Burned Out By the PIRG

A thoughtful comment

The thing is that it actually is very efficient. Customization takes time, and the model works, so why customize? This blog criticizes the model so much, but why do you think they have been around for 30-something years? The model works, raps work, following the model will get you some degree of success.

That’s part of what is frightening, though–the fact that the model is so calculated and completely successful. The low-retention rate is expected and individuality is discouraged. The problem is that the PIRGs take advantage of natural human traits (e.g. guilt, compassion, loyalty) and twist them to help the organization grow without any consideration for the actual humans they are affecting.

25 Comments so far
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Having a model that works doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a good model. Without trying to create a connection, one could also say that the German Holocaust “model” worked, but that obviously doesn’t mean it was a good model. Many of the PIRG model goals – created and perpetuating effective organizations, building a strong financial base, training new organizaers – are great, and they do them well. The problem is that the model is dependent on paying far too little money for far too much work and creating a work environment designed to burn out and eliminate staff that can’t cut the hours or afford the salaries. The system is quite hypocritical and inequitable. I’ve known senior staff people who have paid expenses, loaned money, or given big raises to people they wanted to keep.

Comment by Verine

The Nazi response is one of the stupidest things I’ve ever seen, no wonder you couldn’t cut it at the Fund. Someone tries to leave a thoughtful, and nuanced response on this page and they get greeted with garbage like the Nazi model worked, come on? I feel stupid pointing out all the problems out with that analogy because they should be apparent to anyone who stopped to think for two seconds, but if someone needs me to I will do so later. As for the PIRG model, no one within the PIRG’s is making much money. Look at the tax forms, it is all public record. If people are happy working those hours and for those salaries more power to them. For those of us that are not, better to just move on, but there is nothing inequitable about that. You are not entitled to what you think you are worth, and they pay you what they value you at, I know it hurts when you are valued a lot less than you value yourself, but then you move on.

Comment by Anon

Oh please, Anon. You stink of the same insider smarminess I grew to hate as a PIRG fellow. “No wonder you couldn’t cut it at the Fund.” That’s right, I couldn’t cut selling my soul to bastard CDs I worked with on my required canvass days who completely disregarded the supposed causes being fought for and only caring about working me overtime to reach quota. That’s right, asshole. Sorry I don’t have my trust fund and Volvo station wagon to supplement my joke of a salary. If we just went along thinking that my joke of a salary is OK, we wouldn’t have minimum wage and we wouldn’t have weekends.

Comment by Anti-Anon

If you make a stupid analogy then you are going to get a smug response. What you basically told me is that you didn’t have the courage to say no when they asked you to do extra and so you just took it and build up resentment instead. You’d have been a lot better off if you had the courage to protect yourself. Yes, they will ALWAYS ask you to do more, and a lot of people are unable to say no and they get resentful. There are a select few, the ones they particularly want, who enjoy it. In the end though, it is your responsibility to defend yourself, to say “no, I need a weekend,” or “my hours are done and I’m going home.” You accepted that, and plenty of people make it work, without trust funds. If you don’t like it, you move on, I wouldn’t and couldn’t work for a fellows salary. Again, they pay you what they think you are worth. You were salaried, hourly wage did not apply. I agree, the salary isn’t very much. And what self respecting enviro trust fund baby would drive a Volvo station wago? Get it straight, its a Tesla sports coupe that we spend our precious unworked for money on.

You do circle around two past critiques that have not been touched on in this blog and which I do think are valid. The breaking of unions and the clear disregard for state and federal employment laws. There is no excuse for that. They have grudgingly put in procedures to fix the minimum wage part at least.

