Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Mgmt 101 for Lefties: Check Kiting and Alienating Your Core Market Does Not Equal High ROI

So I'm blogging around just wondering whatever happened to people I used to work with, and what do I find?

Bob Creamer, former executive director of the Illinois Public Action Council, where I held my first post-college, full-time job, is headed up the river. He is to report for incarceration June 1. I have extremely mixed feelings about this.

I don't think Bob Creamer is evil. In fact, I'll tell ya, when I was working as a canvasser for IPAC in the early 80s, I was totally inspired by him. What a guy! He really did stand up for the powerless, and I remember him being such an engaging, inspirational speaker. I honestly believe his heart has always been in the right place.

His financial head is another story: it's contortedly inserted into another part of his anatomy. His story so clearly illustrates a major reason the left keeps blowing it. Most activists on the left are so anti-big business that they forget that many business best practices are, well, best practices. There's a reason sound management principles, such as good bookkeeping, result in strong, powerful businesses, and we have learned not only from Enron, but from Mike Milken and Ivan Boesky that breaking the rules really will eventually catch up to you. The left has gotten better at this, heck, some people on the left even hold MBAs (fie!) but Bob Creamer reminds us we still have a ways to go.

I have a bit of a personal perspective on all this that really illustrates that it's not just the money when it comes to the damage that Creamer's actions have done. As an IPAC canvasser, I put in some 45-60 hour work weeks for roughly $250 a week. I was trained by a nationwide canvassing organization that called itself the C/LEC Canvass Network, who, while growing up in public, was really endeavoring to develop sound business practices to train, manage, and retain professionals in the field. (We'll save the irony that the "L" in C/LEC stood for "Labor" --although we were FSLA-nonexempt employees who never got a penny of overtime pay-- for another post.) The C/LEC Canvass Network has since grown/morphed into the Progressive Action Network, PAN, which consults and subcontracts out management of the outreach/canvassing of progressive organizations, and does so very well. One of their best management training techniques is the "cross-train" -- where you're sent to another office for 2-4 weeks to learn new skills, and in one of my cases, to learn to become a field manager, so that the people I'd be managing wouldn't see me in training mode. Apparently I'd made enough of a mark that I was identified as having "potential" (whatever that meant). I was sent to Minneapolis to do my training, and it just happened to be right when the proverbial excrement hit the oscillating cooling device back in Illinois. IPAC was having a severe money crunch and while I was drawing my check from Minnesota COACT, I'd heard from my pals that IPAC paychecks were bouncing.

The timing of my cross train became crystal clear, as I figured that C/LEC management had to have known that the IPAC Bouncing Paycheck Disaster was imminent. I then was given a choice: "Well, Veronica, you can come work for C/LEC as a field manager and see a lot of the country and get out of the midwest for awhile and such," or, unsaid, "You can stay here in Illinois and work for IPAC and not be able to pay your bills because your paychecks bounce." I have to believe Creamer felt bad about the whole paycheck bouncing thing, and I'm sure he took a few hits himself. But it's different when your weekly paycheck is only about $250 gross (as opposed to what Bob may have been pulling in) and you are living from paycheck to paycheck and that's all you've got because you are -- as the typical canvasser was -- a current student or recent grad with a degree in some liberal arts or social science which means its either this or waitressing until you get that first great book deal. Your paycheck bounces, which means your rent check bounces, which means your bank fees go up, which means your utility bill check bounces, which means you're eating ramen noodles and whatever you can pick out of the trash bin behind the Burger King for a month. It's kind of hard to canvass on the topic on "more reasonable energy costs" when you're wondering exactly how you're going to keep the heat on in your crappy apartment that you're sharing with five other people whose paychecks bounced. Taking the opportunity to go off with another organization that had a competent bookkeeper was a no-brainer. My true friends at IPAC wished me well. I know that a few others saw me as a traitor, and C/LEC as the vultureous bitches who picked what was left of the broken IPAC and flew away. Whatever. I was headed for Morgantown, WV, to be followed by Baltimore, MD and ultimately Washington DC, where I got the real world political education of my life (but that too is a post for another day.)

I remember going back to Chicago and getting a final IPAC check before hitting the road for Morgantown. The check (and accompanying pay period) was dated for the week before I even left for Minnesota, and I was in the city, as opposed to Urbana, which was home base for me at the time. I didn't have an account at any Chicago-based banks, so I had to try to cash that last check at a currency exchange or check cashing place. Nobody would do it: a few laughed at me. I had to wait until the next business day until the bank the check was drawn on was opened. They cashed it -- the funds were available by then, but I could only imagine what it may have been like for many of my peers, who would have difficulty for months to come until various stores and other check cashing places began to trust a payroll (or any!) check with IPAC on top of it. It took a long time before my IPAC friends would even so much as smile at me at national canvasser conventions, and my closer buddies would report to me that it took a long time before the severe damage to morale was repaired.

So, years later, around 1997, what lesson did Bob Creamer take away from this? Was it "Perhaps I should hire a full-charge bookkeeper and fiscal manager that doesn't have his/her head up his/her butt"? No! It was "Gee, next time I'm short of cash I gotta get better at this check-kiting stuff."

Oh Bob. Bob, Bob, Bob. sigh. Jesus Holy Christ, Bob. [shaking head in resignation.]

