How to build and use your volunteer base

Posted on March 28, 2017

[This is the fifth in a series of columns about best practices for state and local advocacy groups. The first four are about proactive legislation, a Resolution strategy, a 6-step multi-year advocacy program, and how to meet with a lawmaker.]

Progressive advocacy groups rarely have the funding to pay a large staff. To defeat conservative interests, which often spend a lot of money, progressives instead must recruit volunteers and maximize their impact.

This is as it should be. Since we represent the interests of average American families, it’s only right that they participate in the political battle. But building and maintaining a powerful grassroots organization is not easy, and in fact, most progressive advocacy groups don’t do it very well (and many don’t even try).

The first rule of political organizing is to continuously give volunteers something to do—use them or lose them. If you gather a list of supporters and wait for the next occasion for constituents to contact their lawmakers about a bill, you will have thrown away your most valuable resource.

The second rule is to provide volunteers the opportunity to become leaders in the campaign.

Let volunteers work themselves into leadership

Many advocacy groups are deathly afraid of letting go of control. But there is no way to build a powerful organization without delegating elements of responsibility. If you don’t empower legislative sponsors, allied groups and grassroots activists, you don’t have a political organization. It’s just your small staff-led group trying the same old tactics against the vast right-wing machine.

Advocates worry that volunteers will make mistakes. Don’t worry, they will. But if you manage your grassroots adequately, errors will be politically insignificant while your political power will be greatly magnified.

The trick is creating a hierarchy of tasks where raw volunteers can perform jobs where mistakes are unlikely and harmless, experienced volunteers can take on tougher duties where repetition teaches them to do it right, and superior volunteers who have proven themselves receive the training to be entrusted with real responsibility.

The Ladder of Engagement

To maximize what you get out of volunteers, create a Ladder of Engagement—a series of volunteer tasks categorized from the simplest to the hardest. The goal is to give casual, occasional volunteers something constructive to do while providing a path for committed activists to become more and more engaged.

Just like campaign donors, the volunteers most likely to give you their valuable time are the ones who have done it before and grow to feel “invested” in the campaign. So keep asking for help and let those who prove their worth climb up the ladder.

Here’s a sample Ladder of Engagement:

Basic volunteer tasks

  • Participate online in a way that shares the campaign’s message or helps gather supporters’ names and email addresses.
  • Participate in a campaign event: the volunteer just shows up and takes direction at a press event, fundraiser, lobby day, or demonstration.
  • Participate in an activity at campaign headquarters like a volunteer phone bank.

Tasks with modest participant responsibility

  • Recruit other people to campaign events or headquarters activities.
  • Conduct research about politics or policies related to your campaign needs, such as searching for articles where individual lawmakers have said something about your issue.
  • Participate in town meetings or other events where the volunteer publicly asks the lawmaker about your issue.
  • Participate in a constituent-to-lawmaker contact event (explained below).

Tasks with moderate leadership responsibility

  • Lead/co-lead, including recruiting and supervising others, at one of the events mentioned above.
  • Lead/co-lead an effort to get the Resolution endorsed by an advocacy, civic, business, labor or religious group.
  • Lead/co-lead as the liaison to an important group after the Resolution is endorsed and the group is part of the coalition.
  • Organize a volunteer phone bank, including recruiting and supervising others.
  • Organize a volunteer canvass, including recruiting and supervising others.
  • Participate in a direct meeting to persuade lawmakers.

Tasks with major leadership responsibility

  • Lead the effort to get a small municipality to endorse the Resolution. (Paid staff will lead the effort when it’s a larger county or municipality.)
  • Lead a constituent-to-lawmaker event, described below.
  • Lead/co-lead a demonstration or rally. (These can require a lot of time and money. So be certain you will generate a worthwhile amount of media coverage—and the kind you want.)
  • Serving as the designated campaign coordinator for a city, county, town or legislative district.

One of the most common mistakes that advocacy groups make is to designate permanent team leaders (like a County Chair) based on prior political or legislative campaigns. Every campaign is different in time and subject matter. The hero of 2016 may be overscheduled in 2018.