Comment by Anon

It is a lie to say that no one at the PIRG makes much money. That’s part of the hypocrisy. One of the things that PIRG leadership has successfully done is convince staff how righteous they all are because they sacrifice pay for the good of the movement and how much better they are than “overpaid” staff fron other groups. If fact many upper staff are paid quite well. Margie Alt, Wendy Wendlant, Andre Delattre, and other senior staff make in excess of $70k, and in some cases more than that. And although Doug Phelps is no longer on the payroll, he made a ton of money at PIRG, and he continues to make a ton of money from his own personal private spin off groups that freely pimped off PIRG staff and member lists. That’s how he owns 2 multimillion dollar houses in Santa Barbara and has a tony loft in Denver. You will not see these high salaries in the financials because they hide them by spreading it over numberous nonprofits in the PIRG movement. You only have to report salaries over something like $50k. So if you have someone who makes $5000 by working for 10 organizations, their salary will not show up anywhere. It’s a farce. And make staffers have received raises in excess of $20k by threatening to leave. If PIRG wants to keep you and you squawk loudly enough, you will get a huge raise. If you don’t, they will be more than happy to pay you substandard wages. Anyone who says everyone at PIRG makes slave wages or that PiRG pays everyone equitably is either uniformed or a liar.

Comment by verine

70K (and in fact all the people that you listed make much more than that) is not a lot of money after having worked at an organization for 20+ years and it is far less than someone at an equivalent organization would make. All of the people you listed, Wendy, Andre, Margie, have been at the organization for 20+ years, started at the bottom and moved up through the ranks. They were working for the same “slave wages” that they are hiring people at and made it, and they are making significantly less than they could somewhere else. That’s the point, no one is getting rich off this.

Comment by Anon

My points are:

1. No one really knows how much they make because their salaries are hidden among several groups.

2. The salary equity they preach – everyone at the same level makes the same, no one gets special treatment – is a lie. I don’t think some people who make x amount of money a year would think it’s fair that someone who does the same job makes x = $20,0000 just because they threatened to quit.

3. Doug Phelps made himself a millionaire by pimping off the work of alot staff while preaching to them the virtues of sacrificing salary for the good of the movement. So that’s at least one person who got rich off PIRG.

It’s not that they should or shouldn’t earn more, it’s that they lie about how the system works, and the more seniority you have, the more the system doesn’t apply to you. Example – when PIRG made people pay for the hotel rooms for the Denver meetings every December and pay for their transportation to those meetings, the Fund/PIRG paid for Doug’s hotel room and his transportation to the meeting (it also paid for his SUV rental and cell phone by the way). Example, when staff around the country were told to house out of town staff for weeks and sometimes months at a time with no compensation, Doug’s administrative assistant, Susan Rakov, received a $300 payment every month to compensate her for housing out of town staff. And she received the payment every month whether she housed anyone or not.

Comment by verine

Verine – I’m gonna have to agree with you on this one. Sure Anon, executive PIRG staff make far less than anyone in other industries – hello, that’s working in the nonprofit industry. However, if you know anything about the way PIRG structures their funding (having had it drilled into my head several times), a staff member’s salary can come from any combination of funding depending on their work – grants, fees collected from the universities to the Student PIRG, the Fund canvass, etc. And I’ve had it confirmed that some of the top-level executives know how to abuse that system.

What I do find grossly offensive is that Phelps has turned his vision of a grassroots canvass into a corporation – and make tons of money – called what else but GRASSROOTS CAMPAIGNS. This is an insult to anyone who has truly worked in the grassroots movement. Why so many amazing federal level advocacy groups would want to pay a corporation/contract for canvassers is beyond me.

Comment by burnedoutbypirg

Thank you, it’s good to have confirmation from someone else familiar with what really happens. Phelps also started Telefund several years ago. It’s a another for profit company that does calling for nonprofits and campaigns. Phelps built it based on the techniques that the PIRG phone banks developed, and he pimped off PIRG member lists as well. And I know for a fact he used GCI to pay PIRG staff for their “consulting” work so he could give salary increases and bonuses to PIRG staff while keeping those payments off the PIRG books. It also allowed senior PIRG staff to maintain the company line that we pay everyone based on the same set of rules.

