July 17, 2018

By Cheryl Williams

As you run for office, one of the most essential things to remember is this very simple phrase:

You cannot win a campaign alone.

Volunteers can turn your campaign plan into reality. A campaign without volunteers is like a sandwich without bread—you can make it work, but there’s nothing there to hold it all together.

Throughout our trainings, we stress that campaigns are about relationships.

You need people invested in you in order to win an election; the only way to get that investment is by showing investment in those people, too.

Keep your volunteers engaged in your campaign and show your appreciation for their time and effort and they will keep coming back.

Therefore, let’s focus on how to develop those volunteer management skills! But what if you don’t have the volunteers yet? For ideas on creating your volunteer team, check out our course on Building Your Network.

There are some things to keep in mind when you’re first starting to form your volunteer force:

Build Sustainable Volunteer Teams

First of all, a team isn’t going to work well if personalities are clashing. Because of this, be aware of who gets along with each other and what groups work best together.

If you or your volunteer manager sense discontent, make a change and move forward.

Empower Your Leaders

Some of your volunteers might make good team leaders with just a bit of acknowledgement on your part. Therefore, take the time to train and encourage those leaders and give them the authority you feel they deserve.

As a result, they can improve the productivity of your volunteer force. This is a classic lesson from the Ted Radio Hour on great leaders. Being a great leader often means inspiring others.

Delegate tasks

As much as we wish this were different, you can’t have control over everything! So find the capable people you can trust to follow through and give them projects and goals.

This is where volunteer management comes in very handy. We have a great description of the volunteer coordinator (as well as other important roles on your volunteer team) in our Building Your Volunteer Team course.

Establish a Culture

Fostering a sense of community with your volunteers helps them feel like they belong to a group. They are working hard on their shared goal of getting you elected!

As a result, a lot of volunteers start to feel like a family, especially once the campaign trail starts to become intense as Election Day approaches.

There is usually a place for everyone in your campaign—the keyword here being “usually”. Some volunteers are better suited for certain tasks than others, and it’s just a matter of reassigning them to those tasks.

Problem Solve

There will be the occasional volunteer who is just causing a problem for everybody. Maybe this person is acting inappropriately with others in the campaign office or is improperly interacting with voters while canvassing.

If this is the case, first explore other options to see if there is work that person can do from home or in an environment that requires less personal interaction for that volunteer.

But if their behavior is just too extreme, ask them to leave.

Make sure to take steps to address the problem rather than hoping the situation will resolve itself. A troubled volunteer could lead to legal action against you, bad media coverage, and potentially harm your campaign.

Consequently, you should assess the situation and, if you need to, seek legal counsel.

Be Selective

Be aware that there may be sensitive information that you are sharing with your volunteers. Therefore, you need to be selective with the volunteers you choose to trust with voter files that contain information like home addresses, birth dates, and potentially even social security numbers.

Because of this, only share this information with the volunteers that actually need access to it, and be both smart and careful with the ways people could access it.

Valuing the privacy of the data shows that you value other people’s privacy, and that sends an important message to your volunteers as well.

Finally, let’s talk about why volunteers are so awesome and why you need to tell them that they’re awesome.

Volunteers Should Never be Taken for Granted

Above all, remember your volunteers are doing you a favor. They are in your campaign office spending their Saturday mornings, Tuesday nights, and what little free-time they have to help you get elected—and they’re not even getting paid!

Showing your appreciation to them through a simple acknowledgment of their efforts goes a long way.

A Few Ways to Keep Your Volunteers Engaged

  1. Thank them. First and foremost, no one leaves the office without being personally thanked by the candidate or staff (and asked if they would like to come volunteer again!) No exceptions.
  2. A note. Personal, handwritten notes expressing your gratitude for their devotion to the campaign are so important. Because of this, take the time to write a note when your team has gone out of their way to help you.  A personal note can go a long way towards inspiring someone to keep volunteering.
  3. An invite.  Make sure to include volunteers in events they might not be able to go to on their own; conferences, dinners, or cocktail parties that are being hosted by elected officials who have endorsed you or organizations you’re part of. Events are a great way to bond with your volunteers outside of the campaign office.
  4. Get to know them. Above all, this is the simplest way to make a volunteer feel invested in your campaign. Ask about their families, what they do for a living, what their hobbies are (other than volunteering for you, of course), and why they’ve chosen to help you.
  5. Make it social. Volunteers likely have other politically engaged friends who might come with them next time. So ask your volunteers if they have any friends they’d like to bring.

To have a personal stake in your volunteers’ lives contributes to a positive work environment for them and a productive volunteer force for you. It’s a win-win situation for everyone.

A campaign’s most valuable (and limited) resources are time, money, and people.

Because of this, volunteers are one of the most precious resources to your election. Make sure to treat them as such.

But this is just a starting point with volunteer management! If you want more advice on recruitment, management, and encouragement, be sure to check out our online course on Building Your Volunteer Team.

Former actor, sometimes teacher, and brand new activist, Cheryl is an intern with NDTC. She has lived in every US time zone, illustrated a children's book, and is raising a strong-willed, political activist of a teenager with her incredible husband and two rowdy cats.