as we walked around the campus, and then ended up back at the original path by the campus center courtyard. I canvassed right were the path entered into the courtyard until around 4:30pm, where we stopped and headed back to the office.

When we stopped our canvassing, and were relaxing for a moment in the courtyard, the one lady who was starting this job on the same day I was, asked me what I thought about this first day as a canvasser. My answer was that I’m not sure. My brain felt fried from presenting the same greeting over and over again for around 5 hours. It was a warm, sunny day, which meant my throat was parched. And there were quite a few times I asked myself do I really want to do this job full time? There were a few moments that I hated canvassing--mainly the monotony of presenting that same greeting again and again. I wasn’t disappointed at the constant rejections, or even the dirty looks. Instead it was just a slow, grinding monotony, where you have to turn your brain off for doing this job. I can’t turn my brain off for eight hours a day. And that presented a dilemma for me because I knew that this canvassing job could be a stepping stone to positions that I would be especially interested in, such as political research and policy analysis. But could I accept the monotony of this job for a month—especially at $300 a week? I couldn’t say.

When we got back to the office, we went into a debriefing. First, the money was collected and tallies were recorded as to how much each canvasser raised and how many people the canvasser stopped. I got a contribution from that one student with the credit card, and was able to stop 28 people to listen to my pitch. The others got two students to contribute with their credit cards, and took in cash donations of around $20. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that you could ask for cash donations—I was more interested in trying to get credit card donations. The rest of the canvassers got around 40 people each to listen to the pitch. We then each had an individual debriefing for the canvass director. The young lady who started that first day, was offered to come back again. She hesitated for a moment, then accepted on a part-time basis. For my own debriefing, I was told that I relied too much on reading my script, rather than trying to pitch it. I accepted that—I couldn’t memorize it. It was obvious that I needed more time training for this job, and the Fund didn’t have the resources to train me, or to have me attend another training day. I was let go. The director said that canvassing was the most important job in the democratic process, but there were also other options for me to volunteer my time at a local Democratic Party office, and use the volunteer time to move into a career in progressive politics. I will be paid for that one day of work as a canvasser. In the end, it was the shortest job I had worked at as a canvasser.

Now for the contradictions and criticisms. This is the part I’ve been hesitant to write about, the part that I’ve been thinking about for the past couple of days. I’m not critical of the employees, or the directors, that I worked with at the Fund’s field office. They were good people, perhaps a little young and idealistic, but they were committed to their work and to progressive change. They were out there to help change our country for the better. I certainly admire their dedication for progressive political change.

My criticism here lies within the system itself. I went into this job, trying to do the best I can. And even though I tried to work my best here, I certainly had serious doubts about my ability to work as a canvasser. I accept that as well. But going through the motions of this job and the training, I was able to gather my own observations of the process, and this is where my criticism starts. The biggest contradiction that I noticed was the most subtle—I didn’t realize it until I was driving home from that first and last day at work. Throughout the first interview, the training day, and the debriefing, I was continuously told again and again that canvassing was the most important part of the democratic process. It was important to talk to people out in the field, let them know of the issues, and to get them involved in the process by contributing money. It was almost a mission statement that was drilled into my head by the Fund’s canvassers and managers. It was told to me during my training session by the assistant field manager, after she explained how the script was created. It was told to me by the canvass director after I was let go. It was like a political ideology created by the Fund. And yet, if getting out and talking to people about the democratic process and the issues is the most important part of canvassing, then why is it the least emphasized, least funded, and least trained part of this system? I was given only one and a half hours of canvass training in the morning before I was dropped off at the college, to sink or swim, as a canvasser.

According to the Fund’s website, “Your first three weeks on staff are spent in an existing canvass or telephone outreach office working on a summer campaign. The emphasis here is on learning the basics of canvassing or calling, and starting to learn the overall structure for how an office runs.” I was only given one and a half hours of training in the office, before I was sent out to sink or swim. And much of whatever little training I was given was spent on trying to memorize this script, rather than going through the entire canvass process. The rest I had to learn in the field with my canvasser/trainer, who actually started canvassing last week. I’ll give you an example here. I was never told that in canvassing for donations, you could accept one-time donations of checks and cash. Now I know that this seems fairly obvious, but it was never really mentioned within the Fund’s employee handbook, the one and a half hour training program, or even in the script. What is subtly emphasized here is the Fund’s desire for credit card donations—both in the employee handbook and the script. The only time that cash and check donations are mentioned is on the donation form, of which I didn’t really study in full detail. In addition, the Fund emphasizes the need for each canvasser to sign up a quota of two “Sustainers,” in your first three shifts. Sustainers are contributors who make ongoing monthly contributions through their credit cards. So through my first day, I’m trying to get poor community college students to sign up for monthly contributions with their credit cards—if they even have any credit cards. I was only able to sign one person up.

