Project Wonderful

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Ask An Election Nerd: Should I Work At A PIRG?

Hi! I love your blog and as a recent college graduate in the poli sci field I am in desperate need of advice. I've been job hunting for about two months now and have come up pretty empty despite about two years of work experience between campaign and nonprofit internships. I saw a post you made about US PIRG and Work For Progress pretty much confirming all the negative stuff I've heard about them but I'm getting desperate. Are they really that bad of an option?

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It must be PIRG recruiting season because I got a rash of questions about PIRGs around this time last year and now I am seeing them again. Rather than just give my own opinion, since I have never worked for a PIRG, I thought I would curate all the responses I got when I posted this question to the blog last year, and post them for you to decide. I've put my original response below and then the many submitter responses that followed.

My tangential dealings with PIRG have been mostly negative. First off, they have been frequently accused of advertising wages that they don’t deliver unless workers are able to meet an exceedingly high quota. Second, studies have shown that only about 8-10% of money raised by commercial fundraisers goes to the causes they claim to support. The rest goes to overhead. Thirdly, I would never give cash or my credit card information to someone I met on the street, or who came to my door, so it’s hard for me to promote the solicitation of others doing so. (Also anecdotally the only person I have ever met who enjoyed worked for them was an insufferable douchebag. That said, I have never worked directly with PIRG, so I leave it open to my blog followers to dispute.

"To the person who got offered a job at Fund for the Public Interest, please don't take it. I got offered one last summer which made me super excited. It was my first time living on my own and paying rent and I had found a job that wanted me, or so I thought. It ended up being a terrible idea. If you do some quick research, the results will demonstrate that the organization has a history of violating labor laws. I hope this helps!"

"Don't EVER work for the PIRG's. Any campaign where you are forced to put your life in danger (and going door to door ALONE in unsafe areas with large amounts of money is UNSAFE) is not worth it. Most of the PIRG's pay very low wages, with the promise that you can make more with commission which is usually only 20% for directors. Unfair. Unsafe. Unhelpful to the cause."

"I've worked for Grassroots Campaigns and the Fund. Tell that person who got offered the job at the Fund to avoid it like it has plague. Then tell her GCI is in a recruiting mode and if she got offered a job at the fund GCI will probably love to have her."

"The PIRGs are RIDICULOUSLY unfair. They are so massively underpaid. I got offered a job my first year out of college -- the annual salary was $21k.... in ATLANTA. No. Just.... no. To be avoided."

"Hi Nancy, I love your blog, but I'm really turned off by the negative comments you've published about The Public Interest Network. I've been working with TPIN for a year, and my experience has been entirely positive. Yes the hours are long and the pay isn't great, but I love what I do, so every paycheck feels like a bonus. The training is unparalleled, the campaigns are strategic, and the people are super smart. I wouldn't let some angry former employees dissuade anyone from working with them."

"Based solely on my experience with CalPIRG, I definitely do not recommend they take the job. I'm not gonna say they're a conspiracy, but their business practices are super sketch."

"The 90% overhead myth is just that - a myth. True, a fair amount of the initial donations go to overhead, which makes it impractical for some campaigns but the long-term benefits of the registry is worth it to their clients. ACLU, for example (the main campaign I worked on) got about 35% of our donations. But those donations often turned into long-term donors - an ACLU rep told us that it's more important they have a database because their returning donors almost triple the day-to-day donations."

"Two more things to add: It's easy for people to complain, especially when people expect things to happen for them or to them — you know as well as I do that that isn't organizing. It's a lot harder to actually put in the effort, swallow your pride and do whatever you can to make an impact, while knowing your own personal wall and making sure you take care of yourself. Plus, everyone at TPIN identifies with your blog and we are all big fans. Like you said, we're all on the same team."

