Looking at herself in the mirror, the young woman says, “You’re the best there is.” It comes out close to a whisper. “Tonight is about building support,” she continues. “Tonight, a new volunteer will walk through that door and by the time she leaves after making 200 calls she’ll be reciting our talking points without a script.
“Tonight is the volunteer phone bank,” she says. “Let’s do this.”
That was the nightly preparation ritual from the best volunteer coordinator I’ve ever employed.
Okay, I totally made that up. But it’s a much better opening than the reality, which is that managing and recruiting volunteers can be a daunting task that is often given to the staffer with the lightest resume. On multiple occasions I’ve had to pull a weeping volunteer coordinator from a campaign office restroom on nights when unruly volunteers ran amuck.
The day-to-day responsibility of maintaining a robust volunteer operation is daunting and rarely gratifying. But marshaling an effective, well-trained group of volunteers does offer the potential to offset limited campaign resources and build grassroots momentum. Below are some recommendations that can easily be incorporated into your campaign operation to help implement a structured volunteer program that operates at the height of efficiency.
Write Job Descriptions
Have your volunteer coordinator or field director write volunteer job descriptions for each task in your program. This exercise is intended to benefit your paid staff in addition to the volunteers who’ll be working to elect your candidate. The development of a volunteer job description that outlines the role and the responsibilities will help you communicate expectations of the program to junior level staff that often have the least professional campaign experience.
Clearly stating the intentions of the field campaign and the strategy that influenced your decision making is a productive way to avoid distractions from volunteers who have conflicting opinions. Rarely will a volunteer voice their opinion to a field coordinator about the campaign’s targeted media, mail, and digital programs. But you can count on a pushy volunteer to question the targeting of the campaign phone bank and canvass operations.
Foster a Two-Way Information Exchange
One way to mitigate the aforementioned staff-volunteer conflict is to make the campaign’s field strategy partially accessible. Explain to these uber-helpful folks why the campaign is investing personnel resources into a specific task and the importance of the geographic area or voter universe that’s being targeted. Before call time or a canvass outing, have your staff facilitate a 5-10 minute discussion with volunteers on the strategy involved. It has the potential to save hours of debate between them.
Many campaigns stress the importance quantitative analysis — the 1s through 5s that measure a contacted voter’s candidate preference. But too often these same campaigns overlook the qualitative information being offered during the voter-to-volunteer exchange. Develop with your volunteer coordinator a check-out process that includes a brief report that collects qualitative information in addition to quantitative data from the volunteer session. Including this structured exchange between staff and volunteer at the end of a volunteer session will allow your campaign to collect more data while also validating the contribution from the perspective of the volunteer.
Volunteer recruitment is an art form. Some staffers have a natural charisma that attracts new blood into the organization. But for many it’s a skill developed through hours of training and practice. Like other facets of a campaign, you’re building a program that’s soliciting a resource. In this case, it’s the time provided by a volunteer.
Similar to a successful fundraising operation, the ability of the campaign staff to comprehend where efforts will prove to be fruitful and what’ll be the most efficient use of time is critical. Dedicating the time to research local organizations and building upon the existing network of the campaign are two initial actions to building a stable roster of volunteers. Great consideration should also be given to working across campaign departments to promote volunteer recruitment. Taking this step will not only help build your volunteer rosters but also help display a versatile operation.
Keep Them Coming Back
Volunteer retention is critical to the success of a field program and a vital measurement of your program’s efficiency. If your campaign is failing to develop a roster of regular volunteers then do an assessment to determine the reasons for that. Analysis of the situation typically exposes a solution that’s easily implemented.
A productive volunteer coordinator doesn’t need to possess the steely resolve of a gun slinger in the Old West. He or she just needs to create a structured workflow for the volunteers, build relationships with them and get them invested in the success of the campaign. If that happens, it’ll help your candidate win and keep your field office tear free.
JR Starrett is the national advocacy director for Common Sense Media, and a veteran campaign operative.