Burned Out By the PIRG

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 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

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.


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.

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.