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Six Ways to Build a Winning Grassroots Organization

Campaigns are changing. Once dominated by blast communications — TV ads, direct mail, and robocalls — the modern campaign is adapt at two-way communications. Canvassing, social media, phone banking, and peer-to-peer engagement are now more important than ever to creating a winning campaign.

The backbone of these new strategies is an effective, motivated, productive grassroots organization. But how does a campaign recruit dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of volunteers willing to give their time to help your cause? Here are six ideas to start building the campaign of the future.

1. Start Today

There is, indeed, no time like the present. Just like sports fans, people who are interested in politics still have that interest even during the off season. Engaging with the grassroots during the political off cycle helps build trust, build relationships, and get things done.

There’s also the pure math of accomplishing your objectives. If you have have 20,000 voters in a district and have a goal of knocking on every door, that’s going to be easier to accomplish over time. If you start knocking four months before the election, that’s 166 doors that need to be knocked every single day. If you start a year and a half before the election, that’s only 36 doors a day to knock. It’s still significant, but it’s a heck of a lot easier to get the job done.

2. Turn early volunteers into recruiters

Who is more likely to know new volunteers than the people who are already on your team? Provide incentives for current volunteers to go out and get their friends to join. Offer to host recruitment coffees that aren’t fundraisers, but opportunities for potential volunteers to meet the candidate. Reward top recruiters with a lunch with the candidate or other appropriate rewards.

3. Make it fun

You’ll never build a grassroots army if people don’t enjoy being in the ranks. Hiring a great volunteer coordinator is important. Your volunteer coordinator has one job requirement: show up with gobs of energy. If you start with a small, motivated, excited team, they won’t be a small team for long.

This next suggestion will cause heartburn for some campaign managers, but you need to budget for pizza. If you have volunteers over and there’s no food, or just a half-empty bag of chips left over from last week, they’ll know how little you appreciate them and act accordingly, by not coming back. If you can’t afford Dominos, or want to mix it up, find volunteers who don’t mind making dishes at home. A campaign potluck really brings the team together like a family.

4. Make it useful

Even if the victory center has balloons and streamers, if the volunteers feel like the work they are doing is not useful, they will become discouraged and quit. On the other hand, if they are doing useful work and the campaign recognizes their work, they’ll feel like they make a difference and double their efforts.

The campaign manager should regularly brief volunteers on why their work (phone calls, canvassing, online recruitment) makes a difference. A good volunteer coordinator can also come up with creative ideas for volunteers who don’t want to participate in voter contact to play an important role (like baking dishes).

5. Reward top volunteers

Political volunteers are sick individuals. There’s no other explanation than a virus or an addiction for why they show up week after week and year after year to knock doors, make phone calls, and attend Lincoln Day dinners. Too often, they do this with little to no recognition from the very campaigns they are working so hard to help.

If someone is really engaged with the campaign and working on your behalf, treat them like you would a major donor. Invite them to fundraiser events. Make sure the candidate thanks them. Take the time to hear their thoughts. They really are valued supporters. Treat them as such.

6. Listen

There’s some crazy people out there with some crazy ideas. Most likely, some these people are volunteering for your campaign. As busy as you are, with fires burning all around you, it’s important to take regular time to sit down with your volunteers. You will probably hear some pretty wild ideas. You will probably hear some good ones too. These are people closer to the ground for your campaign than anyone else, their perspective is valuable.

In summary, having an effective grassroots organization is essential to modern campaign success. By treating your volunteers with respect, giving them meaningful work, and making the experience fun, you’ll soon have more people than you could imagine out knocking on doors and persuading voters. In today’s environment, that’s the winning edge.