Comment by verine

The last two comments are conflating several things. Burnedoutbypirg, when you say, “staff member’s salary can come from any combination of funding depending on their work – grants, fees collected from the universities to the Student PIRG, the Fund canvass, etc” that does not mean that they get to augment their salaries with these things. It means that their salary comes from many different revenue sources. There are reasons for this mostly having to do with money from different sources being used for different purposes, ie canvass money can be used for direct lobbying while foundation money typically cannot. This is not a way to increase salaries.

When I said that people at PIRG make relatively small salaries I mean compared to other NGO’s. PIRG is clearly at the bottom of the pay scale. It is also true that after the first two years they will make exceptions and pay their best staff more than they should be paid in the scale to retain them. That said, even these salaries are less than a person would make at another competing NGO organization.

What Verine is talking about is something else. As I’ve said repeatedly, I cannot speak to GCI and Doug Phelps because I have no knowledge or experience with either of them. It is it’s own thing and the people who work for the for-profit GCI might make lots of money. There is also no question that GCI uses the same model that PIRG does. It is definitely not the case that people within PIN work for both GCI and the other organizations at the same time (though some of them might take leaves of absence for the election). It is, however, possible that people got huge consulting fees for working with GCI when it was being set up. Maybe Verine can substantiate those claims, but without a lot more detail, what is being flung around are unsubstantiated rumor and gossip. From my experiences I tend to believe it is at the very least greatly exaggerated. I’ve seen and been around enough people high up in the organization to know that if they are making lots of money they are hiding it awfully well. (Again, Doug Phelps could be an exception).

The real point though, is that there is plenty wrong with the model and how things are run. Just like PIRG creates Fundbots, I find that that those who hated their experience with PIRG become anti-fundbots. They are equally as robotic, spreading innuendo and half truths about the organization without any real understanding of what is going on, and just as lacking in critical thought as those who they are critiquing.

Comment by Anon

Anon – I know for a fact that a canvass director who was going to quit received a supplemental bonus from GCI well after they did any work for GCI. When she did the work for GCI, there was not mention that she would be paid for the work. It was given as an incentive to keep her on staff while still allowing the
Fund to say to everyone else that it wasn’t giving out bonuses that year. I’m not going to say who the person is or how much they received because like you and me, they want to remain anonymous. I’ve you choose not to believe me, that’s fine.

My point about the money coming from different sources was not that it was used to increased salaries. It was and is used to hide the total salary that certain people make. No one knows what senior staff make because their salaries are divied up between so many groups.

And no one is disputing that PIRG salaries are lower than the industry average for the most part. The problem is that PIRG senior staff falsely claim that the salary structure is equitable while giving extra money to people they want to stay. And when someone who wants more money that they don’t want to stay threatens to leave, they use the BS salary is equitable and we can’t give you more money argument to drive them off.

I worked for the organization for over 15 years, and there are alot of things I did and still do admire about it, but the hypocrisy of the senior staff who run the organization like a personal fifedom is directly in contrast to the values that are espoused to incoming staff. And eventually, you buy into the hypocrisy as a means to an end of what the organization does, or you don’t, and you end up leaving. That’s what I did.

You can’t just dismiss what I’m saying as sour grapes. I would not trade my PIRG experience for anything, but that doesn’t mean I can’t point out the hypocrisy I see in the organization. And I’ve given pretty specific info about the GCI bonus, supplementing Susan Rakov’s rent by $300 a month to compensate her to housing people while everyone else got nothing, Doug Phelp’s reimbursements for trips to Denver while everyone else got none. He also had part of his Santa Barbara rent paid by the Fund because “he did alot of work from home”. No one else got that luxury. So you need something better than “you just had a bad experience at PIRG” to try and disprove my assertations. These are cold hard facts. Where are yours?

Comment by verine

Verine you and I are not actually disagreeing on much of anything and I think you have added much to this discussion.

We agree that except for starting staff the pay scale is not as equitable as they make it out to be. We agree that most of the people working for the movement make far less than they would at other organizations. We also agree that your point about salaries and different organizations was different than the one that burnedbypirg was trying to make. It might be that they use this to hide salaries, but it is also done for a whole host of reasons other than hiding salaries.

