Burned Out By the PIRG


“It takes a certain kind of person to be an organizer…”

It’s no wonder the PIRG is so aggressive in their entry level recruitment.  That’s because they have a pretty low retention rate.  Like many before me, people get fed up and leave.  Now think about it.  If so many entry level staff leave before their time is up, maybe there’s something fundamentally wrong with the working environment.  But this thought never seems to cross the minds of those in leadership positions.  That’s because most of these people have, for whatever reason, been able to stick it out for so long, and know the PIRG model as the only organizing model on the planet.

Don’t let them fool you again. Don’t let them think you are worthless when it comes to working on a campaign.  You can be an organizer and not work eighty hours a week.  There are many different ways of organizing communities and getting constituents excited about different policy issues.  Though PIRG has many good ideas, in order to be truly successful you ALWAYS have to think outside the box.  The PIRG does its best to discourage that.  Don’t think that their way is the only way.  There are still many other kinds of career opportunities out there to create social change – and get paid what you deserve.



The job

I realize that there actually isn’t a lot I can say about the job experience itself, because a lot of what I would describe would give much of it away.  As much as it would add to the story, I’m not going to risk calling anyone out (but boy, would I love to).  So let’s just get down to brass tacks.

As a campus organizer, you’re expected in the first week and often second week to run a massive recruitment drive – bringing students in to volunteer and/or intern on the different StudentPIRG campaigns and attend the “Kickoff Meeting”, or “General Interest Meeting (GIM)”.  Tabling in a student center was the most effective way of reaching out to students – many other student organizations at the campus would do the same thing.  The other tactics included class raps, which basically consisted of interrupting a class to talk about the PIRG chapter and have students fill out an interest card, and phonebanking ALL of the contacts you made during recruitment to get them to say yes to volunteering for an event and attending the GIM meeting.

I do agree with the PIRG on this principle – the sooner you reach out to someone who signs up to volunteer, the better.  This is a fundamental of every successful campaign.  But for one single organizer to implement with students who were just learning the ropes, it was exhausting.

There was a script for every kind of interaction possible – from speaking to classes, to phonebanking, to training students to table, to training them on how to communicate.  There were so many methods that I often forgot exactly what it was that we were doing this for.

The campus organizer is also expected to run an internship program, complete with a weekly class – a great incentive to get students involved in leadership positions (and get course credit!) on the three plus campaigns you were expected to run in a semester.  This did take a lot of weight off my back, but don’t you worry – if my staff director saw me being able to take a step back, there was always some other thing to do.

What’s not mentioned in the job description is that in addition to worrying about your campus and students – you’re expected to play a role in recruiting future entry-level PIRG staff.  We’d be assigned to another campus – curiously not our own – and expected to “ID”, if not stalk – dozens of potential staff by researching Facebook profiles, student organizations on campus, and so on.

And let’s not forget the best part of all – when students on campus go on break for the summer, you’re expected to be a canvass director for those three or so months.  Oh joy!  Throughout the year, you’re also expected to squeeze in ten days of door-to-door or street canvassing, which is intended to train you for the summer.  Are you serious?  That’s really enough time for someone with no fundraising experience to be ready to run their own canvass?

In many cases, my colleagues struggled to find summer housing and worry about the rent for their current living situation because they were asked to run a canvass in a completely different city.  Many people would end up semi-homeless for that entire summer, crashing on couches or in the canvass office.  Lucky for me, I didn’t stick it out for the summer.

I mentioned this before – don’t let PIRG fool you when they say “Oh, well we’re activists – we’re not here to make a lot of money!”  But PIRG is a massive organization, if you weren’t able to figure that out already.  They subsist on a massive canvassing operation of regular donors, and get quite a lot of grant money from federal and local benefactors and foundations.  If I had been working for a small, truly grassroots organization, I would have understood the pay cut.  But these guys are not lacking in funds.

PIRG takes advantage of an entry level worker’s naivete – they advertise the starting salary right around 23,750 – but in the first year, much of that salary is your “health earnings” which go to paying your premium.  Though this is common practice at many other organizations and companies, it’s not very clear until you receive the first paycheck.  So you don’t walk home with much in your bank account.

