Volunteers, a guide for local campaigns
Volunteers, a guide for local campaigns
By Adam Alan Isackson
In any successful local campaign you’re going to need a strong core group of hard working, committed volunteers with a diverse set of skills, knowledge and connections. A common axiom in elective politics is that the one thing you can never get back is time. To use that time as effectively as possible you need to be constantly seeking out volunteers and opportunities for those volunteers to lighten your work load and to better expand your range and depth of influence.
I’ve included a list below to give you some general ideas on opportunities for prospective volunteers. Take the time to look this over. Before you get started perhaps the most important piece of advice I can give you is not to try and push your volunteers too far outside their prospective comfort zones. While it’s tempting to try and push people into filling a pressing need, such as doorbelling, it’s better to ask people where their strengths and interests lie. Your best volunteers will be those who are playing off their strengths, not the guy with few interpersonal skills you pushed into doorbelling.
Canvassing or Doorbelling. Canvassers should be fit, somewhat professional looking and able to communicate with strangers.
Internships. A great opportunity for the student or recent student who wants to build their resume.
Campaign consulting. People who possess significant knowledge about the local political process who can help you answer your questions. Critical if you don’t hire a professional consultant and your campaign manager doesn’t have significant experience.
Public policy / issue consulting. People who possess significant knowledge of important issues. You should know who you can call and where to look when you have a question about a particular piece of public policy.
Sign manufacturing, placement, maintenance and retrieval. Seek out the kind of people who possess a truck, have basic tools and aren’t afraid to jump in a ditch or a sticker bush to retrieve a sign.
People who possess a truck or moving van. You’ll need their help with signs and event setup.
Letter to the editor / blog writers You need people who are willing to write positive things about the candidate for submission to your local papers and online. Take advantage of free media exposure where you can tailor the message.
Website development /management. If you can find an accomplished web developer/webmaster who can build you a site, and frequently update it, take advantage of the opportunity. Don’t let a volunteer take this on unless you have 100% confidence that they’re able to meet a high standard and will continually update the site.
Phone bank callers Your get out the vote effort is critical. While in most cases this will and should be something organized by your party you still need to actively recruit people to help or to help you with a separate effort to contact those independents/or opposition party members you have identified as supporters.
Help with mailers / fund raising letters Have a letter stuffing party whenever one is necessary. In many cases your consultant will handle any mailers sent out by a campaign.
Help you sign wave A great way to get some last minute exposure for your campaign just before Election Day. Find a busy and safe street corner or overpass and invite some volunteers. Best done during the morning and evening rush hour (after a long day of doorbelling). Make eye contact with motorists and give them a friendly wave.
Photography You can never have too many good pictures. You’ll need them for fliers, mailers, your website and social media. You’ll also need at least one professional photo shoot of the candidate and their family at their home, some significant landmarks and local businesses.
Graphic design Yard signs, t shirts, flyers, mailers etc.
Property for sign locations Residential and commercial properties, particularly locations on major streets and highways where you can place larger billboard style signs. Realtors are a godsend if they support your campaign.
Host an event at their home or business Anything from a high dollar evening fundraiser to a meet and greet coffee.
March with you in a local parade Almost every community has some sort of parade that they will allow political campaigns to march in. Make sure you find out about these events and register for them early. A large, enthusiastic group of volunteers can make quite the statement.
Invite you to speak to / give you access to their community group Ask your supporters what organizations they belong to and look for opportunities to meet their membership. Joining your local chamber and rotaries are a given. You should also be attending any significant community events such as charitable fundraisers and picnics. You need your supporters help to find out about every worthwhile community event you should attend.
Help you raise money While for most local campaigns the candidate themselves will usually be the principal fundraiser (most high dollar donors and special interest groups pay for access to candidates) it’s helpful to have a group of people, often called a finance committee, who can help you broaden your efforts.
Events Events such as auctions and fundraisers require significant support. Depending on the venue you need people who can check people in, process payments, serve drinks etc.
Social media support Sites such as Facebook and Twitter are great ways to communicate with your supporters. Strong knowledge on how to use these sites effectively is a must.
Email lists and Evites You also need to maintain a strong email database of your supporters. There are many programs out there such as Constant Contact that can make it easy for you to send out professional looking invitations and email updates to your supporters.
Your campaign finance reports This should be someone with some basic understanding of accounting who can dedicate at least a few hours every week. Most local campaigns are required to file reports with a state organization similar to the Federal Elections Commission on a regular basis. The person responsible for the filing needs to educate themselves on the oftentimes complex rules and regulations of the commission. If you can’t find someone you have complete confidence in it’s better to be safe than sorry. Hire a professional if necessary.