"One more response to the person who inquired about working with the national PIRG: see http://burnedoutbypirg.wordpress.com/. This site is built by former PIRG employees and is a pretty good summary of most people’s comments so far. I’ve never worked for the national PIRG but have worked with a number of former PIRG employees on other campaigns who almost universally hated their time there. PIRG has tried to recruit me to work with them three times, and when I’ve pushed them for details they’ve described 80 hour work weeks at an effective pay rate of less than $7/hour (no overtime pay, since most positions are salaried) and rarely any days off, perhaps some Sundays but at least six days per week of expected work. This doesn’t sound good to me, so I’ve turned down their offers and taken jobs on other campaigns instead.

I should note that this criticism only applies to organizations which are under the umbrella of the national Public Interest Network out of Boston (this includes USPIRG and many state PIRGs, the Fund for the Public Interest, Environment America, Green Corps, and Fair Share Alliance). It notably does NOT include MPIRG (Minnesota), which has no affiliation with the national network and maintains much better labor practices and employee retention. NYPIRG and a few other state PIRGs also operate independently and have better practices."


Hope this helps!

Campaign Love and Mine,

Nancy


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Sunday, March 9, 2014

How Having a Rare Disease Made Me Good At My Job


As many of you know, I have Takayasu's Arteritis, which is a form of vasculitis and a rare, chronic auto-immune disorder. February 28th was Rare Disease Awareness Day and many people shared and encouraged other to share their stories about living with vasculitis online.

Before I go any further, I want to emphasize that I am fine. I've been in remission for years and was lucky that I had parents and doctors and healthcare (hello, HEALTHCARE) such that I was diagnosed early and avoided some of the more serious complications associated with the disease. That said, being sick sucks any way you slice it. Now that I've been in remission for a long time, I can look back on my experiences being actively sick and see how they shaped who I am today. I've been meaning to write a post like this for a while and since Rare Disease Awareness Day occurred while I was traveling for work, I had the kick in the pants/layover down time to make it happen. (Sorry person sitting next to me who saw me cry in the Minneapolis airport.) So without further ado, here is how being sick eventually made me good at my job:

1) It taught me empathy.

I posted about Harold Ramis dying from vasculitis on Facebook the other day and a friend jokingly responded, "but you don't look sick." This is a common response to people with a rare disease and one of the most surprising things about being sick. On the one hand, your life is entirely about your disease. Things like what you eat, how much sleep you need, managing pain, and the stress of dealing with doctors and insurance companies are always on your mind and often the lens through which you see your day. At the same time, when I was most actively sick it was from my Freshman to Junior years of college. I was making new friends, picking majors, doing internships and studying abroad in St.Petersburg, Russia. Most people I interacted with besides my close friends and family had no idea I was sick. When I routinely arrived unprepared to meetings with my academic advisor, I must have seemed irresponsible. When I slept 12 hours a day, I must have seemed depressed and anti-social to my Freshman year hallmates. When I was constantly sweaty, often out of breath and bright red walking around campus, frequently screaming on the phone to my parents or insurance company, I must have seemed...gross? crazy?

I tell you this not to play the world's tiniest violin, but to paint the picture that has informed my interaction with volunteers, party activists and other less than savory, more difficult characters. It's also what makes me so supportive of Democratic causes like access to education, providing universal healthcare, and rehabilitation in our prison system. I am as big a proponent of personal responsibility as you're likely to meet, but it seems to me that people to who don't support these causes have never been the victim of circumstances beyond on their own control.

We've all seen the Ian Maclaren quote on Facebook, "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." Being sick has taught me to temper my natural inclination toward judgement with the understanding that you never know what's going on with someone else's lived experience.

2) It made me better at dealing with candidates.

