Hello, Wanna Give to a Good Cause? 

Idealistic nonprofits hire a for-profit company to solicit donations. But the conditions canvassers work under are far from ideal.


Angela Badami just wanted to make a difference. After living abroad, the 25-year-old returned to the United States in the summer of 2006 amidst a worsening war in Iraq and the possibility that Democrats might take back both Houses from Republicans. Though she had no organizing background, she applied for and was hired as an assistant canvassing director for MoveOn.org, the national progressive group that advocates for things like affordable health care and a living wage. But as Badami would soon discover, her new job would deny her the very same ideals that she was canvassing for.

Helping to manage the San Francisco canvassing office for MoveOn, Badami worked seven days a week, from 7:30 in the morning to 11 at night. For each 105-hour week clocked, she took home roughly $375. That amounted to a little more than $3.50 an hour, about half California's minimum wage.

So in 2007, the San Francisco resident and her co-workers sued their former employer for refusing to pay overtime wages or allow lunch breaks. "There was this big moment when I realized things were not right," Badami, now 29, recalled. "I wasn't being treated properly and couldn't afford health care, but meanwhile I'm calling people saying vote for so and so for senate because they support health care reform."

Actually, the problem wasn't with MoveOn. Despite the logo on her T-shirt and the polished rap that slid off her tongue, Badami was not employed by the national nonprofit. Instead, she was hired and paid by Grassroots Campaigns, Inc., a fairly inconspicuous for-profit firm with a very conspicuous workforce.

Since 2004, the Boston-based firm has provided fund-raising services and personnel to more than twenty well-known national organizations that fight for progressive or humanitarian causes and political candidates. In addition to MoveOn, its clients have included such liberal torchbearers as the ACLU, Save the Children, Amnesty International, Planned Parenthood, the Sierra Club — even the ASPCA. Employees are sometimes shifted overnight from one cause to another, saving the children one day and the redwoods the next.

If you've ever been approached on the street by an Oxfam representative seeking funds to end poverty in Africa, or had a guy from the Democratic National Convention knocking at your door at dinnertime crusading to keep Washington under Democratic control, chances are they were hired, trained, and paid by Grassroots Campaigns, Inc. The for-profit canvass outsourcing firm grosses untold millions from its fund-raising commissions, and has recruiting offices in more than twenty cities nationwide. Each year, Grassroots Campaigns, Inc. employs armies of eager young adults to canvass on the streets or, in Badami's case, manage those canvassers.

Though most people don't know it, the canvassers hired by Grassroots Campaigns, Inc. work under conditions that would likely make the organizations they're championing cringe. Workers face tight fund-raising quotas and notoriously high turnover rates; the average canvasser lasts less than a month. But the constant pool of new applicants, often churned out by liberal academic institutions, coupled with the bum economy, has allowed Grassroots Campaigns, Inc. to continue to work its young employees very hard seemingly without much repercussion. In fact, they're currently hiring.

The progressive campaign outsourcing concept is loosely linked to Ralph Nader, who, as an attorney and consumer advocate, helped start a national network of largely campus-based statewide advocacy organizations called the Public Interest Research Groups. By the early-1980s, the state groups incorporated into U.S. PIRG, an influential national organization that, in need of a concerted fund-raising engine, started the Fund for Public Interest Research in 1982.

"The Fund," as it became known, hired canvassers to raise money for its campaigns, a wholly unique fund-raising approach that proved immensely successful. As The Fund expanded, it began outsourcing its services to other nonprofit clients, enlisting and dispatching thousands of canvassers around the country to knock on doors and work the streets.

Yet as it grew, so too did a litany of employee complaints, allegations of labor violations, and, eventually, a series of class-action lawsuits. In recent years, a multitude of blogs by ex-employees has sprouted across the web, portraying wretched work experiences of near-Dickensian scope.

Columbia University Sociology Professor Dana Fisher describes The Fund in-depth in her suggestively titled book Activism, Inc.: How the Outsourcing of Grassroots Campaigns Is Strangling Progressive Politics in America, published in 2006. A former canvasser herself, she notes the efficiency of the outsourcing model, but also the heavy toll on those in the trenches, many of who start out as impassioned, potential leaders in the movement and become quickly disillusioned and alienated. The modern Republican political organizing approach, she argues, has been far more effective in creating stronger, lasting relationships with both its employees and political base.