Printing The cost of printing everything from yard signs to mailers is going to eat up a significant portion of any campaign budget. In fact this is how many local political consultants make their money, they charge you premiums on printing costs above and beyond the actual cost of production. If a consultant is producing something they will insist that the companies they work with are used for that very reason. If you can locate a supporter who runs a printing company and who is willing to produce items for you at cost or at a significant discount take advantage of it. While it’s often advantageous to use a professional consultant who has experience producing professional doorbell pieces and mailers that doesn’t mean you can’t produce some simpler items such as yard signs yourself prior to being assigned or hiring a consultant. In fact I would highly recommend it for those who are willing to spend the time doing the proper research. You will save a ton of money. Make sure that any pieces you produce comply with all local campaign regulations.
Advocate you to their friends, family members and neighbors Your supporters need to be advocating your campaign. Indirect access to voters is important. You need their help to expand the range of your campaign.
Place some of your fliers in their business Many supportive business owners will be happy to help advocate you to their clientele by allowing you to place a palm card rack or post a flier on their community board or in their break room.
Help people get to the polls / or serve as poll watchers where applicable While many states are now all vote by mail some still stick to more traditional methods. You, or your party, should have a runner or two available who can assist seniors or the disabled in getting to the voting booth. You should also be aware of any polling place procedures and have people who can serve as poll watchers where allowed.
Attend debates and forums where the candidate is speaking Anytime the candidate is attending a public forum or debate your campaign should be seeking out supporters to attend. Oftentimes the audience members are the ones presenting many of the questions. You want to be the one framing the debate and you need your supporters asking the majority of the questions.
A monetary donation to your campaign Time is money, money is time. Oftentimes this is the best way an individual can support your campaign. A significant financial investment can go a long way towards paying your campaign manager’s salary or allow you to hire additional help.
Types of volunteers
The first place you should be going to for support is your family. There’s really no way around it, any run for public office is going to require a significant investment of their time and support. First and foremost your family is going to need and help you pick up the slack when it comes to all the little things in life. The day to day schedule of a candidate needs to be as wide open and flexible as humanly possible, to accomplish that you’re going to need the help and personal sacrifice of your spouse and kids.
Just like any other volunteer you want to utilize their particular talents. You also want to take special care not to ask too much of them. Campaigns are a long and stressful process. You need your family on board throughout. The spouse of the candidate by default is an important part of any campaign team.
If their time allows for it, your family should be a central part of your doorbelling efforts. Other than the candidate there is no better advocate than a spouse or close family member. Engage your other relatives as well. Long term projects in particular such as; campaign finance reports, social media management and database work are great things for the candidate’s family to become involved with if they have the necessary skill sets.
The politically experienced
These are people you need to start talking to early on and begin building up close relationships with, particularly if you’re new to the political process. You’re going to want to sit down with your party’s district leader, precinct committee officers and area elected officials as soon as possible. You should consult with them prior to a run for public office and ask them for their honest opinions about your prospects. In the case of legislative races you also need to talk to your state party leader and those who manage your party’s campaign organizational committee to see what kind of support is available to you. You should also sit down and discuss your prospective campaign with someone who has managed and consulted political campaigns and has no financial stake in your decision.
If you decide to run you’re going to need their help guiding you through the initial aspects of the political process. These are the people with the widest and deepest well of knowledge when it comes to campaign procedure and public policy. Most of these people also have large spheres of influence inside your community and can help introduce you to other movers and shakers. Ask them what groups they belong to, what organizations you should join and if there might be an opportunity for you to speak in front of their group.
If you’re faced with the prospect of a contested primary or caucus gaining their support becomes all the more critical. While party leaders are typically required to remain neutral in most cases that usually isn’t the case for precinct leaders and elected officials. Talk to them early and often. You’re going to be at a significant and often crippling disadvantage if you can’t gain their support.
As the campaign continues you need to keep both state party officials and local party groups up to date on your progress. They should know what you’re up to and how hard you’re working. Party “elites” and campaign committees are pragmatic by nature. They will support campaigns financially, recruit volunteers for and spend their time working on behalf of candidates they believe can win.
While party support is critical you also need to promote yourself with other politically focused groups as well, such as special interest groups and political action committees. While you need to proceed with extreme caution, campaign finance laws explicitly prohibit many of these organizations from working directly with your campaign; their independent support and direct financial support where applicable can be a huge asset.
When it comes to party support I have some final thoughts I want to close with. Take advantage of the knowledge and support they can provide you but don’t expect them to be able to solve all your problems and provide you with all the support you need to run a strong campaign. These are people you need to get to know and work with but you also need to run your own campaign. In party politics, as in any community organization there’s always going to be people who are more interested in social hour then putting their nose to the grindstone. Don’t allow yourself to be drawn into attending unproductive meetings with the same 20 people when you could be doing something a lot more important like meeting new people and picking up a few extra votes.
