We represent a coalition of battle-tested canvassers and directors who have committed varying lengths of time with your partner organization The Fund for the Public Interest (“the Fund”) as representatives of HRC. Collectively, we have worked to raise millions of dollars for the organization and sign up tens of thousands of new HRC supporters on the grassroots level. Many of us have gone above and beyond our job descriptions to ensure the success of HRC by becoming partners ourselves or volunteering at your phone banks after clocking out to continue to reach out to our advocates.
We are some of your most dedicated and loyal supporters and believe fully in the mission of the Human Rights Campaign. We have endured the freezing cold, blazing sun, and an often times unsupportive public to actualize the vision of a world in which people can feel safe being and expressing who they are. We have done this all despite the fact that the organization we officially work or worked for, The Fund for the Public Interest, the organization that you partner with to perform almost all of your grassroots outreach and fundraising, is an entity that shares few of our same beliefs and values.
Taken together, we hope that the information laid out below effectively conveys our experiences with and deep concern about any continued partnership between HRC and The Fund for the Public Interest.
If the way a company treats its employees is any indication of what they stand for, The Fund for the Public Interest is a company that does not stand for equity and justice, despite what it may claim.
The Fund for the Public Interest has a sink or swim recruiting process that is all about making a quick buck and not about nurturing activists or building a movement. People come into these offices across the country brimming with passion and energy to work to mobilize the American base for equality, but last, on average, maybe one week. This is largely due to an emphasis the organization puts on canvasser accountability and the lack of training it provides.
This is apparent from day one. Everyone involved in this letter had very similar first days. We came into the office excited and eager to make social change. We were given an hour of practice with our script, a description of what canvassing entails (a different version than the verbal job description presented during the interview) and a pep talk. We were then sent off to the streets to wave down strangers and ask them for their credit card information. And, if at the end of the day no money had been raised, rain or shine, we would have been fired. Countless activists, accustomed to standing up for what they believe in, but unaccustomed to asking the general public for money, come and go this way. In many respects the Fund is a revolving door for too many potential advocates. Quality activists who, with more training, could be incredibly successful advocates for social change are never given the chance to aid the movement due to the Fund’s training structure.
Canvassers that do make it past their first day are expected to raise a quota which is anywhere from $180 to $220 per day (if they work on behalf of HRC), depending on rank and city. Our collected donations are added up and at the end of every week, and we are expected to raise an average of ‘quota’ per day. If we do not hit our canvassing quota for the week, we are paid minimum wage and put on probation. The amount that we were short in raising is calculated as a deficit, and added to the next weeks minimum. If we do not raise this new amount in the following week, again we are paid minimum wage, but this time we are fired. If we miss our ‘quota’ for three non-consecutive weeks during a season (there are two – one that runs roughly from September through April, “Winter,” and another that runs from May through August, “Summer”) we are fired, even if we have worked for the Fund for years. In effect, job security is practically non-existent.
We don’t want to burden you with numbers, and we’d be happy to further discuss the complicated payment system for canvassers, but at the end of the day, even “successful” canvassers are making wages that put them somewhere near the Federal Poverty Level, while regularly working over 40 hours a week. Directors, who typically work anywhere between 65 and 80 hours a week, as they are expected to work at least 6 days a week, fare even worse.
The Fund for the Public Interest has hypocritical policies that are inconsistent with and threatening to the overall mission, image, and reputation of HRC.
This is not the first time canvassers have gotten together to critically reexamine the Fund’s outreach model, though this is perhaps the first time that our voices will be heard by sympathetic ears. Too often in the past, these offices have become fear-based environments where constructive criticism and suggestions related to new ways of doing things (based on models utilized by other successful canvassing organizations) have been met with backlash, repercussions, and terminations of employment. Too often, when canvassers or directors overcome these fears and express their concerns about the Fund’s policies, they are taken aside and told that they do not care enough about the overall well-being of the office and are clearly not committed to the campaign. And in too many states, “not being committed to the campaign” represents a vague, yet completely “legal” reason for terminating employment. As I am sure you can imagine, being told you are not committed while you are giving the vast majority of your time and energy to the campaign is heartbreaking. Worse still, many canvassers treated this way conflate The Fund and HRC and what was once dedication to the campaign turns into resentment – the effect being injury to HRC’s reputation.