As The Fund's image began to tarnish, its founder and Advisory Board Chairman Douglas Phelps, along with several other board members, founded Grassroots Campaigns, Inc. in late 2003, one year before a hotly contested presidential election. By that spring, the for-profit enterprise had opened campaign offices around the country, and by mid-summer they'd hired several thousand canvassers to aggressively fund-raise for the DNC.

While The Fund still exists, it's assumed a lower profile. Grassroots Campaigns, Inc., however, remains closely linked to The Fund — its attorney in the Badami case also defended The Fund — and now handles many former clients. Phelps is still chairman of The Fund's board as well as president of Grassroots Campaigns, Inc.

These days, some organizations run their own canvassing operations. Several years ago, Greenpeace broke ties with The Fund and now does its own fund-raising. But for many, whose budgets rely as much on canvassing dollars as foundation grants, it's simply become more cost effective to outsource the burdensome task to an already well-oiled machine.

Angela Badami was offered $24,000 a year for the position as an assistant canvassing director for MoveOn's get-out-the-vote campaign. It was modest by most standards, but it came with the possibility of health benefits. And, besides, it was an opportunity to work on the ground for a cause she firmly believed in, and to get a foot in the door in the world of progressive political organizing.

"I really wanted to jump into the political scene on a more grassroots level," said Badami, who now works as a special education teacher at an Oakland middle school. She was offered the job in August, but the MoveOn campaign she'd been hired for didn't actually start until mid-September. So for the first month, Badami served as "Assistant Director of Canvassing" for the Democratic National Convention, which essentially meant standing in the middle of busy downtown San Francisco sidewalks canvassing for roughly thirteen hours a day, six days a week. Badami says that during the hiring process, it wasn't made clear that she'd be doing so much street work, especially given her supposed managerial status.

Long hours aside, her initial impression with the work was less than enthusiastic. "They have their rap that they want you to memorize for everything, in all instances," she remembered. "I thought that was really stifling."

But she stuck with it. In September, Badami and eight of her co-workers opened up a MoveOn campaign office in downtown San Francisco. Her new title was "Volunteer Coordinator," and her task was calling MoveOn's membership to recruit volunteers to come into the office and call voters in swing states. Although the nature of the work was closer to the description of what she had initially signed on for, the intensity increased, as did the hours; for those nearly two months leading up to the election, she was working more than fifteen hours a day without a single day off. According to Badami, Grassroots Campaigns, Inc.'s management all but prohibited her and her staff from taking any time off during those two months, and strongly discouraged them using their federally mandated thirty-minute lunch and dinner breaks.

"Everyone was feeling worn out and frustrated," she said. "There was very little autonomy."

Any complaints made to management about the hours or the pay were met with well-practiced shaming speeches, she said. "It always kind of turned into a guilt trip," she recalled. "They'd tell us: 'It's for the cause. As long as the cause is being reached, it doesn't matter if you can feed yourself or not.' ... It claims to be progressive, but not to its own employees."

Badami also aired her grievances to Wes Jones, Grassroots Campaigns, Inc.'s national canvassing director, who, she says, was generally unresponsive. "He said, 'These are sacrifices we all make,' but didn't say anything to the effect of 'I understand your concerns.' I was not happy afterward."

Grassroots Campaigns, Inc. initially declined to comment for this story, but after multiple interview requests, Jones included the following statement in an e-mail: "I'm ... confident that we clearly communicate the nature of the work up front and invest a lot in our staff's training and success," he wrote. "So, while canvassing is a tough job and not for everyone, it's a good first step into campaign work for hundreds of people every year."

Employee morale deteriorated further when Grassroots Campaigns, Inc. management made an aggressive push for staff to buy into the company's health plan, which, says Badami, was $300 a month, or roughly 20 percent of her entire salary. At this point, she was already relying on ancillary funds from her parents to make rent and feed herself. In the end, almost no one went for it. "It seems like they weren't understanding why we couldn't be part of their health care plan," she said.