I am not dismissing your claims as sour grapes. I am saying that they are unsubstantiated and that it is impossible for me to prove or disprove it so there is little use getting into a he said she said about it. There is, however, a lot of stuff floating around about PIRG that is half truth or actually just inaccurate so it is with cause that I am wary of lurid tales. If true some of what you claim would be illegal. This would not be the first time the fund has been on the wrong side of the law. I have repeatedly been open that I really don’t know a thing about Doug Phelps or GCI.

My points are a couple. 1) If Doug Phelps and a select few really are making tons of money off the movement it is a very small few and it is by no means the majority of the leadership. 2) Even if this is the case, it would have NO impact on the experiences of at least 99% of the people who are on this and other pages similar pages. Conspiracy theories about Doug Phelps and his 7 mansions or whatever and miss both the real good and bad with the organization. 3) People get clouded up with their own experiences with the model and lose the ability to judge it critically. There are potentially plenty of things wrong with it, but the fact that you start out at 22K and work 100 hours a week is by design. We can discuss what it does to progressive youth and whether it is a bad thing, but there is nothing inherently evil or wrong in them wanting as much as possible from you. 4)The movements power is both underestimated at times (They do the DNC fundraising for instance) and totally over exaggerated as well. (They do not have the power to keep you from getting a job in the environmental community). 5) Just because something is not for you does not necessarily make it good or bad.

Comment by Anon

Pretty much everything on this post is unsubstantiated. I can’t show you copies of documents that were shown to me years ago, so people can take what I say or leave it. But if you know nothing about Doug Phelps or GCI, then you should probably learn more before you cast aspersions on the experiences of people who do.

To address your points:

1. Yes, I agree that the majority of PIRG leadership is not becoming rich off the movement. My point is that the people that either have made tons of money and the people that know others are making tons of money are lying to staff people when they say that we are all sacrificing larger salaries for the good of the movement. It’s reprehensible to use this charade of poverty when they know it’s not true.

2. It does have an effect on some people as it leaves them feeling betrayed and cynical. Not ALL people but some. And actually, Doug’s 3 multimillion doallar houses (it’s not a conspiracy theory – check the real estate records if you need proof) show EXACTLY what’s bad with the organization. He runs it like a personal fifedom, he used it to make millions to start his on for profit companies, he uses his private groups to supplement salaries of PIRG staff, and he hurts the effectiveness of state PIRG groups when he takes their staff for his own organization. 3) There is something wrong with making 22K when you are told that everyone in the organization is making financial sacrifices, when it’s not true. It’s called lying. 4) Not sure what you’re saying here.
5) Again, you’re implying sour grapes here. You’re assuming that I’m saying all this because PIRG was not for me, ie, I have an ax to grind. I never said my experience was bad. I said for the most part it was actually very good.

Comment by verine

GCI and the telefund are separate for-profit ventures that are not affiliated with PIRG and are in many ways in competition with them. We can discuss whether or not Doug Phelps stole PIRG proprietary information when he used the model to create GCI, but their pay scale has no bearing on PIRG and the two should not be conflated. I have heard the number of mansions that Doug Phelps has range from 3 – 7. I can only verify that he has three. We agree that Doug Phelps is wealthy. I have not cast aspersions on anyone’s claims about GCI, only said, correctly, that GCI is a separate organization and so you cannot use what is going on there to reflect on PIRG. I think to continue this discussion in a meaningful way we need to make a distinction between the model itself, and the way that it is being implemented. Your concerns are with the implementation of the model. I am NOT saying they are not valid or important. I am saying that they are different and not applicable to the people that are at PIRG for a year or two and are not a good fit for the organization. Those are the majority of the people who are disillusioned with PIRG. Then there are concerns about the model itself. The low pay, the long hours, asking you to be flexible, the top down structure on a state based organization, the role plays, etc… Those are the concerns that most people have and this is where I find that those complaining are typically just as botish as those who work in the Fund.

