Burned Out By the PIRG

From the comments: “Clarification”
March 24, 2010, 2:38 am
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This has been a truly interesting read, but I don’t want to bore with my analysis rather clarify that not all PIRGs can be lumped into this critique. VPIRG (Vermont), AkPIRG (Alaska), and NYPIRG (New York) have a minimal affiliation with the national PIRG network and do all of their own hiring, and issue selection processes. MPIRG (Minnesota) has absolutely no affiliation with the national PIRG network and works exclusively on state level issues as dictated by their student members.

To my knowledge, these are the only PIRGs that operate outside of the confines of U.S. PIRG’s hiring and organizational structure. And of course, there is always the Canadian PIRGs.

We totally agree.  And understand that, despite everything that has been presented here – the PIRG has great people.  It just needs some change.

Reader comment RE: interview

I recently interviewed for a job with the PIRG and I found it very beneficial that interviewees were asked to canvass for forty-five minutes during the process. Not only does it allow the interviewers to focus on objective qualifications (how many signatures did each interviewee obtain) that are extremely important to them and the future of their campaigns/livelihood, but it also allows the interviewees (like me) to understand that a) They are serious about canvassing, b) canvassing is not for everyone, c) if you do not like canvassing you should not take another step in their organization.

I believe a majority of our generation is idealist and would enjoy being a part of a non-profit and “doing good” in their community. Canvassing during interviews in a perfect test for the interviewee to decide important questions (“could I do this every day over summer?” and “do I believe canvassing is the most effective action to achieve social change?”–if your answer is yes you have found the perfect place to work).

My answers were no and no.

Email submission RE: constructive criticism

I was a new school campus organizer from October during the Obama
election until the following April.  I learned a lot about organizing,
which was my goal when taking the job.  I got burned out and became
very resentful towards the team of organizing directors managing me.
I still believe in the student PIRGs’s mission, although I do not
think that their mission is very clearly articulated.  Before I quit, I had been placed as the CD of the Albuquerque canvass office.

I moved to Albuquerque after quitting because that is where I am from.
I took a job canvassing with the Fund in Albuquerque because I enjoy
canvassing, it was much less hours, and I made a lot of money

Later on that summer I was fired despite being the top fund raiser for
the Summer.  I was fired because I hosted a canvasser led meeting/
social with the topic of canvassers talking about how they could pitch
in and more effectively communicate to make everybody in the office
more successful and less stressed out.  The CD and RD above me assumed
I was trying to organize a union.

Despite having attorneys as parents (parents who were also not happy
about me getting fired), I decided against suing the Fund for
infringing upon my constitutional and labor rights.  I’ve got better
things to do than whine about The Fund.  The two ADs of that office
have both apologized to me for being part of a management staff that
so foolishly decided to fire me.

On the subject of burn out, I say if you are burned out and do not
like it, quit.   If you see value in the skills that you learn as a
PIRG organizer, then stick around because those skills are very

Overall, as an organization, I think the public interest network needs
to do something about its leadership.  Right now it seems to be
infected with a very large dose of insecurity and ego.  Perhaps, for
some Denver training, they can commit to changing the self destructive
culture of being a Public Interest Network organizer.
This is a very strong and deeply embedded organization.  I believe
they can greatly increase their effectiveness and political influence
by taking a hard look in the mirror and making some changes.

To all you current organizers, I hope you do not feel as burned out
and stressed out as my class of organizers seemed to.  If you do, I
highly recommend communicating these feelings to your colleagues and
management staff.  Good luck!

Reader Comment RE: Canvasser safety concerns

I too was excited to join the ranks of PIRG and start beating back the special interest. I was sent to Orlando after three days in DC. I was expecting to work with college students, since I was hired as a Campus Representative, but we weren’t working with students at all. It was the first of many things that were going horribly wrong.

First was 16 hour days, and no time off. I don’t mind working hard if I am given some time to myself every once and while but living in a hotel with five other people didn’t allow “me time.” I didn’t mind asking for postcards, and signatures but I have an issue asking for money from random people. I have worked for non-profits in the past, but they were non-political and many people didn’t mind giving support, but asking a complete stranger for money for a political group is difficult and often not worth anyone’s wild.

The next thing I expect was safety training. While working for other non-profits, safety was there first concern. We were taught how to descern different smells (such as a meth lab) and what sitatuations to aviod. But with PIRG we recieved no such training, I brought it up in front of the group and simply told to be smart and not to ignore any houses. I also was told by my trainer that canvassing worked, but only 20% of the time. Why were we wasting our time then? The final blow to my ability to work as an organizer when I was canvassing in Downtown Orlando, at night and alone. As a woman I have always been taught NEVER go anywhere alone at night, espically in a city that is foreign. I wouldn’t even do it in my college town of 20,000 people! However, I put my qualms aside until I knocked on one particular door. A man answered, was very polite and informed me of two things. One the neighborhood was passing a non-solication policy, and two a few weeks back a young boy was severly beaten while selling candy bars for his school door-to-door. I was freaked out, and prompetly called my leader of the canvassing. I was told two things, one that they can’t stop you from asking (which is not true, if there is a non-solication policy, you aren’t allowed to ask for money) and keep going. I was enraged! Keep going?! After a person told me that to be careful because he didn’t know what type of people were in downtown Orlando? I said I wasn’t going to be going alone any more. I sat down in front of a well lit YMCA and called a Florida cousin of mine to see what he thought of the situation. He told me the same thing that the man had said, why are you by yourself?

