Several years ago when organizing in Arizona I was surprised to see reports detailing the number of voters being registered by local chapters of a well known national organization. Wow, were they impressive!
Because I was on the ground, all over the state, my suspicions were aroused. Drilling down into the numbers, I discovered that the registrations were inflated by a factor of three. In fact, if the numbers reported by the groups had approached their claims the entire state would have flipped politically overnight. It didn’t. Not even close. Not statewide. Not in specific legislative districts. Not in cycle after cycle.
Data, it turned out, was falsified to scale.
Because many funders were invested heavily in the alleged voter registration bonanza, they discounted skeptics as “sour grapes”. The number cooking continued for years thereafter. Precious dollars were dumped down the rat hole of false claims for almost a decade.
Worse, those who were actually doing the hard, patient work of voter registration and education appeared puny in comparison to what was being trumped up with a national megaphone.
Eventually some funders figured out that they were being gamed. With the introduction of new technologies invested in a range of accountability loops they torqued down their data driven approach. They believed that reduced scamming would improve their desired outcomes.
But there was an unintended consequence more damaging than fake numbers.
Most of the deep and real organizing that some funders supported ended in favor of new contact/outcome metrics. A crude utilitarianism swept over dollar flows incentivizing the lowest level of task while undercutting deeper, more sustainable relationship building and organizing. As most of the funder world went hook line and sinker for this paper-thin instrumentalism, whatever teaching and learning they once supported vaporized.
Frank C. Pierson, Jr.
Frank Pierson retired after forty years of work with the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) as a professional organizer. He began his career in 1971 in Chicago, moved to Queens, New York City and migrated west to work in Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado. He resides with his wife, Mary Ellen Kazda, in Oracle, Arizona. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org