The Fund for Public Interest Research is a national, non-profit group that primarily raises money for groups like the PIRGs, the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, HRC, and a few others. Ninety percent of their work consists of hiring and training people to go door-to-door to solicit donations on behalf of these organizations. They do a little media work, but not much. You probably haven’t heard of them before, and if you have, it was most likely from an on-campus recruiter, a job posting on a website, or your local classified ads.
I first heard of the Fund in the winter of my senior year in college. They came on-campus to recruit, and it sounded like a great option: I wanted to work for a year before going to grad school, preferably for an organization that shared my interests in progressive (some might say liberal) reform. What’s not to like? They work to clean the environment and protect consumers, and said they’d teach me how to be an effective political advocate.
Almost immediately upon starting with the Fund as a Canvass Director in July, I found that the job description they had given me was misleading, to say the least. The hours were much longer then they had stated, the responsibilities were wildly different, and the pay was less than they advertised. I stayed for three months, on the promise that things would be more like they said they would after the summer was over. I lasted until October, at which time I was told that I wasn’t raising enough money for them. When they gave me an ultimatum to raise more money or be fired, I left on the spot.
Wow. Where to start? The best way to do this is to make a list of claims the Fund makes to its prospective employees, divided by position, and contrast that with what actually happens.
Citizen Outreach Directors (aka Canvass Directors, the job that college graduates usually apply to)
Claim: Canvass Directors work about 60 hours a week.
Truth: Canvass Directors actually work about 70-80 hours a week during the “summer season”, which ranges from May until September. Didn’t tell you that, did they? This included about 13 hours a day on weekdays, then anywhere from 2-6 hours on Saturday, and a meeting on Sunday afternoon. Miss any of this, and you’ll be considered “not dedicated” to the position. For the rest of the year, 60 hours is accurate, but keep in mind this is still 1 ˝ times a normal work week.
Claim: Canvass Directors make $19,500 dollars a year (or whatever it is now). $1000 of this is from an “expected bonus.”
Truth: This “expected bonus” is almost impossible to achieve, unless you happen to be an amazing fundraiser, which is what the bonus is based on. Didn’t tell you that, did they? Out of the 4 new directors working in the D.C. office while I was there, none were even close to soliciting the requisite amount of money to even approach the full bonus. It is my estimation that few new directors nationally receive this “expected” bonus, which is significant given the low pay of the job in the first place. Paychecks are routinely and unapologetically sent late to offices, and directors are asked to pay for almost all office expenses out of pocket, with the burden on them to submit requisitions in a confusing and inefficient repayment system.
Claim: The Fund has a generous loan repayment program to college grads with debt. If you pay at least $50 a month, the Fund will pay $100 (again, the numbers may have changed).
Truth: I don’t know how they look themselves in the mirror on this one. In order to be eligible, the employee (i.e. you) must “make an effort to extend your payment over the longest possible schedule” and then the Fund will provide the $100, with federal and state taxes being withheld from your paycheck. Essentially, this program discourages employees from actually enrolling in it, since extending your loan in order to receive $100 a month would almost surely be more expensive in the long run (And you would not actually receive $100 a month due to taxes – something the Fund knows but doesn’t tell candidates). Yet you don’t find all this out until it is too late. This is significant, given the draw of a loan-repayment plan to graduates taking on such a low-salaried position.
Claim: As a director, you will organize a field campaign, write press releases, call and speak at press conferences, build coalitions with elected officials, and meet with editorial boards.
Truth: This is absolutely ridiculous. Ok, technically, you might do all these things. In practice, however, I would say you spend maybe 20 percent of your time focused on them. The rest is fundraising, pure and simple. That means that you will be going out “into the field” 3-4 days a week (at least – don’t let them tell you otherwise before you get there), knocking on people’s doors and asking for money to support these issues. A noble thing, to be sure! The world needs people to do this. But they don’t tell you that’s what you’ll spend most of your time doing. In 3 months, I never held a press conference, wrote sporadic letters to the editor (there just isn’t time), and met with one elected official, whom I happened to work for previously. The claim on their website that you’ll meet with editorial boards is so ridiculous and so false I won’t insult your intelligence by discussing it.
Canvasser (The job that you find advertised in papers and on a lot of these environmental job sites. For college graduates and non-college graduates alike.)
Claim: You can expect to make between $300-500 dollars per week (amount depends on the city).
Truth: Very few people make this much. The base salary per week is about $250 a week, again depending on the city in which you work. If you raise more than the “quota” amount per week, you’ll earn a percentage of what raised above the quota. But, to make the $500 a week (which they speak of as being no hard thing), you would need to earn, on average, about 140 dollars over quota each night. That means you’d be soliciting almost 2 ˝ times over the quota each night to get to $500 a week. Didn't tell you that, did they?. Nationally, probably 5 percent of canvassers do this. Most have been there for years. So don’t let them fool you into thinking you be making lots right off the bat.
Claim: The Fund will train you to be a great canvasser.
Truth: They’ll train you, alright, if you happen to be good at it when you walk in the door. If not, you’ll most likely be fired within days. On average, a canvasser gets 2-3 days to prove that they can raise lots of money. If they can’t, they’ll be fired.
Claim: You will get to do other political activism, like media work and letters to the editor and all that.
Truth: Sure, you might get to do that stuff. But, you will spend 90-95 percent of your time on door-to-door related activities, unless you want to come in early or stay late. You won’t get paid more if you do, though. I don’t know about you, but 300 dollars a week for 60 hours doesn’t quite work for me (And it wouldn’t work for the federal government, either: that’s below minimum wage).
It sure can. There are people, literally in every major city around the country, who have experienced this same thing. Every year, the Fund hires almost 60 new canvass directors (“citizen outreach directors”). These recent college graduates start in July, and by December, almost 30 percent of them have quit or been fired by the Fund for various reasons. They will tell you the same thing I have. While I really can’t give out other people’s email addresses over the web, there have been a number of articles published that document what I’m talking about. Here are some links:
http://www.laweekly.com/ink/02/12/news-ehrenreich.php : This will take you to an LA weekly article about how the Fund fired two directors after they tried to form a union. I can’t believe this is legal; if it is, it certainly violates almost every principle the Fund claims it has on workers’ rights.
http://thestudentunderground.org/article.php3?Issue=36&ArticleID=163 : This article from the Student Underground is interesting, and disturbing, but more important are the comments from students who had worked for the Fund following the article. You’ll find them saying the same things I’ve said here.
Here’s a link to
a letter I sent to the on-campus recruiting head at the
Plus, I have some former Fund employees who will be more than happy to verify what goes on there. If you’d like to email me, they would be happy to email you personally with their rather disturbing stories.
After all this, you might have some more questions, might feel like challenging my assertions, or just might want to make a comment. If you do, email me at email@example.com, and I promise I’ll respond to any questions you might have.