The head trainer of my group then called me and told me it wasn’t PIRG policy to have two people working together. This was it for me, after two weeks of no time off and 16 hours days, I was done. My safety wasn’t important to PIRG, and I wasn’t going to comprimise it any more. It doesn’t make sense to place employees in danger like that, and why would I have to deal with an organiztion that didn’t pay attention to a simply procedure such as two people to one block and alternating houses.

I booked a play ticket home that very evening and was back with my parents the next day. I am glad that I gave PIRG a shoot and I learned what to look for the next time I am looking for a job such as that. I have learned many lessons but I will never place myself in danger for any cause.

We haven’t forgotten about this blog!
March 15, 2010, 5:09 pm
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Apologies for a delay in posts.  The life journey of this blog’s moderator post-PIRG has put me at a wonderful advocacy gig for a national nonprofit.  I am blessed to have found something in this economy and energized by a much healthier work experience.

I know the negativity is rampant here, because that’s what the experience kicked up – but I still vehemently stand by my position on PIRG.  This is only opinion, but my accounts are as honest as I can make them.  I think the things that PIRG states they fight for – affordable higher education, voter education, transportation reform – are MORE than worth fighting for, but their means of getting there are less than ideal.

A crop of reader submissions are coming shortly.

A comment from “Eastie”

Want to submit a story of your experience with the PIRG/Fund/Green Corps/whatever PIRG department you worked for?  Email burnedoutbypirg@gmail.com.

Anon, they ARE saying each community is the same. And that’s a huge part of the problem (or rather, “the model”). You’ve swallowed a bit too much of the Kool-aid and exhibit a disturbing amount of the Fund’s trained passive-aggressiveness.

I was a former Environment fellow, sent to start an office in a small Midwestern town during the election and told to register 2,500 black people (yeah CVP and Progressive Future… and Work for Progress and god knows what other name they gave it that particular week). We quickly realized there were only 2,000 people (according to the census polls) in the town who declared themselves ‘African American.’ Most people were either already registered, too young, or felons. The Fund gave no consideration to basic demographics. There had been no prior scouting. Not to mention there were 2 Obama offices (English and Spanish) within a block of us.
When we mentioned this to our RD, we were told to “find more turf.” We had an awkward run-in at Kinkos with the office one town over, who was under the Prog Fut guise (or Work for Progress… I forget which) registering minority and college-aged voters. We’d been canvassing door-to-door in their neighborhoods a day or so earlier. Even better was that our CVP RD and their PIRG RD shared a room in the same office, yet for some reason “Hey, so… you’re in town A because we’re in town B and canvassing your turf?” never came up. We were essentially self-cannibalizing.
When we pointed this out, we were at first told to “be flexible,” “find more turf,” “hire new canvassers/fire the ones that weren’t making quota.” There was probably something about sticking to the rap in there as well. The ordeal was never acknowledged as a huge mistake–which it undoubtedly was.

In the end it was all about the numbers. We hated those nightly conference calls where the Big City rattled off their thousands and the smaller towns were woefully behind their quotas (the one that was breaking even was doing so because they were registering mental patients at the hospital).
Success in the Fund has NOTHING to do with hard work or competence–which is precisely why so many kids walk away from the ordeal so thoroughly disillusioned. Rather, it’s how well you are able to conform–without question–to “the model” and parrot their lofty-sounding rhetoric. There is no room for creativity, compassion, or independent thought. Success with the Fund is brought about by completely giving up the ability to think for yourself. As PIRG anti-progress said: they’re called “bots” for a reason.

A great comment from Chase
July 17, 2009, 2:04 pm
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Send us your stories, like Chase!  burnedoutbyPIRG@gmail.com.

The previous comments regarding the PIRG geo-flex clustermess are complete BS. Sure, at first it’s about where they have positions available, but it doesn’t stop there. It extends into the summer canvass, your own personal canvass during the year, and then, (from personal experience) where you’ll go when they kidnap you from your life for an election campaign.

I was hired with Environment America (PIRG’s offshoot) in March of ‘08 to start work in August of that year. I was thrilled to be a Political Science major with a job immediately after college.

I arrived in August and was then inundated with the brainwashing, the forced social interaction (I was lucky to have a great incoming fellows group) and the uncertainty as to where I might end up. (Also, they take great liberty with what you say in the initial interviews regarding geo-flex… I said I would be open to the southeast… when did Illinois become the southeast?) Luckily, I was assigned to Florida where I had requested and was eager to get a move on making my arrangements.

