In the Field: Relational Organizing Lessons from the Mondaire Jones Campaign - National Democratic Training Committee

NDTC Talks to Real Campaigns About Their Secret to Success

A campaigns’ success is often defined by how well they adapt their plan vs. what the original plan intended. COVID-19 might have caused the biggest pivot of them all, yet in spite of a pandemic, many campaigns are succeeding.

A big way campaign field plans have adapted is by creating hybrid field plans, which straddle the line between traditional direct voter contact (DVC) sans door knocking and virtual organizing tactics.

In an effort to further democratize campaign knowledge — a mission close to NDTC’s heart, often times ideas around how to pivot your campaign field plan are shared on Twitter.

This is how I learned about the incredible organizing happening on the Mondaire Jones campaign in NY’s 17th Congressional District. I messaged a few of their staffers, which resulted in this interview with Laura Votruba, the campaign’s regional field director/relational organizing director.

As a refresher, relational organizing is defined at NDTC as a strategic approach to supporter outreach and mobilization that emphasizes the use of personal relationships to encourage action.

Learn About more Relational Organizing

This is a condensed version of the interview between Laura and I, with some helpful takeaways and reminders highlighted for getting a relational organizing program off the ground with a small staff (they had only three paid staffers on their field team!).

The Campaign Field Plan

Allie McRaith: Hi! Can you give me a quick overview of the campaign’s field plan?

Laura Votruba: Our team was small but mighty… It was really interesting and gave us a lot of opportunities to get innovative, and, as we love to say in the campaign world, scrappy —

AM: I love that word. I know people don’t, but I really do.

LV: I love it too, I feel like that personifies me, it doesn’t matter if I am doing a campaign thing or fixing a leaky sink.

AM: Sorry, I digress.

LV: No worries. So once COVID-19 hit and everything was upside down, the first thing we reminded ourselves of was that everyone was at the same disadvantage. That calmed us down a lot.

We also realized that there are a few things people are hungry for, like a sense of community — they miss community. They miss normalcy, they miss their lives, their friends.

How can we replicate that in the best way possible?

Let’s focus on building community first when building our base of volunteers and supporters.

How to Recruit and Train Volunteers Virtually

Building a Virtual Community

LV: So, the first thing we did was get to work building a robust volunteer base and we used Slack to do so.

You can create all these channels within your campaign that fosters different communities so we just went for it and added in some Zoom calls and started our volunteers on traditional phone banks and then leaned into digital hard.

By leaning into digital, I mean we got as many people trained on all these digital platforms as possible. We threw in an automatic dialer and texting.

Where we could budget accordingly in other places to afford these things, we did, because we had to make up for the traditional field outreach and capacity.

Is a Traditional Campaign Field Plan Still Valid?

AM: How much was traditional campaign field tactics a part of your original plan?

LV: That is a great question. Our campaign was probably more unique because the campaign actually shifted leadership about three and a half months before the primary [note: NY state’s primary was on June 23, 2020]. Which was also right when everything was going crazy and then I joined 2 weeks later.

So right away, we just committed to the fact that this campaign was not going to be traditional. It was better to commit to that now, than a month later when things were down to the wire.

About three months out [from the primary], we decided to throw caution to the wind and lean hard on relational organizing.

This was implemented at about two months out. We had to look at the two things that were working for us:

  1. People were thriving off having that sense of community.
  2. People were showing up to the Zoom events we were having. By “events” I mean you didn’t just sign up for a shift and then make calls alone, they were actual Zoom events with a specific time. We would have a collective introduction and training, and “how are you doing?” chat, and then we all stayed on Zoom to make phone calls, with Slack open in the background too, and Zoom breakout rooms open for any troubleshooting.

A tip: with any Zoom event, have breakout rooms for troubleshooting! Like at least seven.
Two quick things on managing large volunteer Zooms: Definitely use the breakout rooms and take away their unmuting power. Teach them where the chat is.

