What's it like to be a Greenpeace Frontliner?
March 9, 2011 2:02 PM   Subscribe

Posting for a friend: "I've been looking for part-time work recently and I've been considering applying to Greenpeace as a "Frontliner" (see: the people who walk around cities and malls informing people about climate change, dolphins, etc)."

"I'm wondering if anyone here has had prior experience working for Greenpeace in this capacity, what the job really entails and how flexible the hours are. I'm a full-time student and I absolutely refuse to miss class for work, but my weekends are normally pretty open."

A couple extra details:
- said friend just turned 21;
- said friend lives in southern California;
- said friend has a car.

posted by mdonley to Work & Money (11 answers total)
I have had no experience working with Greenpeace, so I can't give you too much there.

I have, however, had years of experience dodging those Greenpeace solicitors on the sidewalk every week or so. They're annoying and intrusive. I don't yell at them because I'm a quiet person and I know they're just doing what they're paid to do... but I always want to. I suspect a day in the life of a Greenpeace frontliner involves a lot of run-ins with pedestrians without that level of restraint, so your friend should be prepared for that.
posted by Metroid Baby at 2:26 PM on March 9, 2011 [4 favorites]

I worked for Greenpeace in this very job description for about 3-4 months during the summer. Unless the office you are applying to has a specific opening for weekend work, this job is a 9-5/M-F kind of job. I would definitely contact the Director of the office with your concerns for part-time work, since when I worked as a canvasser for Greenpeace and Environment California I wanted a full-time job and worked 40hr weeks.

That said, I loved working for Greenpeace for a variety of reasons. These may or may not appeal to you. One the best parts about this job for me was that I was outside all day every day, rain or shine. Since I was working in the summer, it was sunny and hot most of the time, so it was really great. This may not appeal to you as you are essentially standing on the street, asking strangers for money. A major difficulty is actually keeping the job, as the first few days you are "on trial" and depending on whether or not you can sign up a certain number of members will determine whether or not you are hired. The reason for this is that signing up people to become members of Greenpeace (this would mean that they donate a certain amount from their checking account/credit card each month to Greenpeace) is how Greenpeace pays YOU. As I liked to call it, you are "hustling for the environment". The idea is that if you fail to sign people up a certain number of times in a row, you get fired. It's a stressful way to work, but if you have good inter-personal skills, are passionate about the environment, and really enjoy talking to people and are okay with rejection for about 80% of your day, this job is super fun.

On preview, I will wager a guess that most of your answers will be how others view canvassers, which is very negatively. This is not the job for the thin-skinned. People can be very mean and you just will learn to take it in stride and learn to not take it personally. It is also a great way to meet like-minded people.
posted by ruhroh at 2:32 PM on March 9, 2011

I have, however, had years of experience dodging those Greenpeace solicitors on the sidewalk every week or so.

Me, too, and I second Metroid Baby's sentiment.

I also wonder if these "Frontliners" are actually participating in a scam, either with or without their knowledge, similar to the inner-city kids selling magazine subscriptions -- the kid may be innocent, but the guys that organize them are getting paid somehow. For example, it's not really Greenpeace, but actually some pseudo-charity that's donating to Greenpeace a fraction of 1 percent of the money taken in.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:47 PM on March 9, 2011

They infest downtown Austin, and it definitely seemed to be a 9-5 weekday gig. I don't think I've ever seen them after work hours.

(I liked Greenpeace just fine until I had to spend a year and a half (sometimes literally) dodging their operatives three times a day. Now I kind of want to go poison whales just to piss them off.)
posted by restless_nomad at 3:11 PM on March 9, 2011 [4 favorites]

I'm not sure if "frontliner" work is the same as canvassing. But for a few weeks about 8 years ago, I canvassed for Greenpeace.

Canvassing for Greenpeace is one of the few experiences in my almost thirty years that I truly regret. If I could go back in time to my fresh-faced idealistic 22 year old self, I would tell her to RUN AWAY and never take that canvassing job. Deliver pizzas, bag groceries, deal heroin, but no matter what, DO NOT TAKE THIS JOB.

The atmosphere was unbearable. Cultlike, even. Not so much on the point of environmental issues (it was assumed that we were all equally committed to the cause), but in terms of GETTING TOTALLY REVVED UP to go beg people for money. It reminded me a lot of a high school pep rally, if the obnoxious popular kids and bullies were earnest liberals instead of cheerleaders.

On top of the creepy vibe, it was not really made clear at first that you only get paid if you make your quotas. They are required to pay you minimum wage if you don't make your goal*, but you'll be let go after a day or two of not hitting your targets. The commission is OK if you do really well at getting donations out of people, but if you aren't great at it you make a pittance.

During the time I was there, I got the impression that very few people lasted more than a couple months at canvassing. Anyone who stuck around that long usually ended up being "promoted" to team leader, except that it seemed to me that most of the team leaders were new at their jobs, too. Nobody except the field office coordinators had been at the job more than about six months. Which is kind of a red flag, no?

If that's not enough to dissuade your friend, he should keep in mind that the work itself is miserable. You're outside, day in, day out, rain or shine. People are rude to you. The supervisors harass you about quotas constantly and guilt trip you if you're not performing well. The "organizing" itself consists of reciting a memorized shpeil, and you are NEVER to go off script. It's dehumanizing monkey work, and absolutely nothing is done for the workers to make it more palatable. If anything, the work environment is constructed to make things more stressful than they have to be in hopes that the pressure will motivate you to squeeze another penny out of someone.