The final blow came on payday. Badami and her co-workers noticed that, according to the notation on their checks, they were being compensated for working a forty-hour week at $11 an hour, and had been classified as exempt from overtime wages. "When we looked at that we said, 'Okay, something's not right here. We worked more than that and we're not hourly.' They were trying to avoid paying us overtime," she said. "We looked at the law and realized we were not getting the wages that we were legally required to get."

Under California law, salaried, non-commission employees can't be refused overtime compensation unless they are paid at least double the minimum wage for no less than forty hours a week, which in 2006 would have been more than $28,000 a year. Grassroots Campaigns, Inc. had already been sued a year before by a group of students in Oregon who had canvassed on behalf of the DNC during the 2004 presidential election, and claimed they had been paid the much lower federal, not state, minimum wage.

"Essentially, a lot of companies assume it's up to them who they pay set salaries or wages to," said Robert Nelson, an employment attorney who represented Badami and her co-workers. "Were laws broken? Unequivocally, yes."

It appeared as though no one at Grassroots Campaigns, Inc. stopped to check whether California had different rules than what they were playing by in all the other states, Nelson added. In running a business, he says, they were less than savvy.

The week following the election, Badami helped close down the office, promptly quit, and met with her San Francisco co-workers on improving labor conditions for future Grassroots Campaigns, Inc. canvass managers. The main objectives were simple: fair pay, meal breaks, affordable health care, and a human resources position in the national office to handle employee concerns. Going the legal route was not the group's initial intention, says Badami. But it became evident that Grassroots Campaigns, Inc. wasn't going to budge, and so, six months after her resignation, Badami and four co-workers hired Nelson, who filed their suit with the US District Court, Northern California — the same courthouse whose chief judge recently invalidated Proposition 8, California's gay marriage ban.

Nelson says that GCI initially denied all his clients' claims and, at one point, tried to resolve the situation by issuing checks for the difference of what the employees were making and what they needed to make to be exempt, which, he notes, "you can't really do." He says they also encouraged employees to sign declarations essentially stating that any overtime work had been done of their own volition.

The whole scenario was "just so hypocritical," Nelson said. "If other canvassing operations are like GCI, they should all be shut down."

The case, Angela Badami, et al. v. Grassroots Campaigns, Inc., was a class-action suit on behalf of current and former employees of the company. It resulted less than five months later in a $600,000 out-of-court settlement. The funds were distributed among the roughly 125 current and former canvass managers in California that had been denied overtime wages. According to Nelson, an additional 1,000 GCI staff received a small lump sum payment for a mandatory unpaid training day they'd participated in. For all her efforts, Badami got $3,000 — the equivalent of about two months of what she made working for Grassroots Campaigns, Inc. "It was good to have some compensation," she said, "even though it wasn't as much as we were really owed."

Despite repeated attempts, Grassroots Campaigns, Inc. declined to comment directly on the suit, as did Walter Siebert, the attorney who defended them in court. Wes Jones, the group's canvassing director, wrote in an e-mail: "GCI is in compliance with the laws affecting our employees. There was a claim in the past, and it was resolved."

While GCI is undoubtedly the main employer of canvassers, other progressive organizations also rely on young people to solicit donations for them. And the conditions they work under are similarly challenging. Chances are, you've run into one of them recently.

On a damp, wintry afternoon in Berkeley, a few months following the inauguration of President Barack Obama, William White stood outside of The Cheese Board in North Berkeley's Gourmet Ghetto, armed with little more than a stickered clipboard. It was lunchtime, and amid a flurry of jazz guitar and the pungent aroma of pizza, customers clutched grease-stained paper bags and walked briskly in his direction. Very few stopped.

"Take a moment for peace today," called out the 28-year-old Hawaii native, clad in black jeans and sporting a shaggy haircut, dark sideburns, and a scruffy chin.

"Sorry, not right now."

"Hi. Take a moment ..."

"Already a member."

"Have a minute for me now?"

"Don't have time."

Then the canvassing director for local activist group Peace Action West, White had made a short career of hitting up strangers for cash in the name of progressive causes. He cut his teeth on New York's bustling downtown streets, where he spent several years canvassing for Grassroots Campaigns, Inc. "In many ways this is a dream job," White had asserted, earlier in the day, in the comfort of his organization's office. "I get paid to fight for peace." 

