Canvassing organization’s policies draws criticism from students

Susan Du

Two weeks ago, yellow flyers advertising “Summer Jobs” and “Jobs for a Good Cause” were posted throughout the Northwestern campus. The Fund for the Public Interest had posted the ads, looking to appeal to advocacy-minded students seeking jobs this summer.

Students recruited by the Fund for employment are now signing up for observation and training at a local office, but some are finding that they don’t like what they have signed up for.

The Fund is the canvassing arm of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a Washington, D.C.-based federation of nonprofit state PIRGs that advocates special interests in product safety, political corruption, health care and environmental stewardship, according to its website.

But some students, like SESP senior Robert Gustafson, who were first drawn to working for the group, found themselves disinterested after getting to know the Fund.

Gustafson said he went through the organization’s interview process and received a job offer. However, after giving it more thought, he said he ultimately decided it was too much of a commitment.

“Talking to other people about the experience, they said it was a very stressful job,” Gustafson said. “It wasn’t what I was looking for right out of college.”

Working for the Fund involved a lot of work for very little money, Gustafson said. He added employees are expected to work their regular schedules but managers often ask them to work overtime or risk getting fired.

Canvass under attack

The Fund, which operates offices across the country, employs college students every summer to seek donations from people in their homes and on the street, in addition to asking for signatures in support of the advocacy groups with which it partners. The primary purpose of the Fund is to build profiles for grassroots campaigns and to raise enough money to impress politicians with the level of support the public is willing to give to special interests.

Illinois PIRG’s Field Director Celeste Meiffren said the efforts of the Fund helped defeat Don’t Ask Don’t Tell as well as Proposition 23, which would have suspended certain clean energy and air pollution standards in California.

Because its purpose, according to the group’s website, is to “increase the visibility, membership and political power of the nation’s leading environmental and progressive groups,” the Fund actually does not allocate the majority of the money it raises to the special interest groups with which it partners. The money is fed back into the system and used to pay employee wages and bonuses as well as to hire more canvassers. The idea behind operations is to heighten awareness for progressive legislation and build public support for advocacy groups, Meiffren said.

But a 2006 book by Columbia University sociologist Dana Fisher studied the group and raised criticisms about its policies and processes. “Activism, Inc.: How the Outsourcing of Grassroots Campaigns is Strangling Progressive Politics in America” talks about how groups such as Environment America, Sierra Club and the Human Rights Campaign primarily outsource grassroots organizing to the Fund.

Fisher wrote that many canvassers become involved with the Fund because they genuinely feel as if they are making a difference. She said canvassing work is about identifying like-minded individuals for advocacy of good causes. However, she also found that statistically, the average employment of a canvasser lasts about two weeks. Canvassers who leave typically reason that the physical toll and low pay of the job just isn’t worth it. Many also feel uneasy about the Fund’s office politics, according to Fisher.

“Canvassers reported that the amount of time they were given before being fired was arbitrarily determined by the directors of each office,” Fisher wrote. “Most stated that they need to meet the average quota over the week to stay on staff. Others, however, recounted stories of being told that they would stay on because of their personal connection or their ‘potential.'”

In addition to the mandatory eight hours that canvassers work Monday through Friday, they are expected to engage in campaign work before their shifts and attend social events afterward for no monetary compensation.

In December 2006, a Los Angeles branch filed a lawsuit against the organization for its treatment of workers, adding to the group’s negative attention.

Recruitment on campus

The Fund boasts some former employees who have gone on to achieve successful careers in politics, activism and academics, such as leaders of Greenpeace and Sierra Club. A website created in response to Fisher’s book lists several organizations where former employees currently work.

U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), who represents Evanston, praised the work of canvassers in a video on the website.

“It’s amazing to be able to take a message to the door to a perfect stranger with nothing more than a badge as a credential and raise money,” she said in the video. “It’s education, it’s organizational building, it’s the most important and direct and I think most meaningful kind of interaction. So my hat’s off to canvassers.”

Every year, the organization recruits college students on break, and they represent more than half of the Fund’s summer employees, according to Fisher’s book. In preparation for this expected influx of canvassers, Fund staffers recruit heavily on college campuses in the spring months.

The Fund has been posting with University Career Services for a number of years. In recent years, they have been reaching out to students by going into classrooms and advertising in Norris University Center. They borrow rooms from UCS for orientation and interviews, according to UCS representatives.

During orientation, a recruiter would introduce the Fund and its work to students, laying out basic information like the causes it advocates, wages, hours and minimum fundraising quotas. Students are then interviewed one on one.

When she recruited on campus last Friday, Meiffren also told NU students that canvassers typically work eight hours a day, making a base pay of $7 to $9 per hour for raising a daily quota of $100 to $125 each night. Canvassers also get to keep 30 percent of anything they make above the minimum standard. Over the course of the summer, a job with the Fund is expected to pay $4,000 to $6,000, Meiffren said.

Luis Samaniego, a college student from Pembroke Pines, Fla., attending Digital Media Arts College, recalled how he was originally attracted to the Fund after he saw an online ad describing the Fund’s role in saving the Gulf Coast and changing the world. However, after being interviewed and witnessing the subpar professionalism of the recruiter who tried to hire him on the spot, Samaniego said he turned down the position.

“I immediately was drawn to that, since I have always wanted to do my part in making a difference,” he said. “I remember stepping into their office for the interview and being immediately disappointed with what I saw. I was even more disappointed when the 20-something-year-old conducting the interview … pretty much told everyone in there that they were hired. Looking back, I’m glad I didn’t take the job.”

Fisher supports this claim, noting that because the average canvasser employed by the Fund lasts about two weeks, recruiters need to invite more employees to join the Fund than they expect to remain on staff all summer.

“Just about everyone who comes in for an interview is invited to try out the job,” Fisher wrote.

‘Not meant for everyone’

Rachel Shiozaki, assistant director at the Fund’s Evanston office, worked as a canvasser while in college and became a director last summer. Prior to working in Evanston, she worked for the environmental activist group Green Corps and was involved with organizing similar nonprofits around the country.

Last summer, Shiozaki worked with both Environment Illinois and Illinois PIRG. S
he campaigned to get healthier food in public schools as well as to protect Lake Michigan from invasive species. Specifically, Shiozaki’s role was recruiting and training new employees to do door-to-door canvassing.

“Obviously I cannot speak for everyone,” Shiozaki said. “But canvassing, like any other job, is not meant for everyone. We believe that anyone can canvass, but to do it, you have to do it correctly.”

Shiozaki acknowledged that employees were often fired for not reaching their fundraising goals. However, she said it’s the only way the Fund could maintain fiscally sensible operations.

“You need to reach a certain dollar quota so that we can fund you and keep our office afloat,” she said. “All the funding is divvied out. It largely goes toward campaign finances, materials, the staff needed to run campaigns.”

Shiozaki said her personal experiences at the Fund have been great. Though she could not recall how many college recruits lasted the entire summer at the Fund’s Evanston office last year, she said, “Both employees and employers are treated fairly and create a fun environment when working together.”

Gustafson also acknowledged that while the Fund wasn’t for him, he mentioned that others who have been involved with the organization have loved the experience. Ultimately, he said, it really depends on the person.

“There’s a certain kind of person who fits the job,” Gustafson said. “It requires a ton of commitment. There’s a ton of stress and pressure. You’re not going to be paid very much or treated very well, and you’re going to be talking to people on the streets every day. If you’re really into grassroots fundraising, you should do it. If not, I don’t think it’s worth it.”

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