But! We were informed on the last few days that we were going to be working on the election campaign for Barack Obama, as a separate entity, but still in support of him. I was alright with this since I supported Obama, but was a little concerned as to why I was not given an option. I also wasn’t given the opportunity to fly home and arrange my living arrangements for another two months. I was carted off to New Hampshire, Tampa, FL, and Colorado all within this two months. I had the same two suitcases of clothes and bathroom amenities for the entire time. There were no days off. No weekends, not even a half sunday except for twice during voter registration because the office director was as fed up as I was. I worked from eight in the morning until most of time eleven at night every day. On the door-to-door information canvassing portion of the campaign, for which I was in a wintry Colorado, I was not allowed to spend time finding warm clothes until a small group of us rebelled and demanded it.

Perhaps the most damnable thing about the PIRG’s is that they send you to random locations around the U.S. and expect you to find residency with friends or relatives within considerable proximity to the office. However, even though they ask whether you have lodging in other states, it most often comes down to wherever they need warm bodies. To be fair, they won’t leave you without some place to stay, but the idea of staying with a person you do not know from Adam is just a poop-cherry on top of the crapcake that PIRG is so known for serving.
So, three trainings, four states (including the original Boston training from where we were shipped off) and two suitcases later I finally made it home. My parents later said they were concerned because I was incapable of remaining in one place for more than thirty seconds. I was constantly needing to move, my nerves had been fried. Extra crispy.

One last thing, the one that finally did it for me. When I was finally in my office, I had no idea what to do because the trainings were solid on what needed to be done, but not so much on the “getting started” aspect. On top of that, the only other person that worked in Environment Florida (two people… fourth biggest state and there are two people) was in Miami doing his work from there. I was given random assignments from a guy in D.C. that correlated to a federal campaign for which I was given no solid foundation to complete. I gave up when they told me I had to drive to Miami to canvass. That’s a solid eight to ten hour drive. They had me stand on the streets of Miami and ask people for money. I left Miami and left PIRG.

Great post over at Philadelphia City Paper’s Clog
June 20, 2009, 6:02 pm
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Is Canvassing Exploitative?, Isaiah Thompson, 6/19/09


What I plan on giving PIRG canvassers when I run into them
May 14, 2009, 6:23 pm
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What’s the need for this blog?
May 13, 2009, 2:49 pm
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Many folks have asked us why there’s a blog to complain about PIRG, that it’s a waste of time, that we should shut up, it’s not productive, we’re bitter, blah blah blah.

Perhaps the bitter part is true.  But on the whole, there’s nothing wrong with carrying on a thoughtful and informative dialogue on our experiences working for the organization, and where it goes wrong.  We think there’s a huge need for an organization like PIRG to fight for public, not corporate, interests.  That’s something we can all get behind.  However, the PIRG is operating on a very outdated and top-heavy corporate organizational structure, where individuality is discouraged.  And for as large as the network of PIRG organizations is, we think they could be doing a hell of a lot more.

Things we think need a good fix at the PIRG:

1. Their websites. Every state PIRG’s and Environment’s website looks virtually identical, and it’s difficult to distinguish issues to a particular state.  Not to mention there’s no detailed listings of staff and contact information, other than executive staff – is this maybe due in part to the large turnaround?  If each state PIRG, Environment, and student PIRG chapter is going to be responsive to the community they work with, then their online presence should be updated regularly and reflect not only federal issues, but also state and municipal issues.

2. Social media. I was none too impressed by the PIRGs’ lack of social media presence.  For as much as they’re doing, they need to be more accountable to their constituents through innovative social networking.  The national StudentPIRG Twitter account, for example, has only a few updates.  Campus organizers often create their own Twitter accounts and Facebook pages/groups for their students, but I don’t see much of that happening in the higher-level offices.  I’d love to know more about what the heck the PIRG is working on, but if their websites and social media outlets are never updated, what’s the use?

3. Entry-level salaries. They’re terrible, and far below other entry-level positions in the non-profit sector, despite what they insist.  If you’re placed as an organizer or fellow in a major American city, $23,750/yr will barely get you anywhere.  And don’t forget they expect you to be completely transient, especially when you’re placed somewhere random for the summer canvass, or have to get switched to a new city for some ridiculous reason.  So it’s incredibly difficult to sign a lease.  If the PIRG could raise their salary levels, I guarantee you that more staff would be willing to put in more effort and stay around – and then less could be spent on recruitment.  Don’t they get tired of having to constantly train new staff when another staffer quits?  How does that make the model sustainable?  I know that I was constantly stressed by barely being able to make my rent, which adversely affected my concentration for my organizing work.

4. No separation of work and social life. Throughout my short tenure at the PIRG, I could tell that there was a very creepy climate of a mixed work and social life.  Because you were encouraged to work like a slave, the only people you would often see were your coworkers.  And then, of course, there’s the pressure to use your vacation time towards a staff vacation in Aspen.  If you don’t go, you end up feeling out of the loop, and judged by your coworkers.  It’s just plan WEIRD.

I could go on and on, but these are the things that bugged me the most.