AM: Oh my gosh, that’s genius. I have so many questions on the breakout rooms in practice. We can come back to that though. [Note: Check out our Train-the-Trainer series on Zoom best practices]

LV: Yes! So to stay really organized we had people change their name in Zoom to “returning phone banker,” “first-time volunteer,” etc so we could sort them quickly into the right breakout rooms and training. It made for a much more efficient first five minutes.

Relational Organizing to the Rescue

LV: We decided that in order to fill the gap that was knocking doors and in-person events, we were going to try to do that with relational organizing.

We rebranded what was working with our traditional phone banks as “friend banks.”

These friends’ banks would last two hours, and the first significant portion was showing them why relational organizing is important and getting them invested in this process. We put together a presentation with some different research on why the mode of relational outreach yields much higher voter turnout, specifically for non-flashy elections (such as primaries and midterms).

When it comes to managing training volunteers, give them as much information as you can without giving away proprietary information. The more invested they are, the more they are going to do for you. Several of our volunteers could’ve done my job better than I did. I am not going to waste that capacity by not telling them information.

Shifting Goals

LV: We shifted all of our goals from an organizing team to our volunteers.

We settled on the number 20 since we were just starting out with no frame of reference and we wanted to start with something that seemed feasible.

So this goal means that each volunteer/supporter then had 20 people that they were responsible for ‘carrying’ all the way to the polls.

Some exceeded the goal, some struggled to meet 20, but 20 was our baseline.

After the training, we would spend the second hour of that “friend bank” brainstorming through how they would find these 20 people in their networks.

There were easy ones first: friends, family members, close acquaintances.

Then we got kind of innovative: go on Facebook and see who has liked Elizabeth Warren’s and Bernie Sander’s Facebook pages and if they live in the district, put them in your network because they’re definitely going to need to be on your list.

We used the platform Reach, it was really useful and automatically integrates with VAN.

AM: Oh, now we’re talking!

LV: Yeah; yes, so lots of easy data merging which was great. There are several other relational outreach platforms that also integrate with VAN but for our purposes and universe and budget, Reach made the most sense.

We spent $300 a month on Reach and it was ultimately 2 full months that we needed it. Reach also lets you set up a full campaign on a trial basis, which lasts a week, to see if it will work for you.

Strategy First in Relational Organizing

LV: Okay, back to the “friend banks.” There was this pretty interesting formula we came up with to keep our volunteers hooked that requires a balance between giving them all the ‘juicy’ stuff (strategy) early before introducing new technology. If you introduce the technology too early, we found they got uninterested.

Slack became important too because it can integrate with Reach, so we created a channel that auto-populated people’s Reach responses, like “volunteer X asked potential supporters why X, Y Z was important to them” and then you can see their responses. It was so much fun to see people’s responses in real-time during GOTV especially.

We kept things as structured as possible, and it worked. At the end of the 2 months, we had 7,000 relationships added to Reach and just over 6,000 candidate IDs and 500 users. [Note: that averages to 14 relationships per volunteer.]

Vote Share Gains For The Win

AM: Pulling up your vote share, I see the campaign earned about 32,000 votes. And you would say that about 6,000-7,000 were tracked from just relational organizing? That is pretty amazing.

LV: Yes, from just relational organizing. We had been tracking things in other outreach methods as well too.

One thing I’ll say is that If you Google [search] ‘relational organizing,’ like ‘how to relationally organize,’ one of the first pieces of advice you’ll get is not to start it too late because by nature it is successful through exponential growth.

For lack of a better word, it is like a pyramid scheme if you will: it is all word of mouth. So we really had to take a chance starting it as late as we did. I would be really interested to see how this scales up if we had started a program like this a lot earlier.

If you look at the 2020 presidential primary especially in Iowa, Pete’s campaign, they used it and won. I don’t know all the ins- and outs- of how they did it, but I do know they started early and committed and were really targeted where they were placing people. By nature though, a caucus state is very relational.

