Burned Out By the PIRG


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.