Being sent out in extreme conditions: Canvassers are often sent out in dangerous, well below freezing weather. Our faces chap, our hands become useless, our voices break, our pens freeze, and hypothermia and frostbite represent real concerns. For example, our office in Chicago remained open on all but the two worst days of last winter’s polar vortex. On other days, some reaching -23 degrees with windchill, canvassers were expected to stand outside on nearly deserted streets for five hours and attempt to sign up new contributors. These are the days when already engaged HRC Partners pull us aside, and rather than expressing their usual excitement and support, express sadness and disbelief. Oftentimes in the winter, supportive people will choose to pass on contributing to HRC, instead opting to buy hot drinks or a Starbucks gift card for the crew because they are more immediately concerned about our personal well being. In the short conversations that are had, supporters express little more than a desire for us to go inside and get warm, and shock that an organization campaigning for employee rights would have us outside in such extreme and dangerous conditions.
Canvassers are not prepared to deal with street harassment: This type of training does not exist although harassment is an inevitable part of street canvassing, particularly when someone is canvassing on behalf of LGBTQ rights. To make matters worse, many new canvassers do not realize that they are vulnerable to harassment until it happens. Often managers in these offices are instructed to not discuss the possibility of harassment nor any past experience with it, because it would be “de-recruiting” to new staff. The effect of this policy leaves little room for discussion of harassment after it happens.
Canvassers have faced frightening encounters with physical and sexual harassment on the street; we’ve known canvassers of all genders who have been groped, had rocks or other projectiles thrown at them or dropped from overhead, have been threatened with gun violence, and have been spat on. These experiences are horrifying, and many canvassers cannot continue to happily greet strangers for the rest of their shifts out of fear and distress. When we return to our offices with these stories, often under quota, we are told that a personal mindset issue (read: inability to immediately overcome the experience) is the reason we did not do well. Afterwards, we are often thrown into a ‘mindset’ training, and the issue is not discussed further. In fact, it is not a mindset issue, it is experience with a traumatic event, and the Fund’s organizational response skirts the issue, offers no support, and further perpetuates the kind of rampant victim blaming the LGBTQ community has fought to overcome for ages.
Sexual abuse was reported and no action was taken: There is at least one incident of an individual within the organization being abused by another individual, and instead of taking any action against that individual, he was not only not punished, but promoted several times within the company.
The following is a summary of the event:
A tenured director reported an instance of sexual abuse from a colleague directly to the National Canvass Director. The director expressed one specific request that in the future she not be put in any situations working directly alongside that individual. In an organization with over 30 offices and several different staff training events throughout the year, that should not have been a difficult request to accomodate. Instead of accommodating her request, she found herself in the same office as the offender for two staff trainings and one campaign assignment. She was not informed ahead of time that he would be there, and was therefore put in an extremely uncomfortable work environment. In one of these cases, instead of remaining in the hotel where he and the other directors were staying, she found alternative housing with a friend for the week and travelled back to the hotel each day in order to avoid any more contact than necessary, or another potentially dangerous situation, with this person.
The National Canvass Director did not follow up with her in any capacity after the incident was reported and, seven months later, when her staff director inquired about it, the National Canvass Director claimed that she had done so, remarking that the victim must have been “too traumatized” at the time to recall the conversation. The incident and the way that it was dealt with was indeed traumatizing, however the National Canvass Director’s claim that she followed up with the victim was a complete lie. Later on it was discovered that a supervisor at the Fund did have a conversation with the perpetrator after the incident that took the form of an ultimatum: “If you are accused of anything like this again, you will be fired.”
This is just one example of how the Fund’s staffing priorities trump the safety and well-being of so many of the organization’s employees. Even someone who is reported to have sexually assaulted another employee can remain on staff, suffering little if any repercussion, as long as they are willing to fulfill their directing duties – as these positions have extremely high turnover rates and are the hardest to fill.