Yeah, according to the Chicago Sun Times, Creamer pulled this latest check kiting scheme precisely to make payroll (and some expenses), so at least this time he followed the golden business rule that the first bill that gets paid is always always ALWAYS payroll. I agree, nobody was hurt short term, people got paid, and that's how it goes. But in not hurting short-term, Creamer's done a lot of damage to the credibility of social change organizations and reinforced the stereotype that the left doesn't know shinola about business or money management.

And it seems every progressive elected official on the Illinois left, with many of whom I share a political philosophy, and many of whom have Bob's IPAC/canvass army to thank for their positions of power, have blown the opportunity to prove to the right that we are as adept (and willing) at self-policing as we demand they be. Instead, they all lined up to support him and say "Well, we really like him, he's a good guy at heart, so can we just forget about this?" I'm sure Kenneth Lay could have lined up just as many well-connected people to say wonderful things about him and what a splendid organization he built, so couldn't we just ask him to please follow the law next time? Would the left have stood for this? No, and the right shouldn't stand for Bob Creamer kiting checks. Heck, the left shouldn't stand for Bob Creamer kiting checks. Nobody who works with and/or for Bob Creamer should stand for lousy money management and the ensuing bouncing checks. It's wrong. So big deal, we're only stealing from some huge bank, who cares? Wrong. You're stealing from the bank, and that means you're stealing from the bank's patrons, which include the little old lady on social security whose rights you and your wife spent a quarter of a century fighting for, Bob. And, you're undermining the movement's credibility, because you're NOTHING if you're not your word.

I think there was always a argument in the left as to whether the ends justified bending the rules (whether they were government's or your own) to accomplish the ultimate goal, which to be frank, is political power. The original jist -- which was what appealed to 20-something idealistic me -- was to place that power in the hands of the people, the grassroots. We devoured The Backyard Revolution and we relished stories of "regular people who made a difference" and got meaningful legislation passed and terrific people elected. And we loved people who broke the rules to make a point -- "civil disobedience" it's called, and it earned Rosa Parks the honor of being the first black woman to lie in state in the Capitol. But this wasn't civil disobedience. This wasn't making some grand statement about how Big Banking Business is diluting the salt of the earth. This is a guy who overspent his budget, panicked, and made bad decisions.

Has he finally learned his lesson? "I will never again allow my passion for that goal to overwhelm my good judgment or my respect for the law," Creamer told the Sun Times. Really, Bob? This Time for Sure? Because that trick never works, Bullwinkle!

Frankly, Bob, you and the whole IPAC crowd are breaking my heart by breaking some of your own rules, from what I'm reading in the blogosphere. You preached the "ownership by the grassroots" thing, and I believed it in the early 80s. I lived it, knocking on doors night after night, in crappy weather, getting doors slammed in my face, getting signatures, getting contributions for your organization, which I believed in. I really did eat it up, going to Midwest Academy retreats, listening to you and your buddies speak to us about that grand concept of putting power -- political AND economic -- back into the hands of "the people." And we loved that this very methodology got great progressives like Lane Evans elected. You sicced your army of trained canvassers (I was but a mere sergeant) on the 17th congressional district, which hadn't elected a democrat since the 1930s. It worked because he had the support of the grassroots, a major factor you, Bob, and your "well-connected" pals seem to have forgotten. You're breaking your own rules, not on just this check kiting business. Do the grassroots count anymore? Talk to anybody who worked for Christine Cegelis, who was written off by your extremely well-connected pal Rahm Emmanuel (who worked for IPAC in the 80s as well) in favor of a less-progressive, but supposedly more easily electable candidate. Your Congressperson wife Jan Schakowsky, (who was inspirational at IPAC and the Council of Senior Citizens), didn't endorse the homegrown, grassroots candidate Cegelis, either. Bob, watch the blogsphere -- there's a lot of bad blood among Illinois progressives over this, bad blood that will take as long to repair as those payroll checks you bounced in the mid 80s. I know you and Rahm and Jan want to take back Congress now, but really, is pissing off the heart and soul of your movement in the name of expediency really a good long-term strategy? Was "easier" really "more cost effective"? Was getting yourself thrown into prison really the best way to handle a severe money crunch at your non-profit organization? This is not "business best practices."

Bouncing payroll, check kiting, alienating the grass roots, all in the name of a bigger picture that we all believe in, somehow this just doesn't add up to a positive long-term Return On Investment. Rather, breaking the rules, whether those rules are the government's or your personal ideals, does so much damage. For that alone, Creamer should be doing time. We can only hope that Creamer's time in the slammer does for him what it did for Martha Stewart: We may get a talented, passionate advocate for the rights of prisoners out of this.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Seeing how your backyard includes Wisconsin Citizen Action, another organization that changes it name every time things get too hot for it's financial mis-manager, you might ask them a few questions:

1. It seems that in response to constantly being called that "white person's group" they've created an in-house ghetto called CA of Milwaukee. And that's about the only place you'll find black folks in non-entry level canvassing jobs. But they publically get to claim x number of black/hispanic folks, without people knowing those folks reside in an organizational apartheid system.

2. Why do they buy $10,000's of software with their 501C3 tax exempt number but have their 501C4 staff use it for 501C4 purposes?

3. Why did they undergo a "branding" campaign that costs $10,000's of dollars when the vast majority of their public contact is face-to-face?

Like IPAC, it's like they don't or didn't have the money. In progressive political terms, they're fairly well off. It's that their arrogant mis-management leads to them being on the brink of financial disaster all the time.

V'ron said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Roni said...

Brava!

In the quest to win, we're losing our hearts and souls. What kind of party/movement will we be in the end?