Imagine that you have millions of supporters eager to help your cause. You only have a few weeks to get organized and hardly any existing systems or budget. How do you harness all the volunteer energy?
This was the challenge that the Bernie Sander’s presidential campaign faced. The system developed would be used to make seventy-five million calls, launch eight million text messages, and hold more than one-hundred thousand public meetings.
How did they do it? What software was used? What lessons were learnt?
Political campaigns are a stress test of organizing skills. Only candidates who do well in the initial caucuses and primaries proceed in the campaign. It’s essential to organize, raise funds and expand quickly. Systems and infrastructure have to be built with limited time, budgets and manpower.
Running a modern grassroots campaign requires efficient coordination of volunteers across time and space. The systems have to be affordable, scalable and easy to administer. It’s like the difference between an army’s centralized command-and-control system versus what an insurgency uses to coordinate many small, loosely coupled groups.
Becky Bond is a legend in grassroots organizing technology. She architected much of the national, volunteer-driven grassroots Bernie Sanders campaign. Bond refined her skills for over a decade by innovating at the intersection of organizing, politics, and technology for over at Credo, a values driven mobile carrier.
“Cheap consumer software has far outpaced custom and enterprise tools when it comes to enabling teams to work together”, explains Bond. “Avoid enterprise and custom software to the extent possible. Instead use social software platforms that already serve hundreds of millions of people. Plus, many volunteers already use them.”
Volunteers and activists are at the heart of grassroots campaigns. How do you onboard them and make them productive quickly? How do you manage organic growth where the initial volunteers can train and manage later volunteers in a cascading manner as the movement grows? It involves six steps.
Volunteers are invited into join the campaign through the form of an SMS or email.
Individuals provide details on themselves including skills, availability and interests through Google Forms. This information is stored in Google Sheets and used later to assign volunteers with tasks matching their profile and availability.
New volunteers are directed to a series of tasks that they have to complete in order to learn about the campaign, roles and how they can participate. This is done through series of learning material, exercises and quizzes built using Trello. Trello organizes projects (boards) with their own tasks (cards). The learning material is stored in online repositories in Google Docs and tutorial videos are served from YouTube.
Volunteers are assigned simple tasks through collaboration solutions such as Slack once they have successfully completed the online training. New volunteers are kept on a separate track in order to prevent them from disturbing more experienced volunteers working on critical tasks. They receive technical support and guidance from experienced volunteers. This lets the system grow organically.
5. Project management
Volunteers have to perform multiple roles in a campaign. This ranges from organizing events, recruiting and training new volunteers and administering the campaign system. Slack excels in this role as it allows for both mass communication to volunteers, sub-groups of volunteers handling a specific task and also direct 1:1 communications.
Multiple communication channels are used to communicate with volunteers including Facebook, Free Conference, Zoom and Hustle.
These applications are ideal for grassroots campaigns as they are:
1. Either free or very affordable
2. Designed to be user-friendly
3. Already have thousands of existing users
4. Allow for multiple administrators
5. Easily accessed from mobile devices
Traditionally political campaigns have relied on large expensive systems, consultants and long lead times. New grassroots campaigns are nimble, frugal and volunteer driven. The software solutions have to match the campaign.
Top down or bottom up?
Traditional political campaign organizations resemble traditional software development. Paid programmers develop commercial software. Open source software, on the other had harnesses the skills of many contributors. Open source development is sometimes unpredictable, but often it yields a better product. This more closely resembles a grassroots organization.
Organizing volunteers requires a different approach than with paid political staff. Traditional campaigns use command-and-control, top-down campaign that allows volunteers to do basic tasks but under the supervision of paid staff. A grassroot campaigns uses volunteers to manage and grow the volunteer base. The campaign shares strategic goals and the technology necessary to empower a massive number of volunteers. This difference in approach overcomes the limits of incremental change to build large movements.
“Scale is limited only by the appeal of ideas and not the number of staff the campaign can deploy” said Bond. “Big Organizing asks volunteers to do something big – like making a million phone calls per day. The emphasis is on growing a self-replicating volunteer base that does the work of the campaign”.
Becky Bond & Zack Exley explain this approach in their outstanding book “Rules For Revolutionaries – How Big Organizing Can Change Everything”
“The revolution will put you in the driver’s seat” goes the Gil Scott Heron classic, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” Harnessing the energy of millions of volunteers through collaboration software and social media is behind the success of recent movements.
Technology enabled grassroots campaigns truly returns power to the people.
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