*This was a long time ago and eventually rectified by a class action lawsuit, so I'm sure it's no longer their policy, but back when I was canvassing you actually were NOT paid even that minimum wage if you didn't finish out the pay period. Last year I got a check for about $200 in the mail for my last week's wages I was never paid - in 2002 - because I didn't make it to pay day that week.
posted by Sara C. at 3:30 PM on March 9, 2011 [4 favorites]

the kid may be innocent, but the guys that organize them are getting paid somehow. For example, it's not really Greenpeace, but actually some pseudo-charity that's donating to Greenpeace a fraction of 1 percent of the money taken in.

No, it's really Greenpeace. They outsource their canvassing needs to a middleman company that organizes everything, but despite the questionable working conditions it's certainly legit.

The class action suit documents I got in the mail explained the whole setup, and yes, Greenpeace and other big nonprofits were named in the suit.

(This doesn't mean OP's friend should take the job, though. I DIDN'T GET PAID FOR EIGHT FUCKING YEARS, FOR CHRISSAKES!)
posted by Sara C. at 3:38 PM on March 9, 2011

I'm guessing by the timeline that Sara C. canvassed for Greenpeace when their canvasses were run by the Fund for Public Interest Research, an outfit that runs canvasses for many nonprofits. There were lots of union-busting issues when GP canvasses were run by the FFPIR. However, Greenpeace now runs its own canvasses/frontline operations, FWIW. I don't know how this affects labor issues, but I would guess the affect was positive.

Anyway, I canvassed door-to-door during the summers in college and for a year after graduation. It's hard work and, like everyone else, I hated the quota system, but I don't understand why it's so controversial - it's basically a sales jobs, and don't sales jobs have quota systems?

It ended up being one of the (positive) formative experiences of my life - it led to a career in political advocacy, a field I still work in. For me, this was great, because it's one of the few paying entry-level positions in this field. It won't necessarily lead right to a paying job, but if you do it for a while and do well, it is very impressive on an advocacy, politics or nonprofit resume. However, this benefit is obviously moot if you're not interested in these fields.

Also, I made friends doing this work I still have to this day.
posted by lunasol at 4:51 PM on March 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yeah, Nthing others; you're not "informing" anyone, your selling monthly donations to people. I have worked both sides of this fence - as a spruiker, and as someone working for NGO that received these donations.

They are very very lucrative for NGOs. You get orders of magnitude more money from regular donations than once-off change-in-a-bucket dealios. But let me also tell you, as someone who worked for an NGO that dealt with people who had signed up - it's very bad, unethical and the most successful sellers are the ones who misled people.

When we were doing it in my NGO job I would get literally a dozen or more emails, phone calls and letters from people every single week who had been duped by sellers, and thought their donations were once off, not regular. Yes, they didn't read what they signed, but they were still misled, and angry or sad about it. And very unhappy with our NGO.

Fyi, the reason GreenPeace (and all charities) outsource this work is plausible deniability. The companies that do this are notorious for violating labour conditions and engaging in unethical - if legal - practices. GreenPeace gets the money, and gets to pretend they don't know how or why it's generated.

If you're the one working on the street, you need a hide like a buffalo because people will - rightly - despise you for what you're doing. Get used to being ignored, being abused, perhaps even being spat on! Yay! Job security is non-existent, and the most depressing part - at least in my experience - is that the most successful people at it were actually total arseholes, and it made me think, "god, do I want to be like that? Is that what it takes to make money doing this?". Yes, I could not hack it. It was one of the worst jobs I have ever had, ever.

It makes me incredibly mad that organisations with great reputations and accountability (I don't include GreenPeace here) engage in this practice. I wish it was banned.
posted by smoke at 4:58 PM on March 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

There may well be a substantial difference between canvassing door-to-door and harassing passers-by on the street. I can handle canvassers - or just not answer the door. But regularly having to step around people actively trying to block my path on the street makes me absolutely livid. (No one actually managed to grab my arm, although a few people tried. I sort of regret that - I've always wanted an excuse to throw someone through a plate-glass window.)
posted by restless_nomad at 5:01 PM on March 9, 2011

it's basically a sales jobs, and don't sales jobs have quota systems?

There are a few significant differences between canvassing and other sales jobs.

Firstly, the base pay in sales is usually decent enough. The only times I've had minimum wage jobs in sales, it was in low-stakes retail where there wasn't a lot of real sales work to be done. The higher the pressure to hit certain numbers, the better the base pay. I made like $12 an hour working at Tiffany's a decade ago, before commission. Even if I'd never met my goal, I was still making something like a living wage.

Secondly, in my experience it's pretty hard to get fired for not meeting sales goals at the sort of level that political canvassing corresponds to. It's also not all that hard to make sales. When I worked retail, I never had a problem making my numbers. Every once in a while we'd have a rough February, and things would get tense. But by and large, a good proportion of the people in the store were there to buy something, and it was pretty easy to "sell" in the guise of "assisting a customer". Walking up to someone on the street and asking for their credit card number? That's fucking brutal, sorry.

People deserve to be paid more than $7 an hour for that kind of work, and they deserve to know that they're still going to have a job tomorrow if they have a bad day.

(I'm glad to hear that things have gotten better in the post Fund For Public Interest Research era, though I still wouldn't recommend this sort of work to most people.)
posted by Sara C. at 6:45 PM on March 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

We have these in the UK - they're known as 'chuggers' or charity muggers. Pay is about £7 an hour, which is a bit more than you'd get for shop work. People have pretty strong reactions to them, too. I find a polite 'no thank you' is fine, but I had one shout at me in the street for not stopping which I could have done without right then.

The ones that actively have blocked my path turned out to be scam artists who got ASBOs for essentially chasing women down the street.
posted by mippy at 4:27 AM on March 10, 2011

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