The PIRG also funds an almost fully subsidized vacation in Aspen close to Christmas.  For a week, you get free housing, food, and discounted activities at the resort.  In your first year on staff, you cannot use your vacation time until the completion of your first year, so you could “borrow” time to go to Aspen.   Sure, Aspen itself was awesome and debaucherous.  But couldn’t the money they spend on this be better off somewhere else?   I’m pretty sure they do Aspen to ensure everyone takes the same time off.  Forget about seeing your family – you can get drunk and screw your co-workers in Aspen!

Having worked as an intern with other organizations and in a legislative office – I was already prepared for this line of work being much more than the standard 40 hours a week.  After a while, I found it egregiously insulting by how much responsibility I was asked to take on by my staff director and how little I was receiving in compensation.  60 hours was a slow week – 75 was the standard.  When I wrote the director of one of my summer internships for an organization that did similar constituent and legislative organizing as PIRG, she was aghast and concerned for my well-being.  “Having the chance to take on leadership and responsibility in an entry level job is not something you come across that often.  But what you’re expected to do is just ridiculous.”



PIRG Training

They don’t do no messin’ around at the StudentPIRGs.  Not long after I accepted the job, they flew me out to one of the central offices to begin training.  I was hired at an irregular time – most campus organizers were hired to train during the summer and hit the ground running for the fall semester. The group I trained with kind of just came right into it.

I am going to say that the training was definitely useful.  The reason PIRG still exists is because their model of organizing can definitely be effective.  I learned a lot from the campaign planning portion of the training – how to put it on paper and make it clear and concise for the people you are organizing.

What was frustrating about the training (and ultimately, throughout my experience at the college campus) was the insistence on scripted “raps” you were expected to use when you are trying to draw people into the student chapter at a tabling event.  Even though the PIRG was placing us at a number of very unique college campuses, both urban and rural, it was almost frowned upon when I tried to tailor the rap to my college campus.  If I added an example of something on my college campus, I’d get a “well, let’s just stick to what’s there” kind of response.  But wait – shouldn’t we be trying to draw in people to our cause with examples they can relate to and understand?

What I’m saying is – the way the campus organizer model is set-up is to encourage one to follow everything by the book.  In a way,  PIRG trains entry-level organizers as if they’ve never had an ounce of activist or public speaking experience – and yet, the candidates they seek for these entry level positions are expected to have those skills.  So basically it’s their way or the highway.

I think the funniest part of training was when they had everyone read excerpts from Saul Alinsky and Cesar Chavez.  It was almost as if they included that just to give us the feeling that we were a part of something radical and refreshing.  But really, I think Alinsky and Chavez would have groaned at the sight of an entry level PIRG organizer.  So many of the skills that we were expected to bring to the college campus were full of contradictions that did more harm than good to the community.



Accepting the PIRG job

An anxious week and a half later, I got a call from a PIRG staffer in the area.  She called to congratulate me on a position they had open.  It was NOT a fellowship position.  They wanted me to join as a campus organizer.

You see, the PIRG usually likes it when you don’t put down on geographic preference.  They’ll ship you just about anywhere.  But because I had an amazing group of friends, family close by, and my boyfriend – I DID want to be an organizer, but I wanted to be in my own community without sacrificing everything else.  Oh, little did I know that sacrifice would come anyway, but that’s another story for another post.

“So we didn’t have any openings around for a fellowship, but we do want to welcome you on as a campus organizer.  Because of your experience, we would like to hire you on as more experienced staff.”

I was a little leery of the campus organizer position – I had so badly wanted to sharpen my teeth in one-on-one research-based advocacy with policymakers and elected officials – that’s where my experience was.  Nevertheless, I decided to take the dive – and in the end, I thought having some field organizing would be good for my resume.  Why not?  I had been turned down in the second round for two other positions I had interviewed in the last month – so, uh, third time’s a charm?



The PIRG application process

So after reading all the aforementioned job descriptions, I was stoked and ready to apply for a PIRG job.  The one that seemed like a good fit for me was one of the fellowship positions – I’d already had some campaign experience at the state and federal levels, and working as an intern under a US Congressman in DC a couple summers back.  I was ready to devote two years to a job I knew I’d be excited by.

