Burned Out By the PIRG


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
canvassing.

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
valuable.

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.



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 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.



n. another great quote

From the FFPIR.info website:

There is no sin in making a living changing the world. There is no sin in being able to eat, and pay your rent, and go to sleep at night without worrying if the power is going to be shut off tomorrow. Activists who eat, who get sleep, who have a place to live, and know that they can put gas in their car (for however long we have it) tend to do much better work than activists who are starving, hungry and poor. It’s the Rockefellers who have sold activists on the notion that you have to be poor, and that’s for the precise purpose of making you ineffective.”

-Mike Ruppert



m. Keep the comments coming!

It’s encouraging to see current and former staff posting comment reflections of their experiences.  The more, the merrier!

If you wish to even write a post – please leave a comment.



l. Is there anything else out there?

I often spoke with other PIRG entry level staff what drew them into the job.  Many were former interns in the program, and automatically had an easy in to the organization.   Many had been recruited through information sessions and group interviews with PIRG staff at their college career centers.

But most had accepted a job with PIRG for the simple reason that they wanted to work on advocacy and social change in a nonprofit, but there were no other opportunities available.

Sure, there’s a bit of truth to that explanation.  Finding a job in the nonprofit world can be difficult for the college senior or recent graduate, much more so than going straight into the corporate world or graduate school.

PIRG devotes a staggering amount of money and time on their recruitment process.  If they changed their work culture and environment, they might be able to cut down on these costs,  keep staff around, and raise their salaries.  But a large majority of smaller nonprofit organizations, which are constantly trying to balance their bottom line, simply do not have the same resources to seek out candidates for employment.  Craigslist now charges $25 per job listing in most major American cities – Idealist also charges for job listings.

So where can you really find openings? There are plenty of opportunities out there beyond PIRG – if you have the drive and patience to seek them out.  Many openings at nonprofit organizations are passed around word of mouth, or posted directly on their websites.  Start looking into the local organizations that serve the community you hope to live in after college.  Get yourself out in the community.  Connect with alumni who might work with organizations you are interested in.

Don’t always rely on your career center. Sure, your on-campus career center can teach you a thing or two about the perfect cover letter, a successful interview, and connect you with hundreds of places to work, but don’t depend on them completely.  In the end, how badly you want a job, particularly in the nonprofit world, is up to you.  Sure, the PIRG makes it easy for you by flying out their staff to campuses all around the country and setting up interviews right in your career center, but if you want something else, it’s all on you.

Experience, experience, experience. Sure, a college courseload can be tough stuff.  But if you want to get an edge ahead of other college grads, get involved. Take on leadership positions in on-campus organizations.   INTERN AND VOLUNTEER.  Internships or volunteer positions at nonprofit organizations are particularly key because they get you into the sector.  Even 10 hours per week looks better than none at all.  Most importantly, you have references.

NETWORK. One thing your career center can be really good at, which I touched on before, is putting you within reach of a vast alumni network.  Use it.  Attend community events if you plan on sticking around your college’s city or nearby city.  If you’re interning or volunteering with an organization, attend their events and meet other people in the sector.   Throw yourself out there.



11. The facade

I remember coming out of a training as if it were the end of an army training.  Some hoopla about “we’re gonna be fighting for social justice and social change!”  I felt a little sick inside, because every creepy PIRG method that had been presented to me about how to recruit and organize people seemed to lose all of that in the equation.

Never addressed was how to get to know and deal with these new communities we’d be organizing in.  Sure, they were college campuses, maybe a little set apart from the real world – but the students there still dealt with many very real issues.  Many of these campuses were in urban neighborhoods.  Many of the students, full or part-time, juggled full to part-time jobs on the side, a rigrous courseload, and in some cases, children.

The whole structure of the organization kind of rendered everything we were fighting for to a facade.   I never really felt like I really cared about the textbook-global warming-hunger & homelessness campaigns we were expected to organize on, because we were too damn busy trying to figure out “How many people are going to attend the GIM meeting?!”  “I gotta do my numbers.”  “My tabling rate isn’t too good.”  It was like a constant struggle to re-evaluate yourself rather than fighting for the students you were working with.  Sure, the aforementioned issues drew attention and resonated, but they never really made us think outside the box.

-Amie



10. Is an organization as large as PIRG really “grassroots”?

Like many other former employees, I struggled with that question.  Every day we were told that what we were doing was soooo progressive and soooo grassroots.  But it never really felt that way.

I personally think the groups that are locally-based and made up of community members tend to create the most meaningful change.  You see, the problem with PIRG is that they will place canvassers, organizers, or advocates in a random city that they are not familiar with.  They are then, in many cases, barely expected to brush up on the local politics and force the same national PIRG agenda down people’s throats.  Sure, the state PIRGs do some decent work on state and municipal legislation here and there, but for the most part, every state PIRG’s website looks identical.

The PIRG/Fund/GCI have strangled the left.  Money that could have been granted to and spent on smaller non-profit organizations working on truly local issues has somehow found its way over to the PIRGs because, well, they know how to ask people for money, and do it often.  Sure, they advocate on some decent issues, but why can’t they just stick to the federal level unless they revamp the way their state PIRGs work?  If I would suggest anything to senior staff at the PIRG: make your state offices more reflective of the state you are representing.  Become a part of the fabric of the community – don’t just exist to fulfill cold numbers for the overall national goals.

-posted by CaliforniaDude