The Activism Industry

Outsourcing outreach takes a toll on the left's base

| September 21, 2006

With midterm elections just two months away, clipboard-wielding college kids can be found on street corners and doorsteps across the country soliciting signatures and support. Such canvassing is especially popular among issue-based activist groups like the Sierra Club, Save the Children, and the Human Rights Campaign, with about 25 percent of the largest left-leaning organizations using the tack to raise funds, awareness, and membership numbers.

The roots of this tried-and-true tool of grassroots activism stretch back 35 years, when a former encyclopedia salesman put his pavement-pounding know-how to use for the campaign of a local candidate. But in recent years such activism has seen a major shift, reports Dana R. Fisher for the American Prospect Online. Namely, the outreach has been outsourced.

After vast funding cuts in the 1990s, many progressive organizations were forced to close local offices and hire 'clearinghouses' like the Fund for Public Interest Research to do their door-to-door activism. The immediate result was a bounty of reliable, well-trained canvassers and huge surges in fundraising and membership. The Human Rights Campaign alone saw membership grow from 200,000 to 600,000 since adopting the approach in the late 1990s.

Despite the successes, criticism quickly followed. Because canvassers working for these clearinghouses are often college students who have few ties to the local communities they're assigned, and because the work is hard and turnover is high, most canvassers work one campaign and then quit, graduate, or move on. The ultimate result for the left, Fisher reports, is a scattered political base.

Conservatives, in contrast, employ a grassroots model similar to that of the Christian Coalition. By working within existing community groups, such as churches and civic organizations, and by rallying their troops using local activists, the right has successfully created enduring connections to their base.

The left should take note, says Fisher. Progressive candidates and issues are losing out to 'conservative counterparts that have invested the time and money to develop real local ties to Americans.' -- Elizabeth Oliver

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