Since running my first field office a decade ago in Houston, Texas, many aspects of campaigning have changed. At the time, the best technology we had included flip phones, bubble sheets and stacks of paper with call notes waiting to be hand-entered into VoterVault by volunteers or staff.
By 2010, there were vast improvements in campaign technology when I worked for the RNC Victory campaign in New Mexico. VOIP phones and walk books were considered innovative. Across the country, both parties made millions of phone calls and worked to collect data and build turnout models that are now archaic.
Today, in the age of GPS-equipped walking software on our smart phones, real-time data collection and advanced turnout modeling, it’s easy to think campaigns have changed. In reality, working with volunteers has not. We may communicate in different ways, but the need for leadership in your campaign and field offices hasn’t changed. Here are some ways to help build and manage a successful volunteer army:
1. Understand motivation.
Working with volunteers is one of the most challenging aspects of campaign work. But when we take the time to ask volunteers personal questions, field representatives can get a better understanding of their motivations. What drives them? Why are they supporting your candidate?
The more we understand our volunteers, the better we can lead them. The first thing you ask a new recruit should never be, Can you walk or call for me? Always lead with at least two personal questions and they’ll work twice as hard for you.
A field team is more likely to recruit and retain volunteers by listening to their personal stories and beliefs then pontificating about the importance of volunteer work.
2. Spread credit around.
For the field director, your field office(s) will be more successful if you forget about personal glory and focus on helping others maximize their potential.
You don’t always need the credit and, often times, passing the credit to your staff will motivate them and benefit you in the long run. This is the method of management that’s been employed by some of the greatest leaders in history, and is the same method used today by great leaders who are far from the spotlight.
3. Keep complaints to a minimum.
One of the biggest traps campaign staff fall into is complaining about campaign resources, leadership and the candidate to volunteers and supporters. This is a critical mistake because it diminishes the volunteer’s belief and commitment to the team. By learning to be low maintenance and use available resources, staff can ask the same of volunteers during the final weeks of the election.
4. Promote teamwork.
In your field office, every volunteer is an extension of the other. Every field team has volunteers who are dedicated and others who, unfortunately, devalue the team’s work. We have to accept they’re all connected and will feed off of each other. If the majority of the team is work-oriented that will help the marginally motivated to perform higher numbers. Using volunteers to motivate volunteers will increase the whole team’s production.
5. Make changes quickly.
If you need to terminate someone, do it quickly and with little drama. But don’t use those instances to instill fear into staff. While that might get people to work harder in the short term, longer term it will only foster resentment toward leadership.
The most important type of feedback is praise. We need to celebrate big and little moments for volunteers and staff. Praise staff big during the first months of the campaign, and they will remember at the end of the campaign.
6. Always prioritize individual meetings.
While individual meetings are more time consuming than a conference call, email or text, they’re worth it. Communication is the heart of success for the volunteer-and-staff partnership. We need to take time to make every person feel valuable if we’re going to retain them through a cycle or more. Every meeting should cover a clear topic and finish with clear goals for the volunteer.
7. Hand out titles.
Outlining a clear role for every volunteer and assigning tasks to accomplish these goals will help them be more effective. Regardless of skill level, each volunteer should have a title within your office. By working hard and adding volunteer hours, promotions can be gained. Give volunteers something to brag about outside the office and they’ll soon be recruiting other volunteers for you.
Ash Wright is the political director and Texas Victory director for the George P. Bush Campaign for Texas Land Commissioner. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.