Volunteering 101: Managing Your Expectations
The best way to get involved with a political campaign is to volunteer. While local and national campaigns differ in the number of paid staff they are able to hire, all campaigns benefit from a large, diverse volunteer base.
Before you dive in, it’s important to manage your expectations; a little education could be the difference between a volunteer experience that is frustrating and disappointing, and one that is meaningful and productive.
Expect some degree of controlled chaos
Campaign offices are generally abuzz with activity. Some offices are extremely well-organized; some offices are bastions of inefficiency. Regardless, the atmosphere can be a little overwhelming to a first-time volunteer. But take heart, everyone in the place was a first-time volunteer at some point.
Before you jump in head first, call the campaign office to find out if there’s a good time for you to visit and get acquainted with the campaign; or, show up when it’s convenient for you, and if the office coordinator is not on site talk to a volunteer who looks like they know what they are doing.
Most tasks are delegated by the campaign office coordinator or full-time campaign staffers. If you are working on a national campaign, the staffer might be from out of state, and might be somewhat inexperienced. However, he or she will have received training from campaign headquarters (HQ) and will be committed to ensuring that the campaign’s goals are carried out.
If the paid staffer is not a “local,” he or she is likely to involve experienced local volunteers in planning and strategy implementation. These unpaid volunteers provide the staffer with valuable information about the precinct/county and often help to mobilize and organize additional volunteers.
Don’t expect the campaign office to resemble your place of employment – campaigns are not run like successful business ventures or non-profit entities. The campaign must be flexible and responsive in real-time, and this requires an altogether unique modus operandi. At the same time, if you have an idea that might improve the volunteer experience, do express it to the campaign staff/manager.
Expect to do grunt work
When you declare your intention to volunteer, you will be asked about your interests and skill set. The most organized campaigns will make use of this information in order to capitalize on your strengths; but don’t be surprised if you wind up doing grunt work.
Below are some tried and true campaign tactics assigned to volunteers:
Phone banking: Phone banking remains a highly effective campaign tool. Volunteers no longer have to physically place calls from the campaign office phone bank – you can place calls from the La-Z-Boy recliner in your living room or from your cell phone.
When you work the phones, you will be asking potential voters whether they are registered to vote and whether they plan to vote for your candidate. Don’t be surprised if they hang up on you or take the opportunity to engage you in a discussion about your candidate and his or her positions. Before you begin, be prepared to answer common questions — talk to experienced phone bankers to find out what these questions are likely to be.
Canvassing: Canvassing can be both exhausting and exhilarating. When you arrive at campaign HQ, you will receive a list of names and addresses in your voting precinct and a map of the county/precinct. You will then walk or drive from door to door, pass out literature and talk to voters face-to-face. You will record whether you interacted with registered voters and whether they plan to vote for your candidate. You may also carry voter registration forms to give to individuals who have not yet registered.
Weeks in advance of Election Day, the purpose of canvassing is to persuade voters to commit to your candidate. In the days just before the election, the canvasser’s purpose is to get out the vote. At that time, you will only contact voters who share party affiliation with your candidate or have indicated that they are undecided. If canvassing on Election Day, you will focus solely on encouraging supporters of your candidate to show up at the polls (and if they have already voted, that fact will be reported to campaign HQ). Some campaigns provide transportation for voters in need – you might be asked to help arrange for or provide transportation on Election Day.
You are likely to encounter voters who do not support your candidate – some will be polite, and on rare occasions, some will be openly hostile. When you engage with voters, always remember you are a representative of the campaign – remain calm and polite if you encounter hostility, but do not accept abuse. Most importantly, always be mindful of your safety. Carry a cell phone at all times, and do not hesitate to walk away from a potentially contentious situation.
Traditional and Non-Traditional Media: As a volunteer, don’t expect to be involved in crafting campaign messages, but do expect to disseminate them. Candidates and campaigns are harnessing the power of the Internet to mobilize voters. Traditional media such as print, radio, television and direct mail remain valuable tools to dispense campaign messages and counter opponent’s attacks. You may be asked to stuff hundreds of envelopes, or to share your candidate’s messages via the Web through social media sites and other means.
Do not expect to receive extensive training
Often even the most well-funded campaigns skip the volunteer training or provide little more than a cursory “how to” session. If you experience anxiety at the prospect of “on the job” training, seek out the campaign office coordinator or a seasoned volunteer and talk through your assignment. Though it might not feel as if you are a valued member of the campaign after hours of envelope stuffing and phone banking, you are — and it’s important that you feel comfortable, whatever the task at hand.
72 hours later…
Whether your candidate was the winner, or whether it’s back to the drawing board, there are plenty of ways you can remain involved as a volunteer between elections. Ask the contacts you’ve made as a volunteer about what you can do to support your candidate or party in the interim … and next election cycle, when you see a first-timer wander through the campaign office doors, tell him/her a little bit about what to expect.