“See, we plan ahead. That way we don’t do anything right now. Earl explained it to me.”

Goals and plans are useless without action. (More)

How We Win, Part III – Action (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature explores the political organizing strategies taught in the Democracy For America Campaign Academy. Thursday we discussed the important process of setting goals. Yesterday we saw how strategic planning turns goals into action steps. Today we conclude with how to be more effective in action.

Earl, Val, and Aesop

The Earl Basset Model of planning in the 1990 comedy-horror classic Tremors – “Here it is Monday and I’m already thinking of Wednesday. It is Monday, right?” – is matched by the Valentine McKee Model of action: “See, we plan ahead. That way we don’t do anything right now.”

Like most humor, those lines are funny because we’ve all experienced them. In politics, we must set goals that are SMART – Specific, Measurable, Action-oriented, Realistic, and Timely. We must write explicit plans that recognize our SWOT – Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. Many political groups fail because they don’t have explicit goals or explicit plans. But even more fail because all they do is set goals and write plans. Ask them what they want to accomplish or how they intend to do it, and they can boldly cite chapter and verse. Ask what action they’ve taken, and the mumbling begins. Call it Aesop’s maxim: “After all is said and done, more is said than done.”

How do we get from plans to action? We need people, tasks, and support.

Finding People

Many political groups have paid staff, but not all do, and no group has enough paid staff to do everything. Most political work is done by volunteers. But remember: volunteers are not “free labor.” Most are political activists, and they may volunteer for several reasons:

  • Anxiety – Republican candidates or Republicans’ ideas make them afraid.
  • Enthusiasm – Democratic candidates or Democrats’ ideas make them hopeful.
  • You Ask – You invite them to get involved in their community, state, and nation.

As we discussed last week, groups that rely on anxiety or enthusiasm to attract volunteers risk too much on emotion. Fear and hope come and go. You may get some volunteers who show up motivated, but don’t count on it, and don’t count on those volunteers staying around unless you get them involved.

Effective political groups actively recruit volunteers, and they know where to look:

  • Family and friends – These are both the easiest and the most difficult to ask. They’re the easiest to ask because you already have relationships with them. They’re the most difficult to ask because those relationships are usually complex.
  • Super Voters – Most counties’ voter registration files record whether a voter casts a ballot in each election. Super Voters are registered Democrats who vote in every election. They are already taking one political action. Invite them to do more.
  • Donors – Again, donors are already taking one political action. Invite them to do more.
  • Super Activists – These are people who are already active in other ways: members of community boards, civic associations, campus groups, issue groups, etc. If their meetings are public, attend their meetings. Offer to help with their activities, and invite them to help with yours. Build coalitions based on TRUST – The Rest of Us Standing Together.

In recruiting volunteers, emphasize urgency and action: why you need them, and specific task(s) they can do. This is another reason to have an explicit, written plan.

Bad Ask: “We need a lot of volunteers for this election. Can I put you on our list?”

Good Ask: “Can you help us make phone calls for two hours next Thursday evening? The voters you talk to may decide this election.”

And remember the Rule of Halves: typically only half of the people who agree to help will actually be there. Call volunteers the day before an event to remind them. Even then, some will get sick or something else will come up. Schedule more people than you need.

Tasks That Matter

A political group or campaign can do many things, but not all are equally effective. Empirical studies on voter behavior show that the most effective outreach is person-to-person, two-way communication with a voter. That means canvassing, phone-banking, and – in your casual time – Fred Whispering.

Why “in your casual time?” Because unlike canvassing and phone-banking, Fred Whispering is not targeted. The people you talk with at the office, in a checkout line, or waiting room may not live and vote in your area. Fred Whispering is important for many reasons, and progressives should practice it as a matter of habit and principle. It’s also good practice for targeted canvassing and phone-banking.

What about literature drops, yard signs, and honk-and-waves (holding signs at a street corner)? Literature drops may be targeted to voters in your area, and your neighbors may notice your yard signs, but drivers passing your group on a street corner or the sign on your lawn may not live and vote in your area. More important, none of these is two-way communication, and our brains are wired to be more trusting when we can ask questions and get answers. Yard signs and honk-and-waves can remind people of an election, bolster name recognition for a candidate, and help create the impression of a bandwagon, so they may pick up a few votes in swing precincts. But don’t divert resources from the more effective tasks of canvassing and phone-banking.

Canvassing and phone-banking also include other tasks, including creating canvassing and phone-bank packets, and entering response data. Some volunteers may be nervous about talking with voters – at least at first – but willing to help with the logistical support. Remember the levels of risk in Amy Schollenberger’s Action Circles model. Invite volunteers to help at a level of risk with which they’re comfortable, then support them as they learn to take on other tasks.

Support Your Supporters

Your volunteers will have varying levels of experience and anxiety. Many may be enthusiastic but have never have participated in a political campaign before. They want to help, but they may not know how, and many will be nervous. You must support them … or they’ll drift away.

For both canvassing and phone-banking, that starts with orientation and practice. Give each volunteer a packet that includes:

  • The specific goals for that canvassing or phone-banking session.
  • The script and a FAQ for common responses.
  • For canvassing: a contact list, response sheet, walking map, directions to the neighborhood, and a name tag.
  • For phone-banking: a call list and response sheet, or explicit directions for the computer.
  • A tip list, e.g.: Smile, Listen, Be Courteous, Don’t Argue, Don’t Go Inside, etc.

Explain the goals and how that session fits into the overall plan. Volunteers need to know their efforts matter, and need to know what they’re being asked to do that day. They may have helped with persuasion contacts earlier in the campaign, but now they’re asking voters to vote-by-mail, or reminding voters that the election is next Tuesday.

Role-play the script with each volunteer at least twice, first as a positive contact, then as a negative contact. Then ask each volunteer to go through the script with a friend. If this is a phone-bank, the volunteer should call a friend. Have a dummy response sheet, so the volunteer can record the practice sessions.

Never send canvassers out alone. Pair new volunteers with experienced volunteers, and invite the new volunteer to follow along and record responses until he/she feels ready to converse with voters. Have someone drive around to collect completed response sheets – they can be hard to juggle on a clipboard – and provide water and snacks.

Offer prizes and praise. Give small prizes for categories like most contacts, positive responses, enthusiasm, patience, etc. Most important, thank your volunteers often. Invite them back to help again, especially if they met difficulties this time. Remember our first Progressive Value: people matter more than profits. That includes the “profits” from canvassing or phone-banking sessions.

When we set specific goals, write explicit plans, and follow through with effective action … we win. And our communities, states, and nation win too.


Happy Saturday!