Let team leaders work their way into these jobs. In every campaign we have ever helped direct, we have been astonished by at least one volunteer-turned-leader. It will be someone you never expected, someone who didn’t seem to have the experience. (This is especially true if you organize college campuses, which you should!) That volunteer will have fire in his or her eyes, and will work longer and harder than many of your paid staff. Some people will do amazing things for a good cause if you give them a chance.

When volunteers have accomplished tasks with participant responsibility, you can begin training them to become campaign leaders. Let them choose one of the tasks with moderate leadership responsibility and explain carefully how to do those jobs. When volunteers prove proficient at those tasks, give them a full day (or more) of leadership training and bring them more formally into the campaign structure. The motto of the Obama field campaign was “Respect. Empower. Include. Win.” Let it be your motto as well.

Prioritize constituent-to-lawmaker contacts

After you have successfully built at least a modest grassroots organization, what are the most important things for that organization to do?

In a legislative campaign, the overriding purpose of volunteers is to deliver your message over and over to persuadable lawmakers, either directly or indirectly. Sure, volunteers can also help raise money, recruit other activists, and maximize press coverage. But to the greatest extent possible, volunteers should be engaged in grassroots lobbying.

There is a great difference between effective and ineffective lobbying tactics. Here’s a list of ways to communicate with lawmakers from most to least effective:

Very effective

  • A conversation in front of people who the lawmaker likes or needs, like at a civic association meeting or town hall.
  • A personal meeting that’s not in front of constituents but includes someone with special credibility like a political friend, powerful interest group, victim or expert.
  • A personal meeting with a very skilled advocate.

Fairly effective with repetition

  • A letter or call from some person or group particularly important to the lawmaker.
  • Personalized mail or email from a constituent.
  • A personal phone call from a constituent.
  • A paper petition with names and addresses clearly showing that the signers are constituents.


  • Letters, emails or calls from individuals who are not constituents.
  • An online petition or a paper petition where the signers are not clearly constituents. (Such petitions may aid fundraising or list-building for the group, but they do not persuade a lawmaker.)

The bottom line is, volunteers can’t help much with “very effective” contacts and it’s not worth their time to focus on the “ineffective” methods of contact. So the best use of activists is to drive calls, emails and letters from individual constituents to targeted lawmakers—the ones who are undecided on your issue.

The problem is, your volunteers will disproportionately live in districts where the lawmakers are already committed either for or against your legislation. Only a small percentage of volunteers will live in the districts of targeted lawmakers.

So, to maximize constituent-to-lawmaker contacts, your volunteers need to go into the districts of undecided lawmakers, either physically or electronically, and get those residents to write or call. Here are ways your campaign can do that:

  • Set up a table in the undecided lawmaker’s district at a church, business, shopping center or other gathering place. Ask people who walk by to contact their lawmaker and help them accomplish it then and there by: dialing a cellphone and handing it to the constituent; helping the constituent send an email on their phone; or printing out a personalized letter (from a computer and printer you bring) for the constituent to sign.
  • Go to a meeting or service at a church, labor union, bar association, business association, civic group or other organization in the district (preferably groups that have endorsed your policy) and encourage those constituents to call, email or sign printed letters, then and there.
  • Have volunteers solicit clubs to encourage calls, emails and letters themselves.
  • Walk door-to-door in the district trying to get residents to call or email, but also carry materials to leave at the door, for when no one is home, asking constituents to make calls or send emails.
  • Set up a volunteer-led phone bank for patch-through calls, which require just a tiny bit of technology. In a patch-through, the callers reach constituents by phone, convince them to talk to or leave a message for their legislator, and the constituent is automatically transferred to the lawmaker’s phone. (So your volunteers don’t have to travel to the undecided legislator’s district.)

Show volunteers you appreciate them

The magic words are “please” and “thank you.”

Do not assume that volunteers know you want them to come back. Ask them for their help, over and over, always with a sincere “please.” After every single time they do something for the campaign, say “thank you.” Don’t ever take volunteers for granted.

If you are asking them to work at a specific location, bring some food. Doughnuts and pizza aren’t especially healthy, but they are traditional. And bring bottled water. The costs are small and the benefits—in volunteers’ appreciation—are large. Activists will work twice as hard if you call them by name, voice encouragement, and thank them repeatedly.

And they deserve your appreciation. You can’t win anything substantial without them.