Make Digital Your Advantage

LV: In our case, I actually think that by having everything digital actually worked to our advantage. We were able to keep things more structured.

We knew exactly who was showing up to certain ‘events.’ We had, no pun intended, a larger reach. We had volunteers that lived 45 minutes away. So an advantage to doing things digitally was that you were able to create that sense of volunteer community virtually that frankly is harder to do in person when sometimes these down-ballot races are extremely large and rural. So folks aren’t going to show up to the same event if you all have to drive a while. It is much more cost-effective, too, because so many of these digital tools work better.

AM: You can have many users and not need a huge office space or multiple field offices.

LV: Yeah, exactly. I think we are going to see a shift in organizing from here on out. We’re never going back to the way traditional organizing worked. I think we have seen things work in a much more efficient way. There will be many more hybrid programs, which I think genuinely makes more sense.

Knocking doors up-until-now has been the most effective because of those interpersonal communications but you also have to have such a massive volunteer base in order to make that work because of the time involved. Whereas, if you start to shift to relational organizing instead, you can disseminate the information in a much more efficient way via online tools and platforms and it is usually less expensive. It takes less time, you can reach more people.

Relational Organizing and GOTV

AM: So now I am curious about how you all thought about your GOTV phases?

Was that more traditional where you went from persuasion to turnout or did that change because of COVID? Or because of your relational program?

LV: We did have some traditional phases, we had three phases in total. I am so absolutely freakin’ proud of how we handled GOTV.

Most in part just because of how our volunteers were so resilient during this time. We drove it hard into them that after a certain point we are no longer focusing on relational organizing; it is now of the utmost importance we turn out everybody who has said they will or might vote for us.

We started the GOTV process fairly early — about a month out from election day [instead of the usual 2 weeks.] This was partly because everyone in NY was mailed an absentee ballot request form, so we wanted to make sure folks 1) received it and 2) filled it out.

The Ballot Chase

AM: What did that ballot chase look like?

LV: We boiled that into our GOTV process, and had activist codes for people. Again, it is trying to stay as organized as possible: make sure everyone has a survey response or activist code [in VAN] attached to them. Leave every instance with VAN more organized than when you logged into it.

Volunteers During GOTV

LV: We re-shifted [volunteers] who had previously come to a “friend bank” into a “GOTV friend bank.”

Returning friend bankers were focused on getting out the vote and making sure that all of their initial list of 20, or however many they ended up with, had voted or had a voting plan.

And their job didn’t stop until that person’s plan was set in stone. GOTV friend banks consisted of when they came to [those GOTV friend banks], it was two2 hours of collective call time with accountabili-buddies.

We weren’t shying away from welcoming new folks, though, that was just a shorter process of what we had been doing. We had them come up with a list of friends, but then they jumped straight to the GOTV process and made vote plans with their friends, which helped turnout immensely.

It was focused.

I saw some campaigns trying new outreach methods closer to Election Day, which I get. But we were in a position to where it is like, listen, if we don’t get all these people to the polls that said they were going to vote for us, then we didn’t do our jobs well. And people were still reaching out to their friends until the day of the election.

Did Everyone Participate in a Relational Organizing Strategy?

AM: Were any of your volunteers not doing relational organizing?

LV: If you lived in the district, we kind of made it mandatory. We did not steal capacity from our traditional forms of outreach to do relational, but instead, people did both. We did push different volunteers to do different things because for instance, we had a volunteer in London who didn’t do relational organizing because that would make no sense. You’re always going to have volunteers who are apprehensive of new things but we really sold the relational organizing by teaching them the strategy and why we were making that decision.

AM: And building local infrastructure as you go.

LV: Exactly. And this is where I go back to the fact that we had this amazing opportunity by doing everything online. What we are focusing on now this summer is collaborating with district organizations and different down-ballot races.

We live in a safe blue district, and we have all this capacity and momentum and we don’t want to lose that energy. Building those senses of community on a district-wide basis like it has never been done before because volunteers might live on opposite sides or different areas can collaborate like they might not have been able to before. It is pretty special to watch, actually.

