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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.



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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.

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