Doug Phelps is the president and executive director of the controversial left-wing organizing entity known as the Public Interest Network. Phelps holds a number of additional roles inside the left-progressive movement in addition to his position with Public Interest Network, a collection of over 15 national groups that work in grassroots engagement mostly through canvassing.
Commentators and former employees have criticized Phelps’s organizations for fostering a “churn and burn” approach to hiring low level canvassers for his many for-profit and non-profit operations.1 The news outlet Daily Beast characterized Fund for the Public Interest as “the liberal sweatshop.”2 Phelps is known to be very private and has little presence in public settings.
Phelps’ titles include founder, president, and executive director of the Public Interest Network; president of the National Association of Organizations in the Public Interest; U.S. PIRG president; board chairman of CALPIRG; president and board chairman of Environment America; president and board chairman of Fund for the Public Interest; advisory board chairman of Change Corps; board chairman of Green Corps; advisory board member of the National Environmental Law Center; board member of Green Century Capital Management; board member of ProgressNow; Grassroots Campaigns, Inc. CEO; and president of Telefund, Inc.3
Phelps is also a founding member of the Colorado Democracy Alliance, the Colorado branch of the Democracy Alliance, a strategizing group that convenes top-level influencers on the Left.4 Documents found by the Washington Free Beacon indicate that Phelps is also a member of or closely associated with the national Democracy Alliance, as he was listed as a “conference friend” for new member Adam Abram.5
Phelps has built a complex political operation that incorporates his nonprofits under Fund for the Public Interest and the Public Interest Network and his for-profit companies Telefund, Inc. and Grassroots Campaigns, Inc. All of which incorporate canvassing and grassroots campaigning while employing entry level and low paid staffers.
In addition, Phelps is president of his private grantmaking foundation, the Douglas H. Phelps Foundation, which supports a number of left-wing organizations including the Clinton Foundation, Aspen Institute, Media Matters for America, and the Center for American Progress.
Phelps is known to be private and does not make many public statements. His Public Interest Network biography indicates that he lives in Denver and that his first job in the network was with MASSPIRG in 1979.6
FEC contribution data indicated that Phelps has given over $170,000 to various Democratic candidates and committees since 2004.7 In 2014, then-Vice President Joe Biden headlined a $5,000 per-plate fundraiser at Phelps’s Santa Barbara home. It was noted at that time that “Phelps, while hardly a household name, is the head of Grassroots Campaigns, Inc. and Telefund, Inc., the fundraising shock troops that have been hired over the years by progressive and environmental organizations including the Sierra Club, Planned Parenthood, Oxfam, National Organization for Women, Amnesty International, and of course, the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.”8
Many former staffers of the Public Interest Network and its associated organizations have criticized Phelps and the Public Interest Network and its associated groups for their labor practices. The groups reportedly pay entry-level left-wing canvassers and activists very low wages.9 Phelps and his network also were criticized by liberals for opposing a change to the federal overtime rule that would raise the salary threshold required to be an employee exempt from overtime regulations, indicating that the network would be adversely affected by the rule because it pays low wages and requires more than 40 hour work weeks.10
When former staff organized to circulate a letter asking the network to reevaluate its stance, Phelps sent all network “alumni” a letter responding to the effort which was described as an “unprofessional and sarcastic response [that] manifests the extraordinary amount of disdain he has for his entry-level staff—the hundreds of recent college grads his organizations exploit and burn through to put millions of dollars in his pocket.”11
Additionally, Phelps’s network handles canvassing contracts for a number of liberal groups outside the network itself, among them the LGBT-interest group Human Rights Campaign. A petition website called “We Are HRC Canvas” has been formed to ask the Human Rights Campaign to sever all ties to the Fund for the Public Interest and the Public Interest Network. The site has several pages of harsh criticism against the network stating that “The Fund for the Public Interest has a sink or swim recruiting process that is all about making a quick buck and not about nurturing activists or building a movement.”12
- “Doug Phelps”. Public Interest Primer.Accessed April 10, 2018. https://publicinterestprimer.wordpress.com/doug-phelps/
- Rosiak, Luke. “The Liberal Sweatshop.” The Daily Beast. July 15, 2009. Accessed May 07, 2018. https://www.thedailybeast.com/the-liberal-sweatshop.
- “Doug Phelps”. Public Interest Primer. Accessed April 10, 2018. https://publicinterestprimer.wordpress.com/doug-phelps/
- Fender, Jessica. “Progressive Gang Uses Nonprofits to Push Politics.” The Denver Post. October 05, 2008. Accessed October 09, 2018. https://www.denverpost.com/2008/10/05/progressive-gang-uses-nonprofits-to-push-politics/.
- Markay, Lachlan. “Read the Confidential Document Left Behind at the Democracy Alliance Meeting.” Washington Free Beacon. May 06, 2014. Accessed October 09, 2018. https://freebeacon.com/politics/jonathan-soros-left-a-confidential-document-at-his-donor-conference/.
- “Our Staff” The Public Interest Network. Accessed April 30, 2018. https://publicinterestnetwork.org/our-staff.html
- Author’s calculations from “FEC Donor Lookup—Douglas Phelps in Colorado.” Federal Elections Commission. Accessed April 30, 2018. https://www.fec.gov/data/receipts/individual-contributions/?two_year_transaction_period=2016&contributor_name=doug+phelps&min_date=01%2F01%2F2015&max_date=12%2F31%2F2016&contributor_state=CO and for other two-year periods.
- Welsh, Nick. “Joe Biden Swoops In” The Santa Barbara Independent. March 21, 2014. Accessed April 30, 2018 https://www.independent.com/news/2014/mar/21/joe-biden-swoops/
- “The Job.” Burned Out By the PIRG. January 31, 2009. Accessed May 07, 2018. https://burnedoutbypirg.wordpress.com/category/g-the-job/.
- Jamieson, Dave. “Progressive Group Comes Out Against Obama’s Big Overtime Rule.” The Huffington Post. May 23, 2016. Accessed May 07, 2018. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/obama-overtime-rule_us_57431db8e4b045cc9a7178cd.
- Liberal Sweatshop. “Here’s How Doug Phelps (of PIRG/TPIN Infamy) Feels About His Entry-Level Staff”. Medium. Accessed April 10, 2018. https://medium.com/@publicinterestprimer/heres-how-doug-phelps-of-pirg-tpin-infamy-feels-about-his-entry-level-staff-a9ca5dfc2e0c
- “Read the Letter”. We Are HRC Canvas”. Accessed April 30, 2018. http://wearehrccanvass.com/read-the-letter/