In any presidential campaign, thousands upon thousands of people will volunteer and hundreds of people will volunteer full-time. This creates tremendous opportunity and some ethical and logistical challenges for campaigns.
Whether it’s the Gen Z and Millennial generational pass on personal vehicles, the overall cultural pushback on unpaid internships or, on the left, the politics around paying a living wage and staff diversity, campaigns up and down the ticket will see more scrutiny of their onboarding challenges in 2020 than in previous cycles.
Already in Democratic circles, there are some lines in the sand about asking people to volunteer full-time when they’re looking for a job. There’s a tradition of asking exactly that of supporters looking for a job, but that creates a barrier to employment on campaigns.
For example, applicants with limited funds can’t move, find housing, maintain a car, and pay their living expenses just for a chance at entry-level pay. For this reason, you don’t have to look back many cycles to find campaign staffs dominated by Ivy Leaguers, legacy hires, and the offspring of the wealthy and powerful.
There isn’t an objection to accepting volunteers, and offering educational support so volunteers can get college credit, but there’s no question that campaigns have more leg work to do now to ensure that their hiring doesn’t exclude whole communities and limit their potential to connect with those communities. For Democrats, specifically, making a pitch based on helping the working class and being on the side of those facing discrimination is undermined when your outreach team has such a large contingent of wealth and privilege.
In an environment where presidential campaigns are being asked to walk the walk on diversity and support working-class economics, it's a balancing act that requires welcoming volunteers and respecting the value of paid staff.
Elizabeth Warren’s campaign recently made news over an unpaid internship policy, which likely didn’t look bad on paper. But when you don’t have guidelines in place to protect folks from being pressured into full-time volunteer positions in pursuit of a job, your field staff is going to be tempted to do just that because as they call out to find volunteers, people will be calling in to find jobs.
The field team always has goals to reach on volunteer numbers, so there will always be a temptation to use the lure of employment to get volunteers. Campaigns need to be clear that can’t happen if they want to run an organization true to their values.
Living wages are vital to building a diverse staff because there can be big expenses for unsuspecting organizers on a budget who often have student loan debts. Having a car, for instance, isn’t always vital to organizing in a big city because someone on every team will have a car. But the cost of ride shares or transit after long hours to where your supporter housing is can be significant.
Relocating, constantly eating out, not to mention when the early jobs that lead to long-term promotions are in rural states where organizers need vehicles — your team should be able to afford their expenses within their salary and reimbursements or you will be promoting less diverse folks to lead your campaign.
Even when the hiring process goes well and the pay is fair, there’s often elements of culture shock as staff and volunteers join a campaign.
In the past, when I have had folks do interviews on campaigns, I generally told the interviewers to stress the long hours and pace of work. It can be a big shock to folks who want to change the world to suddenly find themselves in a 60-hour work week with little time for meals. Housing and other arrangements are done last minute because organizers are often working on what they need for the next 24 hours, not working ahead for what they need for weeks from now.
As campaign workers unionize or otherwise organize for a more sustainable work culture, I’m eager to see them succeed. But at the same time, I’m also curious to see what will survive from the “anything to win” culture, born of military tradition, that has dominated campaigns since well before my time. We’ll also have to see if a higher cost of organizing creates a threshold for what kinds of candidates can compete and what tactics they put limited resources into.
Reed Millar is the founder of Bespoke Consulting, a campaign field and engagement strategy firm focused on combining proven tactics with creativity, experimentation, and innovation.