Paychecks often do not arrive as scheduled: This happens so frequently, often the only thing canvassers can do is try to laugh it off. Paying people on time, every time, does not seem to be a priority, but this is a basic employee right. In addition, employees often pay out of pocket for expenses that are later to be reimbursed, but do not always receive the reimbursement on time, or at all. Especially during the summer, when campaign offices are the largest, as much as 40% of a director’s paycheck may be required to cover the upfront costs of running and maintaining their offices. With such a large out of pocket expense, it is imperative that reimbursements are taken seriously, and delivered on time.
Job relocation and housing: Directors are often relocated for jobs without being told about turnover rates and policies, and this conversation seems to be intentionally omitted from the job offer. We’ve known too many that have moved hundreds of miles to run offices across the country who were fired within days or weeks because of failing to meet canvassing requirements. Additionally, safe housing, whether it is related to relocation, a recruitment trip, or a camping canvass, is not overseen by the organization. Too often, directors and canvassers have had to beg for sofas from near strangers, are told to cold-call summer canvassers from years ago who may live nearby to ask for a place to stay during the trip, or sleep in cars to avoid being homeless. No one should be asked to stay with someone they do not know, and the Fund should be held accountable to provide legitimate and safe housing.
No exit interviews or professional recommendations: Though supposedly there is an employee within the organization who is responsible for conducting these interviews, they seem to only occur when they are demanded by directors. In many cases, there is absolutely no follow up whatsoever when a director or canvasser leaves, and many times quality employees are simply lost in the shuffle. Additionally, the Fund appears to have a policy to not give professional recommendations to their employees, even directors who have worked tirelessly for years on these campaigns. To put this is perspective, a canvasser or director may have worked for years with the Fund, consistently taken on more and more responsibility, and personally raised over $300,000 in contributions, but when they decide to move on, it appears to be clear that it is not organizational policy to give professional recommendations. This type of policy leaves a substantial void in the employment history of the most committed activists, and underscores how little we are valued by the organization. The Fund likes to boast that they are training future leaders of the progressive movement, but failing to provide any form of future recommendation is proof that this is not a commitment that they take seriously.
The Fund does not list protections against discrimination based on gender identity in its policy:
UPDATE: We’ve recently heard that the Fund may have started including gender identity in their EOC statement – We’ll update as soon as we have confirmation.
We believe it is obvious as to why this is problematic and unacceptable, but would like to outline the ways in which this affects Fund employees.
The Fund has a patterned history of lacking protections for the transgender employees that they claim to advocate for. The Fund had capitalized on using ENDA legislation as one of their most profitable campaigns, while not fully practicing these policies themselves. In their EOC statement, the Fund does not include protections against discrimination based on gender identity. Essentially, the Fund could fire someone for being Transgender and it would be entirely legal.
Aside from lacking legal protections, the Fund does not consider the specific needs of Trans employees. Education around legal name privacy, pronouns, need for gender-neutral bathrooms, and many other Trans issues goes completely unaddressed within the organization. Canvass Directors and leadership staff are not trained in nor given resources to ensure the safety of their Trans employees, which is especially troubling considering the prevalence of Trans violence in this country. Training staff about Trans issues goes further unaddressed within the campaign messaging itself – the script that the Fund uses to address ENDA does not include the word Transgender once.
Many Trans individuals and allies that we meet on the street express concern that HRC is not doing enough for the Trans community, and we take time to explain the many steps that HRC has taken to become more inclusive over the years. All the while, there is an ever-present dissonance in our minds knowing that HRC subcontracts an organization that continues to disenfranchise this community that makes us question HRC’s commitment to addressing this issue.
A model of socio-economic elitism: Everyone who comes into a Fund office to work on a campaign centered around equality believes in the idea that if you work hard enough, alongside a team of other committed activists, you can achieve anything. In reality, the Fund seems to have a less than thinly veiled elitist structure in place that affects the hiring, promotion, and perception of the value of each activist employed by the organization.
When you apply to the Fund with little to no college experience, you are typically offered a canvassing position, usually with an off-handed mention of a field manager role down the line. However, recruitment directors appear to be trained to schedule all applicants with degrees, internally referred to as “career candidates,” regardless of the field of study, for a second round interview to apply for director positions. It seems that no other criteria is required for this fast-track process – not even the ability to perform the basic fundraising responsibilities of an entry-level position.
