WASHINGTON — The New Organizing Institute, a progressive grassroots outfit responsible for training many of the Democratic Party's digital organizers, has to be rebuilt from the ground up after a mass exodus of senior staff and employees Tuesday.
Frustrations over fundraising and the management style of Executive Director Ethan Roeder, the former top data guru for President Obama's presidential campaigns, led senior staffers to quit and several employees to follow them out the door after the nonprofit's board of directors refused to fire Roeder at the staff's request. Staff who left said that layoffs followed the mass resignation, but the board denies that.
Late Tuesday night it was unclear how many paid employees remain of the 20 or so staff at NOI, and most of the senior team left for good. It's a potentially crushing blow for the lefty group best known for its well-attended annual RootsCamp "unconference" that has become a focal point for progressive politics. Rootscamp often features speeches by top progressives, including a 2013 speech by Elizabeth Warren.
In an interview, NOI co-founder and Board Chair Judith Freeman said NOI will go on and promised new fundraising streams to dwindling coffers.
The events that would eventually lead to the mass exodus began Monday, when senior members of the leadership team gave the board an ultimatum in the form of a memo, according to multiple sources: Either Roeder went, or they would. Staff expressed frustration about money woes that have mounted since August, when fundraising streams began to dry up.
That memo led to a chaotic Tuesday. Stories differ as to what exactly happened. Freeman said eight staffers signed the memo, and they were dismissed by the board. A staff source said seven signed the memo, seven more were "let go" and three resigned in protest. Multiple staff said resigning and dismissed staffers were told to turn in their equipment and leave the building immediately, leading to a sense of "shock" within the small progressive outfit.
One source said the tumult left NOI with four full time staffers, including Roeder. Freeman declined to name the number of employees left at NOI.
The board chair expressed confidence in Roeder and frustration in the staff that turned on him.
"They sent us a memo on Monday at six o'clock. And they had not reached out to us before. It's always a board's responsibility to oversee hire and fire and the executive director," Freeman said. "We took [the memo] seriously, but ultimately we feel confident in Ethan's leadership and it's very unfortunate that they proposed this as the only path forward."
Most former employees contacted by BuzzFeed News declined to comment on the record. Roeder and other board members directed requests for comment to Freeman. But in the tight-knit and relatively small world of progressive digital organizing, recriminations and accusations flowed quickly.
In an email to friends shared with BuzzFeed News by a recipient, NOI digital director Eric Ming accused the NOI leadership of endangering organization by sticking with Roeder.
"Decisions have been made that I and others believe to be harmful to this organization in both the present situation and the future. This is both in mission and fiscal future. NOI risks failing in our mission — and failing the movement and community we serve," he wrote. "As a result of those decisions and leadership's unwillingness to change course, I — along with a group of my colleagues — have made the difficult choice to leave NOI."
Ming wrote that he was "heartbroken" by the day's events. Asked for further comment, Ming told BuzzFeed News in an email, "I think my email is where I'm at right now."
Shannon Turner, a software developer at NOI, wrote on her blog that she resigned after the senior staff left. She also called the decision "heartbreaking."
"I resigned because I no longer believe that NOI remains true to its values or mission," she wrote.
One person with knowledge of the fight that led staff to call for Roeder's ouster said staffers were afraid he was running the group into the ground.
"A vast majority of people on staff had concerns about legal, financial, and staff mismanagement on the part of our executive director," the source said. Staffers "were fired, one after another, over the course of the rest of the afternoon," after the senior team was dismissed, the source said. Freeman disputed the story that staff had been fired after the resignations.
In an age where money seems to no longer be an object in Democratic politics, NOI has struggled to keep its head above water. Former employees, partners, and progressive observers of NOI said it was well known that the institute was running out of money, in part due to a drying up of institutional donors and in part due to what one person said was a shift away from digital grassroots organizing as the "hot, new thing" in Democratic politics.
Freeman acknowledged the financial crunch but said new funding streams are coming online that will keep NOI afloat. She said new hires are already in the works, and that a plan to move forward will come as soon as next week.
Progressive groups and Democratic political campaigns have relied on NOI to provide basic training for dozens of operatives spread across the political landscape. On Tuesday night, they hoped Freeman's prediction that NOI could survive the week's turmoil would turn out to be the truth.
"NOI is an essential part of the progressive infrastructure and regardless of who is at the helm of this organization — if there wasn't an NOI we'd have to invent one," said Neil Sroka, top aide at Democracy for America, the progressive group formed from Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign. "NOI is a relative new young progressive startup. Every organization goes through growing pains."
Ruby Cramer contributed reporting.