It Takes a Village…to WIN!

AM: Two final questions, I think. To give other people some context for the race: were you polling at all?

LV: No polling done. There hadn’t been a competitive primary election for this seat for 30 years, so going into this was difficult in the sense that there was not great data to pull from. So we knew we were going to need to flex every possible tool and muscle at our disposal because we didn’t know what we were working with.

The research that went into us finding our win number was based largely on similar districts around the country, but none of it made perfect sense. So we were kinda flying blind for a while. We were not favored to win.

One thing I don’t want to shy away from is the fact that had it not been for our fellows, had it not been for our volunteers, we would not have been able to pull this off. The three of us would have by no means been able to do what needed to be done in order to win. [Note: The campaign had five paid staff total including the campaign manager and a press secretary.]

And here I go back to one of the first things I mentioned: priority number one for us, before we even started making phone calls, was bolstering the volunteer community. Creating that sense of “we are all in this together” and creating that sense of trust.

I think that an organizer’s primary job, rather than meeting DVC (direct voter contact) goals, should be volunteer management, shifting their goals on to their volunteers, and cultivating that community, because you get more out
of it and it lasts after your campaign is over. We all just need to keep bolstering people up, all across the country.

Volunteer Management in a COVID Campaign

AM: (laughs) Exactly! Hence, NDTC. Okay, so talk to me a little bit more about your volunteer management?

LV: We each had volunteers that were assigned to us or the fellows. One thing I would want to explore next time with relational strategy, is to create more of a peer accountability program among the volunteers. Whether that means group them out or make them have collective goals, I don’t know. It isn’t fully fleshed out, but if you start something like this early, and it grows, you are definitely going to need something like this because you won’t be able to keep up with all the volunteers!

We did have a lot of Slack channels to keep things organized too. Slack bots are great [for answering regularly-asked questions] — for instance, any time anyone asked about a yard sign, Slack bot responded. So that helps with capacity and managing volunteer capacity.

AM: What was the plan for when a volunteer wasn’t comfortable with technology? And what percentage of voters were you trying to reach that were off the internet?

LV: This is why it is really important when finding your digital tools that you shop for things that are as user-friendly as possible.

One reason we chose Reach was because you could also use it on a desktop, not just as an app. This helped people who’s primary form of outreach was email or who didn’t have a smartphone. We’re all for equal access opportunities for volunteers. We did a lot of 1:1s with people who might not be comfortable with technology, and what we would do was encourage them to still do their network outreach, but then would do it old school: they would tell us the results of those conversations and we would enter in the data manually. We definitely wanted to be as flexible as possible.

How to Pivot Your Campaign Field Plan

AM: Okay, true last question. If you were advising a candidate who has no full-time staff and a very small budget — a couple thousand dollars, what are the first steps you tell them they need to do to set up a successful relational organizing program? They might have a 2021 primary.

LV: The good news is many platforms offer free use to smaller campaigns. Wait, are we in COVID still?

AM: Oh yes, still during the pandemic. But they might not be on the ballot in November. They are running for a local office with a 2021 election.

LV: Okay, here is what you can do: Figure out who your best supporters are, really know who is in your corner. Rely on them as your community ambassadors, if you will, and ambassadors of your candidacy that need to lean in on their personal stories. (Check out NDTC’s Story of Self training to learn how to build your personal story) Really dig into why they are supporting you, not because of your qualifications. How are their lives going to be different if you get elected? And have them share those widely on social, and have them start to branch out to their own networks on a personal level.

It is a slow burn. Relational is a slow burn, you have to start it early.

The first several weeks you might not see the results, but if you start it early enough and keep to it, you will. And track that data and contacts, even if it is your own simple questionnaire these ambassadors are sharing for your campaign.

Learn more on how to pivot your campaign field plan for a COVID Campaign by taking one of NDTC’s free online courses today and get the tools you need to win.

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