This outdated practice seems to prioritize the privileged as leaders of a movement meant to empower the marginalized while simultaneously tossing aside many skilled and intelligent organizers who were unable to attend college. Because criteria like relevant work experience, skill, work ethic, and efficiency appear to not be taken into account, many new directors become overwhelmed by the learning curve. Unfortunately the enthusiasm and good intentions of many new directors is often not enough to make up for a lack of knowledge of the field, the work, or the cause, and the forward progression of the campaign suffers.
Additionally, promotions to national staff and fellowship roles seem to be disproportionately offered to directors based on the reputation of the college attended; those who have Ivy league educations appear to be prioritized over people who have attended public colleges.
An overwhelmingly visible result of these alleged practices is the near complete absence of people of color in leadership roles. If you need to witness this for yourself, you need only attend a nationwide director training in Denver or Boston.
The Fund’s policies disproportionately impact POC canvassers: While the policies in place that produce extraordinarily high with-in office turn-over rates affect everyone, POC canvassers remain the group most negatively impacted. Unfortunately, once again, directors are not trained on how to deal with the inevitable racial microaggressions or blatant racism that occurs on site, and the organizational one-size-fits-all model of hiring and firing that is exclusively dependent on fundraising requirements leads to the accelerated turn-over of POC employees. The Fund appears to be giving its tacit approval of the structural racism that exists today in this country by failing to take any steps to counter this problem within the organization. Some directors have even experienced being directly discouraged from hiring Black canvassers, especially in the offices that run door-to-door campaigns, since these fundraising efforts primarily target white upper-class neighborhoods.
The LGBTQ movement simply cannot afford to go on as if “equality” can be achieved without dismantling the horrendous institution of racism. The Human Rights Campaign, as a leading force in the progressive movement, should uplift and amplify the voices of the most marginalized in the community they set out to protect, rather than being complacent – especially when it comes to the hiring and treatment of their frontline employees.
The Fund for the Public Interest is not an effective organization to partner with to build long-term grassroots support.
The Fund appears to have a track record of utilizing anti-worker ‘non-compete/trade secrets agreements’ to threaten current and former employees, coalition partners and other canvassing organizations with lawsuits: New field managers and directors are made, as a condition of employment, to sign a trade secrets non-compete agreement stating that they will not work for or start another canvass organization at least two years after leaving the Fund. While this type of agreement is commonplace for companies in the IT fields with true ‘trade secrets’ such as new technology, they are often misused in other fields and frequently do not stand up in a court of law. Canvassing for membership is a widespread, commonly used tactic that does not qualify as a true ‘trade secret’. Nevertheless, the Fund is able to use the threat of a lawsuit to bully those without the wherewithal or resources to begin a protracted legal fight against a multi-million dollar organization. The Fund seems to use these threats as (1) a recruitment tool to prevent current field managers and directors from leaving the Fund to work with a competing canvassing organization, (2) a recruitment tool to prevent former Fund employees from recruiting current Fund employees, and (3) to shut down other canvassing organizations.
High turnover and relentless recruitment wastes human and monetary resources: Because of the Fund’s current policies, turnover is astoundingly high. This leads to directors working overtime and enormous overhead costs recruiting new staff to maintain growth and office fundraising goals. In effect, the success of the Fund seems to be largely due to abusing it’s human resources. If a greater priority and portion of resources were spent on investment in staff, as is the case in almost every truly successful organization, rather than recruitment, we all would be able to take greater pride in the money that is raised. We know that campaigns are won by the hard work of dedicated people, but they should never be won on the backs of, or at the expense of, these very same people.
The Fund’s anti-union past: The irony does not go unnoticed that we work for an organization that runs campaigns for employee rights and workplace protections, while failing to provide its own. The organizational response to canvassers who have discussed or attempted to unionize in the past, despite some recent minor victories, is and has been abhorable, to say the least.
