Political parties often engage volunteers in their campaigns, but volunteers can be hard to manage. There are many tips and tricks to help your party get the most out of this engagement while giving the volunteers an exciting and empowering experience of Green campaigning.
It is said that a successful political campaign relies on “getting people to do stuff” like knocking on doors or making phone calls. But finding the people to do it in the first place can be even harder than making them deliver. The following guide will explain how to recruit potential volunteers but also demonstrate how a well-run volunteer program can be transformational and lead to lasting change within the party long after the campaign is over.
Working with volunteers is a way to involve individual party members and other motivated citizens in the core activities of a political party, such as an election campaign. Volunteers can be a particularly important resource for smaller parties. However, this relationship should be a win-win for both sides. It takes a lot of time and effort to run a volunteer programme, and sometimes it can cost money to run it well (see Budget below).
Volunteers are people, and this simple fact has to be kept in mind throughout any campaign. They really can make the difference between winning and losing in marginal seats, but a smart campaigner will think beyond the idea of free campaign resources and integrate volunteering into the wider strategy. Simply put, deciding whether to engage volunteers or not will change the party’s approach to the whole campaign and can even seep into the longer-lasting party structures once the campaign is over.
Studies show that people are most easily persuaded by face-to-face contact. People’s motivation for action is mostly based on the relationships they make with other people on the campaign. Understanding this is key to attracting more volunteers but, more importantly, it is key to making sure they are committed in the long run.
Volunteering can be the first interaction with a political party for many people. As such, it is both a huge opportunity and a bit of a risk to integrate people into the campaign. How you engage these people will form their ideas and opinions about Green politics more than almost any other interaction they will have with the party. So be careful to do it well. A good volunteer can end up as a great member or an elected representative!
In the book How Organizations Develop Activists by Hahrie Han (2014), three “models of engagement” are laid out to help understand how different strategies affect the approach an organisation takes with its volunteer activists.
It is a good overview of how the initial strategic choices made by a political party will continue to shape their approach to campaigning, and to volunteer programmes in particular.
Overall, the most successful movements combine broad mobilising tactics with deep organising tactics as a way to transform volunteers and build up capacity for long-lasting change. For more, read the articles on organising and mobilising.
Even before starting to think about recruiting any volunteers, your team should have a clear idea of why volunteers could be valuable to your campaign. This may seem obvious, but often campaigners will get excited by the prospect of having some extra help with their work and neglect to think strategically about how to get the most out of volunteering. In the worst-case scenario, this can lead to volunteers being treated badly by paid staff.
Here are some useful questions to ask yourself and your campaign team at the start:
It’s important to remember that volunteers are just that: volunteers. They’re not paid, and so they can’t, and shouldn’t be expected to prioritise your cause above their paying jobs or other activities. It’s important to keep this in mind when planning schedules and setting expectations. Most importantly, remember this when you are communicating with the volunteers themselves. No one likes feeling like they are being taken advantage of.
Volunteers are giving you their time, so be sure to thank them and make them feel valued. If they don’t, they’ll leave. Giving volunteers greater responsibility and decision-making power is a good way to make them feel more invested than someone being ordered around. But ultimately, accept that some volunteers may have to stop unexpectedly.
If there are certain positions in your team that require someone’s undivided and regular attention, you can consider hiring (paying) someone for it. Firstly, this is a good thing to do because you are compensating them for doing a job you think is important, and secondly, you can draw up a contract and rely on the person to a higher degree than if they were a volunteer.
You might not be paying your volunteers, but it is vital to remember that volunteer programmes are not “free”. It will always cost you some of your resources to work with volunteers, even if that simply includes staff time. Here are some things that can cost money when managing volunteers.
Be explicit, active and creative in how you recruit volunteers. Build recruitment into every aspect of your campaign: your website, your speeches and your phone calls to supporters. If somebody indicates that they support you, always ask if they’d like to volunteer. Try to confirm a commitment, take their information and follow up soon after. Who you recruit will have a direct impact on which communities they will be able to mobilise, so be proactive, strategic and inclusive.
The best way to find volunteers is in person. Every member of your campaign team, including any candidates, should be made aware of the basics of the volunteer system and be expected to invite people to volunteer at every opportunity. Make sure everyone on your team knows the contact details of the lead organiser or the website where people can sign up.
There are many ways to organise volunteers through digital tools (here's an overview). Find the platforms and tools that work best for you, then make sure you integrate them into your wider strategy.
You also need to think about a sort of vetting process to make sure that, unlikely as it is, no one will join the team in order to sabotage the campaign. You need to make sure that you can trust your volunteers and that the volunteers can trust one another, but a certain degree of risk is always involved. Managed well, the reward of engaging volunteers should be well worth the risk.
The barriers to entry should be very low at first, simply asking the basic details needed by using an initial landing page on the campaign’s website or an indication of interest via a messaging app. Then you can follow up with a more detailed questionnaire via a video call or by meeting for coffee in person.
Without good structures and procedures, things can go very wrong, or you just won’t optimise the contribution of your volunteers.
Volunteer management is sometimes called “engagement organising, ”distributed organising” or “integrated voter engagement” in the English-speaking world. So take the time to do some research on the most up-to-date methods and tools applicable to your local context.
For more on the organisation of volunteers see this article.
Once you’ve mobilised a number of people to take action for your campaign, you will want them to step up to become active leaders and participants in your campaign. It’s time to organise people by building relationships and nurturing skills.
Organising tools can be a way to enhance the organising work you do by recruiting and communicating with a team of people. Choosing a tool depends on what type of organising you want to do, how secure it is and what type of functionality you need.
There are a number of tools people use nowadays to organise. We will discuss the pros and cons of a selection of these in this article, but tech moves fast and local contexts can be very different from each other. You need to ensure that the tools you choose fit the needs of your campaign but are not an excessive threshold for volunteering.
For more on volunteer tools see this article.
Volunteers are the lifeblood of any campaign, and you won’t win without them. The more you invest in their experience, through considering their interests and motivation, developing their leadership and ensuring they feel agency, purpose and connection, the better your results will be. Volunteers will not only allow you to make your ambitous campaign plans reality, but – if things go well – will shape your campaign so it is more relevant, interesting and engaging for larger segments of the population. Volunteers are a key component of connecting citizens with political parties.
Last updated: June 2022