1) Aside from Doug Phelps dealings with GCI, even the examples you have shown are not people getting rich. Margie, Andre, Wendy and the rest of the movement’s leadership are not making lots of money. I do not believe that they would be sacrificing if they thought others in the movement were making lots of money. Perhaps Doug Phelps is seen by them as a progressive mastermind who is allowed to profit unfairly and thus the rules don’t apply, I don’t know, but this is not the norm for the movement.
2) The point here is that even if the model were working correctly, and no one was making any profit off it, most of the people who complain would still have a problem. Your problem is with equity inside the model, and it is a different problem.
3)I agree that there is something wrong with making 22k if other’s are making millions and lying about it. But this is outside the model. Read the rest of this blog, and others like it. People care about the money, they care about the hours, they don’t like role plays, they don’t think that PIRG is grassroots, etc… Their complaints go well beyond pay equity. The thing is that without the inequity that you are talking about, the model would still be exactly the same, and 99% of the people on here would have had exactly the same experience with the same complaints. It isn’t about sour grapes, or anything else, it is just about making a distinction.
4)This again goes to everyone’s complains about the model and how it works. People talk about how PIRG is not effective, how it isn’t grassroots and then they say that PIRG is blacklisting them and stopping them from getting other jobs. Neither of these statements are true. PIRG is in many ways very effective, despite the limitations to the model. You can argue about whether or not it is worth the cost, and that is a good and interesting discussion to have, but you cannot argue that they are not effective. At the same time, PIRG is just one very small part of the progressive movement and they do not have the reach to stop you from getting another job. The reason that people have a hard time finding a job after they quit PIRG or the Fund is the same reason they ended up there in the first place. They do not have a lot of experience and there is a very small market for people without experience. 5) This was not directed towards you, it is a general statement about the model. Everyone thinks that the model is bad or harmful or whatever because they didn’t like their experience. The point was, the model can be very effective and a great thing, and you can just not be the right fit for it. If it is within the law and finding people that work with it then it is working so long as the damage that it is doing is not worse than the gains.

Comment by Anon

Have at them if you want. They exist for Greencorp, etc… as well, though of course not GCI or other for profit ventures.



Comment by Anon

Anon, methinks you doth protest too much. You seriously have a lot of time on your hands to defend and fight with everyone on this blog and even provide documents. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion. There’s nothing wrong with exposing a pretty large network of PIRGs that have less than stellar employee practices – that’s not bitter and petty – it’s just the truth.

And for as large as the PIRG network is, I think they could be accomplishing a lot more legislatively if they were to restructure and re-strategize what they’re all about.

Comment by Christ almighty

I will admit to being absolutely fascinated with how the PIRG’s are structured. Good or bad, there is an absolute genius to the machinery but not many people actually understand how the whole thing works. I can’t claim to know it all either, but I find the thing fascinating. Taxforms are just readily available. I have never said anyone isn’t entitled to their opinions, I have simply voiced my own in dialogue, I’m sorry if you don’t like what I have to say. Again, my main complaint with all of this is that people’s reaction is just as robotic as the employees that they harangue.

I agree with you 100 % that the PIRG’s are accomplishing very little for their size. They have very little legislative or political power. Clearly they are influential, however, as GCI is the main grassroots fundraiser for the DNC. I find that whole aspect, their role in the progressive movement, really fascinating as well.