Insufficient campaign training: Because of the high turnover and emphasis on raising money, there is not enough time or training dedicated to learning about HRC or the campaigns that we work on – simply an emphasis on “the rap” and memorizing prepared responses. This can lead to the unintentional misrepresentation of HRC. Because so many people are brand new, occasionally we’ve seen misinformation travel from canvasser to canvasser and then reach the public. Additionally, because of the emphasis placed on raising funds, we’ve seen some canvassers do or say whatever they can to get a contribution – whether or not it is true – and if it is effective, it is likely to become a persistent part of how they canvass and replicated by other canvassers desperate to raise the necessary funds to keep their jobs. When you have people in the office that are well-informed about the campaign, whose value is determined not by how well they bring home quota at the end of the day, but by how well they represent HRC, it will be easier to stop inaccurate information from spreading. Unfortunately, the current Fund model prioritizes growth over retention and provides little relevant campaign training to help canvassers respond to questions asked by the public, so this pattern will be difficult to stop unless policies are seriously reconsidered to improve retention.
Canvassers should not be considered the Fund’s private “progressive army:” It has happened at least twice in the past two years that the Fund has closed offices and “forced” canvassers to take a leave of absence and fly to Colorado to work on electoral campaigns as representatives of a different organization. While canvassers can elect to not go, it is uncertain whether or not they will be able to work and get paid if they remain behind. In many cases, canvassers are paid a stipend for the week and are made to work up to twelve hour days, a fact that is not shared before individuals are flown to another state.
Our well-being is just as important as the movement, and in many ways embodies what this movement has always been about. We need long-term solidarity in our fight for equality, and we can’t afford to keep losing the talented and committed people who are tossed aside by this organization. We’ve seen too many activists get burnt out in the Fund’s toxic, unsustainable work environment and then stop doing activist work altogether. This is devastating – not only for them, but for HRC, and the fight for equality more broadly. We can no longer sit idly by and allow those currently working in these offices, our friends, to be demoralized and mistreated daily. We have enough legislative and cultural attacks coming from outside of our movement, without dealing with the attacks from within. An organization fighting for social justice should without question provide these basic employee rights so we can continue to improve the quality of life for everyone.
You may pass us in the street and tell us that you are an HRC board member and very proud of the work that we do, but behind each of the smiles you receive in return is an activist most likely working for less than a living wage, worried about how they will buy food, pay for rent, or repay student loans. Behind each of these smiles is someone worried about whether or not they will have a job tomorrow or the following week.
This constant anxiety and desperation does not make us better activists, and being ignored or silenced by the Fund does not make us more dedicated to the cause. We are proud of the work that we do: we know it is a brave thing to stand in the street all day, and we know how to keep up a relentlessly optimistic spirit. We are honored to be the face of HRC, and know that for many people we are the living, breathing embodiment of the organization and often their first introduction to it. We also know that our enthusiasm is contagious. However, now more than ever, we are concerned that the very integrity of HRC is at stake. More and more people are coming out against the Fund, it takes only a simple google search to corroborate this, and this is not the type of relationship HRC wants to maintain.*
An organization with the goals that HRC has should partner with a fundraising group that embraces those same goals.
We cannot continue to burn through one of our most precious resources by partnering with an organization that does not support the very policies that we are fighting to effect. We believe that something different is possible.
We care about your current partnership with the Fund because we are passionate about what HRC does and concerned about how this partnership, particularly the policies endorsed by the Fund and by proxy endorsed by HRC, reflect upon your organization. We are concerned because we are aware of the fact that so much of the money that is raised through the canvass comes at the expense of the Fund’s employees. We are aware of the fact that HRC is the largest and most powerful LGBTQ coalition in the United States and want to make sure, now more than ever, that the organization remains at the forefront of the equality movement. However, we fear that the reputation of HRC is at stake when such a large portion of its resources are derived in this manner.
We are some of the most positive and solution-oriented people out there, and we know another model is possible that does not disenfranchise its most fervent supporters: a model that values its employees, trains them well, and respects them – in turn making them happier, more loyal and more productive. As we are sure you are aware, working for equality in a toxic world is stressful enough as it is. We need spaces that are stable, creative, fair, and supportive if we are to create the kind of change we are fighting for.