I remember once while waiting for MRI results that from a specialist who was slow in responding, I sent an exasperated email that included the line, "please remember, while this is your JOB, this is my LIFE." Sure, it was a tad dramatic, but I often reflect on those interactions when dealing with finicky candidates. It can be very frustrating when your candidate doesn't seem to trust you or your judgment, but at least from a candidate's perspective at the end of the day, it's their job and reputation on the line, not yours. Of course, good campaign staffers are deeply emotionally invested in their races, but that's sometimes hard for a candidate to see. It doesn't make them right, but it does help me to remember what it feels like to have a stake in something that is deeply personal to me, and primarily professional to somebody else.

3) It taught me to push myself.

I've said before that the greatest lesson to learn from working on campaigns is that you are capable of more than you know. As I mentioned above, despite being pretty actively sick I (probably unwisely) studied abroad, started college, interned at the Massachusetts State House, and for a while swam a mile every day. Although in retrospect this probably wasn't the wisest decision for my physical or mental health, it did give me strength, self-confidence, and a deep rooted belief that I can accomplish anything. This served me well when I started campaign life. Fourteen-hour work days? I can sleep after the election. Eight hour call time? No problem. GOTV goals? Sure, I like a challenge.

The flip side to number 1, of course, is that knowing what one can do in the face of adversity, as a manager I don't take kindly to people who make excuses and I don't make them for myself.

4) It made me crave something outside myself.

The sad reality of being sick is that it forces you to become somewhat narcissistic. I was lucky to be at the center of a network of friends, family, and health care professionals all taking care of me. So many of my conversations were about my body and how I was feeling. So much of my mental bandwidth was taken up by my physical being. There wasn't an hour of my day where some part of my brain wasn't thinking about doses of medicine, test results, side effects, or endless arguments with insurance companies. By the time I graduated college, I was ready for my brain to be obsessed with anything but my body.

Campaign people joke that the best way to get over personal trauma is to hop on a campaign because you simply won't have time to be in your own head. Never has this been more true than when I graduated college. Although I had been in remission for over a year, it wasn't until I began my first job on a campaign that my life became about something other than my illness. After years of feeling like a victim of circumstance I was suddenly eating, sleeping and breathing agency--not only empowering myself, but empowering other people. I was able to redirect the single-minded focus that had allowed me to graduate college, join a sorority and live a relatively normal life despite being sick to something bigger than myself. (Sometimes to my doctor's and parents' chagrin) I didn't have time to think about my body all the time anymore. I wasn't a sick person, I was an organizer.

5) It taught me crisis management.

Long-time readers may remember a post last year in which I shared that I've suffered from fairly intense anxiety and panic attacks--a phenomenon I attribute almost entirely to having been sick. When I was diagnosed, I was about to graduate from high school. I had been admitted to Tufts University, which to my 17 year old mind was as close to a utopia as a smart, passionate, sensitive girl from Chappaqua could get. I had worked really hard to get into Tufts and was eager to start my new life among like-minded people far from the hometown where I never felt accepted. And then, just like that, I had the rug pulled out from under me. Being diagnosed with a chronic illness, especially one no one I knew had ever heard of, threw a wrench in my plans to say the least. Visions of college a cappella and studying on the quad were replaced by fears of hair loss and weight gain (which, by the way, are drug side effects I was way more afraid of than having a stroke or heart attack, thanks for that, society.) Since then I have been wrestling with the underlying awareness that no matter how well things are going, everything can change on the drop of the dime. Little things like my boyfriend not texting me back right away or my boss emailing me "let's find a time to talk later" have been known to send me into a tailspin of worst case scenarios.

That said, when the rubber hits the road, I am excellent in a crisis. Due to the curve balls that being sick has thrown me, I learned to make bold, firm decisions quickly and see their next steps and consequences, even under pressure. I can fire staff, hire new staff and issue a press release while other people are still freaking out about the offending tweet. I know there's no point in fixating on what cannot be changed when there are circumstances that still can be. And even when things are bad, I can put them in perspective.


So that's that. I always feel a little awkward when I post something intensely personal, so I hope you found value in it. Hoping you never have to experience this stuff first hand.

Campaign Love and Mine,


Nancy

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