PIRG does a lot of recruiting on college campuses through information sessions and first round interviews conducted by current PIRG organizers or fellows.  Unfortunately due to previous commitments, I missed those on campus opportunities, so I just went ahead and sent my cover letter and resume to the “jobs@uspirg.org” email address.  I tried to see if I could send my cover letter and resume to the local state office where I hoped to work, but like I mentioned before – the PIRG does all of their hiring centrally, not through the individual states.  I brushed it off, and anticipated hearing back from someone.

It took a long time.  I actually emailed the address about a week or so later, checking to see if they had actually received my cover letter and resume.  Soon enough, I received an invitation for a first round interview – over the phone.  I found this a little strange – why were they interviewing me over the phone when there was a state PIRG office about eight miles from campus? No matter – I happily obliged and was just excited to get the process rolling.

I scheduled my telephone interview via some database website, and had a good conversation with a PIRG employee a few days later.  They asked some basic stock questions about my experience, my interests, and personality.  About thirty minutes later, my interviewer invited me to take part in an in-person second round interview in the nearby office with a staff member – but three weeks later.  three weeks?!  I wanted some kind of decision, but whatever.  I was glad I hadn’t screwed it up.  Woo job.

Three weeks later, I finally arrived at my interview date.  The person with whom I had been scheduled to talk to was not actually in, and I ended up speaking with a different member of the staff, who ended up being 45 minutes late.  Really?  I wasn’t going to get mad, but needless to say it was frustrating.  I had to reschedule a meeting with my major adviser because of it, as I was just finishing up my thesis.  The interview, however, went really well, and I was told I would have a decision in two weeks.



Looking into a job with PIRG

Of course, like many others, I was drawn into the career opportunities at PIRG because of the sheer experience and skills they would empower me with.  From the job descriptions, I was excited by the opportunities I had yet to see in another entry level position.  I had experience as an intern organizing with exciting non-profits in college, and joining the PIRG just seemed like the right kind of transition.

Entry-level opportunities at PIRG seem to consist of: the campus organizer, the fellow, or the canvass directors.  The Green Corps, which is also part of the PIRG, is another entry-level opportunity for those looking to go into environmental organizing – it acts as a sort of “field school”.

Descriptions of all positions:

Canvass Directors and Assistant Canvass Directors with the Fund, also known as the “Citizen Outreach Director”

As a Citizen Outreach Director for the Fund, you run a campaign office in one of dozens of cities throughout the country. The staff you supervise educates citizens about the issues and gets them involved in campaigns to win progressive change. In essence, you build a team of committed activists who, in turn, mobilize hundreds or thousands of citizens to take action.

The Sierra Club is battling international timber and oil companies to preserve some of our last remaining wild lands. The Human Rights Campaign is fighting bigotry to protect the civil rights of all Americans, regardless of sexual orientation. Environment America is winning clean, renewable energy laws across the country.

At Fund for the Public Interest, we work with these and other leading progressive groups to help fight for the future of our health, our environment and our democracy. We are looking for candidates to join us as Canvass Directors and Telephone Outreach Directors.

RESPONSIBILITIES:

Staff Management

  • Recruit and manage a campaign staff of 10-40 canvassers or callers.
  • Teach effective canvassing and campaigning techniques to staff.
  • Identify strong staff and teach them to run local campaigns and develop leadership skills.
  • Run staff meetings and leadership trainings.
  • Arrange briefings and issue workshops to educate and motivate staff.
  • Evaluate staff performance and give ongoing feedback.

Canvassing and Field Work

  • Reach or exceed your office’s fundraising and membership goals. Most offices have goals of $250,000 raised and 5,000 members identified each year.
  • Canvass door-to-door, by telephone or in public places (depending on the position) three times each week to train staff, raise money, identify and activate members, and educate the public on the issues.
  • Oversee all administrative functions related to fundraising, membership development, campaign work and general office management.