Now I can understand the need for the Fund to get ongoing monthly contributions through credit cards, since it gives more money to the Fund than one-time donations. But it is so easy to forget that one-time donations of cash and checks could also be given, especially when you’re trying to process all this new information and perform the best you can in this job. So the office training isn’t there. And more importantly, the canvass director told me during the debriefing that the Fund’s training resources were so limited that they could only give me that one day’s worth of training and that I could not come back for another training session. So instead of keeping me and continuing to train me, it apparently is more cost-efficient for the Fund to let me go and train another individual for this job. In other words, the Fund continually spends training money to rotate people in and out of this canvassing job, rather than trying to retain and continually retrain the people they have hired in the first place. This type of revolving door training can be seen in companies such as Wall Mart, or even fast food restaurants like McDonalds. It is easier to hire new people and spend money training them, rather than retain current workers through retraining or higher salaries.

And this brings me to the second criticism of this entire canvassing process. Again, I was told by the staff that canvassing was the most important part of the democratic process. And yet, if canvassing is the most important part of the democratic process, then why is the Fund only paying minimum wages to its canvassers? Going back into the Fund’s employee handbook, the Fund pays a base pay of $300 a week for five shifts with an incentive pay that is dependent upon a percentage of funds raised above a threshold level. I’ll get to this incentive pay in a moment. But the base pay of $300 a week, full time for five days, works out to be a pay rate of $7.50 an hour, or $15,600 a year. That is minimum wage. The incentive pay is a percentage of all funds you raise above a certain threshold level. For example, canvassing for the Human Rights Campaign provides a 15 percent pay of all funds raised above a $200 threshold level. This is per shift. Now the Fund reports that the pay for canvassers, which includes the base pay and the incentive pay, averages out to a total of around $400 to $600 a week, or $20,800 to $31,200 per year. For the top salary of $31,200 per year, this averages out to a $300 per week base pay, plus a $300 per week incentive pay. The $300 per week incentive pay averages out to $60 per day that a canvasser would need to make for the Human Rights Campaign’s 15 percent incentive pay above the threshold level. Canvassing for the Human Rights campaign gives a 15 percent incentive pay for all the funds raised above a $200 threshold level. This gives us a ratio of 15/60 : 85/x = 5100/15x = $340 that is needed to be raised above the HRC’s $200 threshold level in order to receive the $60 per week incentive pay. Add in the $200 HRC threshold, and a canvasser is going to have to make $540 per day to maintain a salary of $31,200 per year (I’m hoping my calculations are correct here). I could only get one person to sign up as an HRC partner, who was willing to provide a monthly donation per credit card. Assuming the donation would be around $10 per month, we’re looking at a $120 contribution here. Even if I was able to sign up two people for a $10 per month, the total contributions I would have made for that day would be $240. To make $31,200 per year canvassing for HRC, I would have to sign up almost 5 people per day to make both the minimum threshold and the bonus incentive pay. That is almost impossible to achieve.

Now when the canvas director was logging in our numbers, and contributors, I noticed that the rest of the canvassers were bringing in two Fund sustainers willing to donate monthly to the HRC with their credit cards. I’m going to assume that this is the average number of the Fund’s partners that each canvasser brings in per day, which fulfills the Fund’s sustainer quota here. Assuming that each sustainer contributes $10 per month to the HRC with their credit card, each canvasser is going to be raising $1200 per week for the HRC. According to the handbook here, the HRC has a minimum quota standard of $200 per shift that a canvasser must raise before the incentive pay kicks in. So out of that $1,200 per week that a canvasser bringing in two HRC partners per day, contributing $10 a month, the total minimum quota for the HRC for that week is $1,000. The $200 is the amount raised over the fundraising threshold, of which HRC will pay 15 percent to the canvasser from that $200, which brings the incentive pay for that week to be $30. Add in the Fund’s $300 base pay, and you get a total weekly pay of $330, or a full time hourly pay of $8.25 ($17,160 per year). We’re looking at minimum wage pay here to stand outside for eight hours a day, asking people to contribute money for a social cause. Now both the field manager and the assistant field manager told me that the average pay for a canvasser is $400 per week, which averages out to $10 per hour full time ($20,800 per year). And HRC isn’t the only group that the Fund works with for canvassing. According to the handbook, the Fund also works with CALPIRG, where the incentive pay standard is 35 percent of funds raised over an $80 threshold.