High school and college students
Students are important resources that are oftentimes overlooked by campaigns. It should be an early goal of any campaign to locate and gain the support of any local politically oriented youth groups in your area. In my experience it’s oftentimes younger volunteers who bring the most enthusiasm and put in the longest hours in support of political campaigns.
Outside of any political groups you should also contact any local colleges, high schools and home school organizations to see what programs you can take advantage of. There are often internship programs available, speaking opportunities and many government classes actually require student involvement with the political process.
Students are particularly effective at things like phone banking, sign waving, doorbelling and anything else that requires enthusiasm and raw energy. Like any other volunteer you want to treat them well, keep things fun and interesting and let them know that their time and support is appreciated.
For those students who are significant assets to you campaign you should offer to write them a letter of recommendation or serve as a reference. If your budget allows, or you find a volunteer who will likely stick with your campaign for the long haul you should consider giving them an entry level position with the campaign. Titles are free and many students in particular find the prospect of being able to put something like “volunteer coordinator” or “assistant campaign manger” on their resume appealing, even if they’re working for minimum wage or without financial compensation.
There are numerous other people that any campaign must reach out to if they’re going to build a significant volunteer effort. This includes the candidate’s friends, neighbors, colleagues, members of their church, and other organizations they belong to. Many of these people have a shared interest in your success. Who would be a better advocate for them then someone like you who shares many of their same interests and values?
This is also an ongoing process. As a campaign begins to expand and the candidate starts to meet new people you want to be constantly engaging those you meet and try to bring involve them with your campaign in any way possible. If you don’t ask for help you will rarely receive it. You need to convince those you meet that by supporting you financially and giving you their time they’re making an investment in better government and a brighter future.
Some additional tips
1.) If you feel the need to hold regular steering committee meetings make sure they’re productive and don’t waste the candidate’s or your volunteer’s time. While it’s tempting to bring a lot of people into a meeting, and in turn get as many perspectives as humanly possible, the end result is that you’re probably going to end up with something less than productive. Meetings should be short; goal oriented and should only include those people who need to be there. You should be asking your volunteers to come out doorbelling or attend a work party, not meetings. Ask your volunteers to brainstorm on their own time. If they have a good idea or some thoughts on how the campaign should be run they should be talking to the campaign manager directly, not presenting them for debate in an open meeting. The campaign manager needs to maintain control over the process. Even a well run campaign is going to be at best organized chaos. Too many opinions in one room and the organized part will fly out the window pretty quickly.
2.) Don’t allow yourself to become frustrated when a volunteer drops the ball or you feel like someone should be doing more to assist your campaign. We’re all human and while most people have good intentions it certainly should be understandable that for most people your campaign isn’t their number one priority. Things come up last minute, people forget to call, and some people are just less reliable than others. If you’re finding that only a few volunteers are doing most of the work this isn’t abnormal. A good volunteer is often hard to find. Keep giving those who have offered to help numerous opportunities and don’t burn any bridges. Make it a matter of habit to call and remind ahead of time those who have offered to help.
3.) Sometimes a volunteer wants to help you with something but simply isn’t well suited for a particular task. This doesn’t mean that they’re useless and can’t be an asset on some other project. Present them with some other opportunities. When it comes to willing volunteers very few are more trouble then they’re worth.
4.) Recognize when to seek out a professional and pay someone to take care of a project if necessary. You’re going to find jobs that require someone who is simply more reliable and competent then anyone who’s available to volunteer their time. Before assigning a volunteer to a large, and ongoing project like website development/management or your financial reports you want to be 100% sure that they’re up to the challenge.
5.) Set reasonable goals and don’t try to manage too many projects at once. Learn how to prioritize, and delegate correctly.
6.) Show your gratitude by thanking your volunteers anytime they help you with even the most menial of tasks. I can’t begin to tell you how many people I know who have given significant time to a campaign without receiving so much as a thank you. When speaking in front of a group the candidate should take the time to publically thank those by name who have helped their campaign. Send out a signed thank you card or spend a few minutes making a phone call anytime someone helps your campaign.
Note: This is a rough draft excerpt of a book currently being written by the author on the management of local political campaigns. If you have any interest in receiving further updates you can email the author using the contact information below. Because I received so many requests to distribute my last entry I’m also going to publically state that I grant permission for the use of this excerpt if unedited and used without financial compensation. Any feedback or suggestions on additions would be much appreciated. You can read my diary, including my most recent entry on canvassing by visiting redstate.com/aisackson.
About the author
Adam Isackson currently resides in Tacoma, Washington where he has managed, consulted, worked on and volunteered for countless campaigns since the 90’s. If you have any questions, comments, or interest in political services you can contact the author @firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling and leaving a message @ 253-678-1707.