But the work can also be demoralizing. White has literally faced thousands of rejections in his roughly four years as a canvasser, and he makes just enough cash to feed himself. Several hours later, after being rebuffed at least ten times in almost as many minutes, White admitted that the work isn't for everyone. "People doing it as a job don't stick around too long," he said. "You're going to want to work for a campaign you can believe in."  

He insists that the work he's doing on the streets isn't just about getting money; it's the most direct way to build a grassroots peace movement. Every donor becomes a member of Peace Action West, which advocates for a more progressive US foreign policy, and anyone, regardless of contribution, can write letters and sign petitions that White has tucked in his clipboard.

Still, the pay is miserable and the hours are long — typically four-hour street shifts with bathroom breaks only if some business owner is kind enough to allow access. Most canvassers make some minimal base rate that hovers around state minimum wage, plus a commission on whatever contributions they can harvest. Unlike some of the other groups, PAW offers health care to full- and part-time workers, but retention rates are still incredibly low; the average worker stays for only a few months, says White, who has had to perennially hire and train new staff. Like Grassroots Campaigns, Inc., Peace Action West aggressively recruits new hires, with near daily postings on Craigslist and frequent back-page newspaper ads offering "community organizing" opportunities for a weekly wage of between $350 and $600.

As a manager, White earned a salaried income that wasn't commission-based. But even that wasn't enough to keep him canvassing for long. After eighteen months working for Peace Action West, White quit in September 2009. He now works for a natural-foods shipping company.

"I needed to take a step back from working in politics," said White, now 30, recently. "It's pretty stressful. It's tough work, especially when working for something as abstract as peace. It can be really taxing, physically and mentally."

Following the suit Badami and her co-workers filed against Grassroots Campaigns, Inc., the firm insists it has changed its ways. The company has hired a full-time human resources manager and promised to pay overtime wages, allow for meal breaks, and stop the unpaid training days. Nelson's clients who remained in California report that they are now receiving the appropriate state minimum wage.

But it's unclear how much conditions have really improved for Grassroots Campaigns, Inc. canvassers. According to the job description currently posted on its web site, canvass directors and assistant directors still receive $24,000 a year, and there is no mention of overtime. In an online description, it says an assistant director's typical day starts at 9 a.m. and is jam-packed. The only mention of lunch is at 3 p.m., and only within the context of another activity, not as a designated break unto itself. At 11 p.m., the day ends: "Leave office; go hang out with staff and grab a bite to eat."

Not so surprisingly, the company was sued again in 2008, this time for firing three employees from its Chicago office who attempted to form a union. The employees initially sought legal aid from the ACLU, but as a client of Grassroots Campaigns, Inc., the civil liberties group had to decline because of conflict of interest. Ultimately, the National Labor Relations Board took the case and Grassroots Campaigns, Inc. settled, paying almost $18,000 to the workers in back wages.

"I never understood why more people weren't interested in this," said attorney Nelson, who's also a former journalist. "They're a company that bills itself as an extension of the DNC, fighting for workers' rights and liberal causes. Meanwhile, they're committing the most egregious and most blatant overtime and minimum-wage violations I've seen before I handled this case and since I handled this case."

Nelson says there was a certain genius in the way Grassroots Campaigns, Inc. manipulated its young employees. And the reason why he thinks the issue doesn't get much attention is because "the group of people that primarily get taken advantage are rich kids. A lot of them buy into the culture and drink the Kool Aid."

The model, says Badami, directly excludes lower-income workers who simply can't afford to make that little. "It shuts out the very people we should be inviting into the progressive environment," she said. "Anyone who's not being helped out by their parents with money saved up can't do this job. How can we really be a movement if only privileged folks have the opportunity to be part of it?"

Today, Badami vows that she'll never work in electoral politics again. "It really makes me think about how progressives organize themselves," she said. "Republicans make sure their young workers are hooked up with jobs and money, whereas we bleeding-heart liberals believe we have to be poor and miserable to affect change. Now, every time I see a canvasser, I say sorry."

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