Comment by Anon

Here is my comment in response to another anon post that tries to prove that because you can’t see salaries on tax forms no one is making alot of money at PIRG:

Anon, the tax forms mean nothing. First of all, because you only have to report salaries over 50k on tax forms, so if, for example you’re someone like Margie Alt who divides her time up among more than one organization, you could, theoretically, make $25k at 4 different organizations, make $100k a year, and have NONE of your income show up on the tax forms. Second, PIRG 501c4s make millions a year, but you will never see it on tax forms because when the Fund does canvassing, phone calling, and mailing for PIRGs, the income is funneled into a Fund bank account and is only doled out in amounts large enough to cover operating expenses. Most of the larger PIRGs have millions in their Fund bank accounts. I worked in Massachusetts and saw the numbers. MASSPIRG has over $5 million in their account, but you will never see it on their tax forms. So stop using the BS argument that the tax forms show no one makes a large salary and that the PIRGs don’t make much money. It’s a joke. Either you are uninformed or you are a Doug/Faye/Rakov troll spreading misinformation.

Comment by realanon

You can tell what Margie is making from the Fund Tax form. (I didn’t link to that one, but can if you would like). They give you her salary based on the 16 hours she worked for the FUND because she was the secretary. You can do the math to extrapolate it out to 40 hours a week (the other 24 hours a week being paid from different movement organizations). I know from my own experiences that they do not give you different salary rates based on which organization within the network that you worked for. Margie made roughly 78k in 2007. You can do the same math for Anna’s salary from the PIRG sheet.If anyone made large amounts of money they would have to show up somewhere. You also need to show any money that is paid to people who are directors on your board.

As for 501c4’s, even if the PIRG’s and the large state groups have large assets stash away in bank accounts (which I completely believe), 501c4’s are non-profit organizations that spend money on lobbying. They can spend that money on a whole host of political activities (which is what most of it goes to) but that money cannot be kept as profit or paid out in dividends like it could for a for-profit organization. Money stashed in a MaassPIRG account cannot be used to enrich Margie or anyone else without it appearing on their tax forms.

Again, none of this holds for GCI or the telefund.

Comment by Anon

Nothing you wrote disproves anything I said, and since you the tax forms for GCI and Telefund aren’t public, you’ll never know the whole picture.

Comment by realanon

So dear readers, you are left with two choices:

The movement really is an attempt by a select few to use the ideology of impressionable young kids against them to help those at the top generate large quantities of wealth. The organization spends tons of time and energy in recruitment because very few young kids are ideological enough to fall for the con. Those that decided not to work for the movement are the clever ones who were able to see through the scam. The movement doesn’t want these people anyway because they will bring the scam down if they stick around. I am an insider who is working to twist your mind and talk you out of the scam which you know to be true, or an idiot too stupid to see through it myself.

The movement is a bunch of ideological zealots who are willing to worker harder, for less, because they believe they are bettering the world. The organization spends tons of time and energy in recruitment because very few young kids are ideological enough to want to work that hard for that little financial reward. Those that decided not to work for the movement are decided that there are other things that are important to them and they need a more balanced life to be happy. The movement doesn’t want these people anyway because they are not well suited for the commitment demanded by the organization. I have experience with the organization and strong feelings about the way that it is run and some of them highly negative, some of them admiration, as well as a lot of frustration that the real problems with the the organization are masked by conspiracy theories.

Of course most people would prefer to feel like the smart one who sees through a scam then it does to feel like you just couldn’t hack it, which scenario would you rather believe? But of course, that does not make it the most likely. Verine will never be able to give you proof, just like I will not. You either have to believe unsubstantiated proof that the organization is corrupt, or unsubstantiated proof that it is not, that is your choice.

Comment by Anon

Sorry for the pathetic grammar, kind of embarrassing.

Comment by Anon

Seriously, Anon? You really give too much of a shit about this.

It’s simple – the PIRG does not pay its entry-level workers enough. I just quit – it wasn’t so much that I couldn’t handle the workload, but I couldn’t afford to pay my rent in the city I was living in as a campus organizer. Those who take entry-level jobs with the unions – which might even be more grueling – are at least paid what they deserve – up to 35-40K. If the PIRG had paid me more, you bet I would have stayed around. They have to change the way they treat their employees – then they wouldn’t have to devote so much time to the recruitment process. It’s ludicrous!

Comment by Oh God

Verine offered specific expamples, you offered speculation.

Comment by realanon

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