10. Build and use your volunteer base

Progressive advocacy groups rarely have the funding to pay a large staff. To defeat conservative interests, which often spend a lot of money, progressives 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 battle. But maintaining a powerful grassroots organization is not easy and, in fact, too few progressive advocacy groups invest the time and resources needed to build a strong grassroots activist base, especially in more conservative geographic areas where they may be needed the most.

The first rule of 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 an 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 relatively insignificant while your power will be greatly magnified.

The trick is creating a hierarchy of tasks where raw volunteers can perform jobs in which mistakes are unlikely and harmless, experienced volunteers can take on tougher duties where repetition teaches them to do it correctly, and superior volunteers who have proven themselves receive the training to be entrusted with substantial 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 come 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 simply 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.
  • Perform research about politics or policy that the campaign needs, like searching for articles where individual policymakers have said something about your issue.
  • Participate in town meetings or other events where the volunteer publicly asks the policymaker about your issue.
  • Participate in a constituent-to-policymaker contact event (explained below).

Tasks with moderate leadership responsibility

  • Lead/co-lead, including recruiting and supervising others, one of the events above.
  • Lead/co-lead an effort to get the resolution (Chapter 8) 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 with a policymaker.

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-policymaker 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.)
  • Serve as the designated campaign coordinator for a city, county, town or district.

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

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. People will do amazing things for a good cause if you give them a chance.

When volunteers have accomplished tasks with participant responsibility, start 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-policymaker contacts

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

In an advocacy campaign, the overriding purpose of volunteers is to deliver your message over and over to persuadable policymakers, either directly or indirectly. Sure, volunteers can also help raise money, recruit other activists, and maximize press coverage. But to the greatest extent possible, they 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 elected officials from most to least effective:

Very effective

  • A conversation in front of people who the policymaker 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 ally, powerful interest group, victim or expert.
  • A personal meeting with a very skilled advocate.

Fairly effective with repetition

  • A letter or call from people or groups particularly important to the policymaker.
  • Personalized mail or email from constituents.
  • Personal phone calls from constituents.
  • A paper petition with names and addresses clearly showing that the signers are constituents.


  • Letters, emails or calls from individuals who are not constituents.
  • Social media posts that are not from 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 policymaker.)

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 officials—the ones who are undecided on your issue.

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

So, to maximize constituent-to-policymaker contacts, your volunteers need to go into the districts of undecided policymakers, 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 policymaker’s district at a church, business, shopping center or other gathering place. Ask people who walk by to contact their policymaker 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 have constituents there call, email or sign printed letters, then and there.
  • Have volunteers solicit local groups 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, a process which requires a little technology. In a patch-through, the callers reach constituents by phone, convince them to talk to or leave a message for their policymaker, and the constituent is automatically transferred to the policymaker’s phone. (In this way, your volunteers generate calls from constituents without having to travel to the undecided policymaker’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 well-supervised volunteer work—are large. Activists will work twice as hard if you call them by name, voice encouragement, and thank them repeatedly.

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