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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, 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.