Campaign Strategies

  • Run letter-writing or petition drives to state legislators, local government, corporate boards and congressional representatives.
  • Build coalitions of local and state organizations and elected officials.
  • Identify local activists within state legislative and congressional districts. Organize them into networks for quick political action.
  • Attract media coverage for campaigns. Send out news releases, hold news conferences and meet with editorial boards to release research, expose problems and promote solutions.

TRAINING:
Staff will participate in an intensive, paid training program for the first four weeks of the job. Trainings are held on an ongoing basis—and for students graduating this year, the training will start in July. This initial training focuses on staff management and canvassing and also includes sections on campaign strategy, media and public speaking. All staff participate in additional regional trainings and staff meetings throughout the year.

Campus Organizers

Campus Organizers lead a variety of public interest campaigns on their campuses, giving students an opportunity to solve pressing social problems. Among the many recent examples are: The Oberlin College chapter’s Transit Project which documented the need for and benefits of expanding public transit, negotiated a program with the local authorities, and persuaded the student body to fund the project; student interns and Campus Organizers from the WISPIRG chapters gained media attention about local water quality issues, generated grassroots support, and testified before state regulators-a campaign which resulted in the state adopting tough water pollution “runoff” standards; Campus Organizers and students from the MASSPIRG chapters convinced the state Senate to vote in favor of preserving public land; and at the University of Connecticut, student interns organized community service projects that raised over $10,000 to fight hunger and homelessness.

Campus Organizers develop educational programs to teach citizenship skills and inform the campus community about important public interest issues. Campus Organizers also oversee an internship program, through which students can earn academic course credit for public interest research and advocacy.

Campus Organizers build active, cohesive and highly visible campus chapters that are recognized by faculty and student leaders as an asset to the campus community. In the summer months and over the winter break, Campus Organizers learn to canvass and run effective citizen outreach campaigns.

It’s worth noting that many of these chapters are started by PIRG organizers, who come into the school and often work with the student government to build support for a full time chapter funded by a fee on the student’s bill.  The way in which these fees work and where the money goes is often sketchy and hard to explain – more on that later, as well.

US/State PIRG Fellowship

The goal of a PIRG Fellowship is to help develop leaders for the public interest movement. You might see yourself becoming a field organizer, advocate-or even director of a public interest group someday. As a PIRG Fellow, you gain hands-on experience in organizing, advocating and leading public interest campaigns in your first year on staff. More importantly, you get real results, whether at the local, state or federal level. And your experience is complemented by intensive training and the direction and advice of a senior mentor.

As a PIRG Fellow, you’ll build expertise on global warming, campaign reform or another social problem. You conduct research, make the case for solutions, act as a spokesperson to the media, build diverse coalitions, write grants, and develop the kind of politically powerful support you need to win. Your day-to-day work might include meeting with a state or national decision-maker, researching or writing a report, conducting a news conference, or directing a citizen outreach campaign. Upon successful completion of the two-year program, you’ll be eligible for a leadership role within the organization.

Environment America, which I mentioned in the last post, being the environmental policy wing of PIRG separate from the State PIRG organizations (which work more on consumer, media, and transportation issues) also has its own fellowship program.

Green Corps

Green Corps’ Field School for Environmental Organizing trains college graduates to run environmental campaigns, starting by building a core group of activists and finishing by convincing decision-makers to pass laws, change policies and create reforms to protect our environment.  But Green Corps is more than a school – it’s a real-world endeavor.  Trainees start working on campaigns from the start of their education.  They make a difference, starting on Day 1.

Green Corps’ one-year, full-time, paid Field School for Environmental Organizing includes intensive classroom training, hands-on field experiencecareer placement in positions with leading environmental groups.




What is the PIRG?

It’s worth intro-ing the PIRG as an organization before going into the intricacies of my experience with the position.  Even though I had to defend the principles and history of the organization on a daily, if not hourly, basis, I still am not quite sure how to describe it.  The US PIRG is made up of several state-based PIRGs (The State PIRGs), college chapters(The StudentPIRGs), Environment America (the wing that works closely on environmental policies on the federal level and in the states), fundraising arms (“The Fund”) and other affiliated groups that use the same kind of organizing model (Green Corps, for instance). The trusty PIRG site will provide you with a better analysis than I:

The PIRG’s mission statement (http://www.uspirg.org/about-us/mission):

U.S. PIRG is an advocate for the public interest. When consumers are cheated, or the voices of ordinary citizens are drowned out by special interest lobbyists, U.S. PIRG speaks up and takes action. We uncover threats to public health and well-being and fight to end them, using the time-tested tools of investigative research, media exposés, grassroots organizing, advocacy and litigation. U.S. PIRG’s mission is to deliver persistent, result-oriented public interest activism that protects our health, encourages a fair, sustainable economy, and fosters responsive, democratic government.