The key point I’m making here is that the system is rigged to send most of the contributions into the political coffers of these groups, while the canvasser is getting paid minimum wage here. There is no monetary incentive to induce the canvasser to improve his/her performance, when you consider that the Fund’s quota of signing up two sustainers (Defined as contributors who make ongoing monthly contributions through credit cards), may be the maximum number that a canvasser may end up signing up per shift. This makes me wonder just how many people are rotated through this canvassing program through the Fund, and what the turnover rate is between how many people are willing to stay and work as canvassers, and how many people either quit or are fired after the first day. And all this time, the Fund continues to push this belief that canvassing is the most important job there is in the democratic process. If canvassing is the most important job there is in the democratic process, then why is the Fund paying such a low, minimum wage, and providing such inadequate training to their canvassers, who are suppose to be participating in this most important job there is in the democratic process? That is the biggest contradiction I saw here. It is a contradiction that I realize now, after considering just how rinky-dink the local Fund office was, or the canvassing director’s excuse of not having enough money to train me again for another day. I’m sure that the local Fund office gets a minimum amount of money necessary to run the office, and not a penny more. I’m sure that the field managers and canvassing director are paid a very low salary for their work--probably just barely above minimum wage. According to Jobs That Matter, which is the career webpage for the Fund for Public Interest, field managers get paid an additional $50-$100 per week above the $400-$600 per week salary for canvassers. If the average salary of a canvasser is $400 per week ($10 per hour full time), then field managers are making $450-$500 per week (Or around $11.25 to $12.50 per hour full time). So the most important job of the democratic process is tossed out to anyone willing to work long hours with little training, and lousy pay.

It is like a pyramid scheme, where thousands of canvassers fan out across the country to solicit contributions, with a great majority of the contributions flowing upwards to the political groups, who use this Fund as a cash-generating machine. And it is a slick way for these political groups to receive money for their causes, since they don’t have to spend the time or money to create their own canvassing program themselves in order to generate contributions—they can pay the Fund to canvass for them. In other words, the political groups are outsourcing their canvassing programs to the lowest bidder, which in this case would be the Fund. According to Wikipedia’s entry here on the Fund:

FFPIR and its associated and parent organizations' policies toward staff have been criticized. The Fund's canvass directors work well more than 60 hours a week (the "typical day" advertised on its jobs site runs from 9:00 a.m. frequently until midnight or later in large, urban offices), and are paid a starting salary of $23,750 per year, plus commission (as of winter 2005-2006). Canvassers also allege that they were paid below minimum wage and required to work more than a 40 hour work week. PIRG does not dispute this, arguing that they are exempt from paying canvassers minimum wage. There is currently a class action lawsuit from former canvassers regarding this issue.

Two canvass directors terminated at the Fund's Los Angeles office allege that the office was closed because they were trying to unionize. The two directors at the office say they had advocated the union because they were having trouble getting reimbursement from the national office for supplies and they had not received the health care coverage they had been promised.

The book Activism,Inc by Columbia University sociologist Dana Fisher, based on an ethnographic study she did in a stratified random sample of fund canvass offices during the summer of 2003, charges the corporatized fundraising model of which the Fund is an example with mistreating idealistic young people by using them as interchangeable parts and providing them with insufficient training; Fisher also believes that the outsourcing of grassroots organizing by groups like the Sierra Club and Greenpeace to organizations like the Fund has led to the decay of grassroots infrastructure and opportunities for involvement on the left.

The Fund has created a website to respond to a few of the criticisms raised by the book: The site includes testimony by former Fund staff who have moved into leading roles in other progressive organizations and other progressive leaders, including U.S. Representative Jan Schakowsky (IL), Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope, Dr. Woody Holton (Associate Professor of American history at the University of Richmond), and Randy Hayes of the Rainforest Action Network.

By playing this outsourcing game of maximizing fundraising with the minimum spent on canvassing operations, I have to ask what is the long-term political cost of Americans, who may become disillusioned by the shoddy working conditions the Fund imposes in its canvassing program? It is like this outsourcing by the Fund eliminates opportunities for Americans to consider careers in liberal or progressive politics, unless you want to perform monotonous work for long hours with low pay. I do not doubt the dedication and commitment of people willing to work for progressive political change. But I seriously question just how many of these organizations, like the Fund, can use the idealism of young Americans for their crass, selfish interests. How many American ideals are shattered by the Fund, and the system itself?

I can’t answer that question.

Update: I have cross-posted this through the Daily Kos, which has generated an extensive commentary on my story. You can read the DKos post and commentary here.

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