I recently worked for a larger, pro-equality organization as a campaign director. For legal reasons, I can’t name the organization. But, if you live or work in the Capitol Hill area, it is safe to say that you’ve seen us fundraising and have been canvassed by our employees.
The problem is, however, that this money doesn’t stay in state. It doesn’t go to help the workers to whom you’re contributing. It is, functionally, a slush fund that the national organization uses to leverage its lobbying in Washington, D.C. It is a problematic organization, but you don’t have to take my word for it.
I interviewed several former employees for their opinions on the organization; one, who has also been published here in the pages of OUT FRONT Magazine, goes by the name Keegan Williams. His answers have been edited for clarity and length.
First, tell me a little bit about your experience canvassing with this organization.
Every time I talk about my time at the organization with other people, it’s intermixed with beautiful and terrible situations and experiences, and that was largely how I felt day-to-day working as a canvasser. I found a lot of personal pride knowing that my work could have a positive impact, and that I was working full-time for something that I care deeply about.
That being said, it was one of the harder jobs I’ve ever had for the payoff. The nature of interrupting folks in the public, rather than people knowingly entering a storefront, was unforgiving. As frustrated as I could get from people being rude, ignoring me, or lying to me about what they were doing as I tried to stop them, I also understood that these folks really didn’t owe me anything, and that I was the one bothering them as they went about their day.
What is the compensation like for canvassing workers?
I was paid minimum wage with the opportunity for “incentive pay” for anything I made over my weekly quota. I was employed with this organization for a little over a month, and I think the week I made the most money, I averaged around $13 an hour, which required me to make several hundred dollars over my quota for the week.
This was not typical for me or my coworkers; the canvassers I worked with were usually stressed about making their quota for a week, and even if a canvasser was over what they needed for the week with an opportunity to fundraise even more for a larger paycheck, most of my coworkers would do what they could to help other canvassers who were under quota during a shift to ensure they weren’t fired. Most of my coworkers did their best to work six days a week just to get the overtime to make a livable wage.
Can you tell me why you ultimately decided to leave their employment?
I didn’t feel like the organization was giving me anything close to what was being taken from me in that job. It was extremely mentally taxing day-in and day-out to prepare to greet every person in public to ask for their money at the expense of your paycheck and ultimately your position. I felt as if the parent organization didn’t really care about the success or wellness of the staff, and that it was mostly about what they could get out of individuals while they worked for them and then while they were there.
How do you feel about their approach to fundraising?
It might be the nature of the work, but the staff was completely held hostage based on the money they made on a day-to-day. Directors acted like stops and conversations were valuable, though it was clear that none of that mattered if you didn’t raise the money you needed.
Getting donations from the public felt like manipulation of folks with good intentions. Many of the directors were adamant in sticking to the script, in that the phrasing was specifically designed to play off of the ethos of the people in public who stop. A lot of the tactics we learned in training were sales tactics, and as much as the organization wanted to put value on awareness and conversations, it was clear immediately that the only thing that was really relevant was the money.
Did you ever have or hear about any negative interactions with the public?
The worst I probably ever had a was a man on 16th Street Mall who yelled back at me that being trans should be illegal after I posed my opening question. I was only there five weeks, but almost every week, I heard about a negative interaction with the public from coworkers. There were several instances with coworkers leaving canvassing shifts early, crying, and defeated, because someone threatened or yelled at them while they were working.
I addressed during my time there that I carried a lot of privilege in the role as a white, cisgender man. My trans and nonbinary coworkers often told me about their experiences on the street with folks challenging their gender, saying something transphobic to them directly, or disregarding their rap after clocking them as not cisgender. There were certain sites where directors blatantly told me they consciously send cis people to because it’s safer, and there would be more support over sending trans canvassers.
Thank you so much for sharing with me. I really appreciate your time and insight into the workings of this group.
In another upcoming issue, I’ll write about what the public should do instead as a catalyst to fix this kind of broken, faux, “grassroots” fundraising model.