Therefore, we implore you to seriously reconsider the contract that you have with The Fund for the Public Interest. We believe that HRC is big enough, and capable enough, to find a solution to this problem – to find a solution that gives the organization more oversight over the treatment and valuation of so many of its representatives in the field. We also believe that by critically reexamining this issue you will discover, as we have, that there are enormous opportunities to do more to mobilize the American base for equality: opportunities that are currently being overlooked by outsourcing your face-to-face outreach to the Fund. Countless Americans willing to volunteer for the campaign slip through the organizations fingers on a daily basis because we are trained to ask for money and not for something more precious, devoted time. Even when it is offered there is no policy in place to follow up, leaving many Americans with the disconcerting idea that membership equals money and nothing more. Perhaps even worse, many dedicated canvassers walk away with an unpleasant feeling about the Fund and HRC, and some of the strongest supporters turn apathetic or against us.
You alone have the opportunity to make sure that the people who represent you are treated well, with respect and dignity, and paid a living wage for all the hard work they do for HRC, and to establish the exact kind of work environment that you envision for all employees across the country. You also have the opportunity to get to know the loving, deeply-committed, and fierce staff that work for you, many of whom you could recruit to do other things as needs arise. With more oversight over your representatives in the field across the country, you’ll have the opportunity to make sure that they are up-to-date on HRC’s current campaign work, battles, and victories, and they in turn will have the opportunity to brief you on what weighs on the general publics’ mind, how they are responding, and what messages resonate most. You’ll be able to engage in a dynamic dialogue that is essential for a successful and sustainable member-driven organization to realize opportunities and effect transformative change.
We will be far happier to pull the long hours, have the many face-to-face conversations, and celebrate the achievements that have been and will be made for equality when we are able to be true representatives and champions of HRC, working for an organization that is innovative and encourages feedback and progress, instead of remaining poorly-treated, disposable, and easily replaceable employees of the Fund for the Public Interest. We believe that more is possible, and that it begins with conversation.
From the bottom of our hearts, we thank you for taking the time to read this.
With sincere gratitude for all the great work that has been done so far, and to a brighter, stronger future and continued collaboration,
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- The Liberal Sweatshop(2009): http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2009/07/15/the-liberal-sweatshop.html
- The Fund for the Public Interest Research Is Lying to You: http://www.angelfire.com/indie/fundislying/FundIsLying.html
- Beware of Working for The Fund for the Public Interest (2012): http://fund-for-the-public-interest.pissedconsumer.com/beware-of-working-for-fund-for-the-public-interest-20120507317059.html
- Public Interests, Private Tactics (2012): http://www.cityonahillpress.com/2012/05/31/public-interests-private-tactics/
- Workers Protest at Fund For the Public Interest (2012): http://www.portlandoccupier.org/2012/11/21/workers-protest-at-fund-for-public-interest-research/#sthash.Zp6wRbHM.dpbs
- Complaint Review: Fund for the Public Interest (2012): http://www.ripoffreport.com/r/fund-for-the-public-interest/boston-massachusetts-/fund-for-the-public-interest-also-identifies-as-environment-massachusetts-dont-walk-run-862390
- Burned Out by th PIRG (2010): https://burnedoutbypirg.wordpress.com/tag/fund-for-public-interest-research/
- Oregon State Public Interest Research Group Fires Pro-Union Workers (2012): http://www.peoplesworld.org/oregon-state-public-interest-research-group-fires-pro-union-workers/
- Do You Have a Minute For ? (2006): http://inthesetimes.com/article/2787
- The Fund for the Public Interest (2010): http://wariobidness.livejournal.com/43607.html
- Sidewalk activism `strangling progessive politics’ one disillusioned employee at a time (2009): http://blogs.chicagotribune.com/news_columnists_ezorn/2009/07/-sidewalk-activism-strangling-progessive-politics-one-disillusioned-employee-at-a-time.html
- Confessions of an HRC Canvasser (2014): http://www.huffingtonpost.com/francisco-j-tirado/confessions-of-an-hrc-can_b_5537896.html
- Activism, Inc.: How Outsourcing the Grassroots is Strangling the Progressive Movement (2006): http://www.dailykos.com/story/2006/09/20/248086/-Activism-Inc-How-Outsourcing-the-Grassroots-is-Strangling-the-Progressive-Movement#