Trusty ol’ Wikipedia breaks it down even better:

The US Public Interest Research Group (also known as PIRG) is a political lobby non-profit organization in the United States and Canada, composed of self-governing affiliates at the state and province level. Its fundraising arm is the Fund for Public Interest Research (“the Fund”).

….

The first PIRG was a public interest law firm started by Ralph Nader in Washington, D.C. and was much different from the modern conception of PIRG. The State PIRGs emerged in the early 1970s on college campuses across the country.

MPIRG (Minnesota) was the first state PIRG to incorporate (on February 17, 1971), and today is one of the few to remain independent from USPIRG and the Fund Following the lead of Minnesota, students in Oregon (OSPIRG) and then Massachusetts (MASSPIRG), and finally many other states and Canadian provinces incorporated chapters of PIRG. The PIRGs are responsible for many of the Bottle Bills across the country.

After students organized on college campuses for nearly 10 years, the different State PIRGs established the D.C. arm U.S. PIRG to advocate for change on the National level. Nearly simultaneously, the PIRGs founded the Fund For Public Interest Research (FFPIR), the fundraising and citizen outreach arm of the PIRGs. The Fund hires canvassers to go door-to-door or stand on street corners and fundraise for their respective organizations by signing up members and collecting donations (or membership dues). There are roughly 60 Fund canvass offices across the country.

The way in which these PIRG organizations are funded is through a very complicated and annoying process through these FFPIR canvass offices, or mandatory fees on a college student’s bill.

For the StudentPIRG chapters:

Student PIRG chapters are typically funded through either a waiveable or a mandatory student fee assessed to each student at the college or university. However, this funding system is controversial due to the political nature of PIRG work. Nationally there were several attempts to remove the PIRG chapters from college campuses, with several being removed, several being retained by majority vote of the student bodies, and many student PIRG chapters reinstated on the contingency that they would solicit their funds directly from individual students rather than by addenda to tuition. Student fees are used only to support Students PIRG chapters.

For the State PIRG and Environment America chapters:

State PIRGs are funded through three sources: door and street canvass revenues, tele-marketing revenues, and grant funding.

The citizen membership of the PIRGs is largely built through fund raising door-to-door, or in high-traffic public areas. The Fund for Public Interest Research Group, the national canvassing organization created by the State PIRGs, works to build membership for several other national non-profit lobby groups, including: the State PIRGs, the State Environment groups, the Human Rights Campaign and the Sierra Club. Canvassers are often college students during the summer when the canvass operation is expanded, while canvassers generally have a more varied background in the few cities where there is a canvass during the non-summer months. Canvass offices vary drastically in size depending on location and time of year with the largest having between 75 and 100 employees during summer months.

The Fund and the telemarketing centers operate on behalf of all of the state PIRG and Environment groups (excepting MPIRG NHPIRG and NYPIRG). There are currently three telemarketing locations (Portland OR, Boston, MA and Sacramento, CA with the Los Angeles, CA telemarketing center having been shut down following a labor dispute). These call centers have a fluid workforce similar to the door and street canvass.

Finally, the individual state PIRGs apply for and receive grants from a variety of different non-profit foundations, along with receiving disbursals of funding from grants received federally. PIRGs avoid any funding directly from corporations, believing such funding would restrict their autonomy.

The more I try to break this down, the more confusing it still sounds.  And it is.

The PIRG is much like a corporate non-profit – every single state or college chapter is still under the same umbrella.  All the “recruiting” for PIRG – drawing college graduates into entry-level jobs with the organization – is done through one central office, not individually by the state or college chapters.  There’s good reason for that – which again, will be described later.