How to be a good volunteer coordinator for a political campaign

Whether you’re preparing a candidate to become the next president, governor, mayor or school board director, you’ll need volunteers to make the campaign a success. Volunteers do the heavy lifting that paid staff just can’t. But volunteers rely on staff (especially campaign managers) to tell them what to do and when. These 10 campaign coordination tips from well-known campaign managers can help you do your job like a pro.

Campaign volunteer coordinator

Tip One: Prepare Yourself

As a campaign manager, you probably spend a lot of time thinking about how to get your volunteers energized and organized. Never forget that you’ll need to prepare yourself too, especially if you’re running a high-profile campaign.

Robby Mook, who ran Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid in 2016, compares managing a campaign to managing a business. “Campaigns are a start-up, and as a manager, you’re responsible for making sure it’s viable every day,” he tells The Hill.

Most campaigns start small, with a few staff members and a handful of volunteers. But as your candidate grows more popular, your responsibilities will grow too. Volunteers can get lost in the shuffle.

Make a plan for growth. Set up a grassroots app for communication. Outline how many volunteers you’ll need at each step, and who will manage all of those new helpers. That way, when your candidate starts to gain traction, you’ll be prepared.

Tip Two: Split Your Volunteers Into Segments

It’s easy to separate the help into two groups: staff and volunteers. But you could split those workers into even smaller groups. That segmentation is critical if your team wants to use the human touch to inspire voters. 

“You can’t be too reliant on technology in politics,” says Obama campaign manager David Plouffe. “Knocking and phone calls is still the bread and butter. It’ll be a long time before those new apps replace the old ones.”

Segmentation allows you to rely on some volunteers for phone calls, others for email outreach and others for door-to-door canvassing.

Tip Three: Let Volunteers Report to Senior Volunteers

Your segmented teams need someone to report to. While you could ask everyone to talk with you about everything, it might be wise to decentralize power and let your volunteers handle at least some management tasks.

Zack Exley, advisor to Howard Dean’s presidential run in 2004, special advisor to Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, and an organizer for Bernie Sanders’ in 2016, discussed this with The Nation.

“If you ask me, the most innovative thing to talk about here is the way we’re setting volunteers up to make commitments to each other instead of to paid staff, in ways that ensure follow-through on hard, scary things like hosting phone banks and leading canvasses,” he says.

Asking volunteers to hold one another accountable means freeing up staff to work on strategy, fundraising and stewardship. Exley explains that the approach allows a campaign to scale very quickly, as no additional paid staffers are required.

Tip Four: Support Your Volunteers with Collateral

A large volunteer group can do a great deal of work for you very quickly. But it’s hard for them to tackle their tasks without some kind of administrative support.

Faiz Shakir, campaign manager for Bernie Sanders as he prepares for a 2020 presidential bid, explains that his volunteers are a critical asset. “Our people power is a unique advantage. We already have more than 1 million people involved,” he told The Los Angeles Times recently.

During the last Sanders campaign, volunteers struggled to access campaign materials. During this run, that’s not a problem. The campaign retooled to become professional, corporate and agile. That pivot allows volunteers to get what they need quickly — so they can get back to work.

Tip Five: Invest in Training

Your volunteers have passion and commitment. But they may not know what you want them to do (or even how to do it) unless you give them specific instructions they can follow.

Brad Parscale, campaign manager for Donald Trump in 2020, says he hopes to have 2 million trained volunteers for the campaign. That’s a big increase from the 700,000 the team had trained in 2016. Volunteers attend Trump Victory Leadership Initiative sessions that last six weeks. When they emerge, these volunteers know how to perform a voter registration drive, how to go door-to-door and how to use campaign tech materials.

You may not be running such a sophisticated campaign. But you can still look for ways to create and maintain a dedicated volunteer training program. Identify the tasks your volunteers must complete, and write down all the steps they’ll have to take to mark that task complete.

Tip Six: Watch Your Finances

Campaign materials, staff hours, volunteer snacks, and media buys can chip away at your coffers. Make sure you know exactly how much you have coming in and going out, and ensure your volunteers understand those numbers.

Trump 2016 campaign manager Corey Lewandowski said he watched his budget very closely — in part, because Trump was paying the bills. The two sat down to review expenses every two weeks.

Ensure your volunteers are good stewards of their budgets. Look over their expenses, and look for leaks. When having conversations about money, remind your volunteers that you’re not trying to be difficult: You’re trying to win an election.

Tip Seven: Reignite with Rallies

Campaigns can drag on, and it’s not uncommon for volunteers to feel pressed and strained. Losing a volunteer late in the game can be catastrophic, particularly if that person held an important role. Maintain the fire with a few well-placed invitations to events filled with like-minded people.

Kellyanne Conway, current White House advisor and former Trump campaign manager, discussed the importance of rallies with The Wall Street Journal.

“In polling, there is a difference between agreement, which is a party-line vote, and intensity, when voters walk through broken glass to vote for someone. The Trump rallies were a telling political measurement of passion and commitment. You just had to look at the rallies and realize that he had an intensity advantage,” she says.

Look for opportunities to invite your volunteers to your candidate’s debates, rallies, and open mic opportunities. They’ll enjoy meeting your candidate in person, plus they’ll get a rush from standing in a room with so many other supporters.

Tip Eight: Use Your Volunteers Quickly

You’ve just learned that someone wants to help your candidate win an election. What should happen now? In a perfect world, you’ll find a role for that person to fill, and you’ll find it fast.

“Most campaigns, it’s like, ‘Hey, hang out, we’ll talk to you six months from now when we’re ready to put you to work,’” says David Wysong, campaign strategy lead for Beto O’Rourke’s 2020 presidential bid. The team wanted to do things differently, and worked hard to assign volunteers as soon as they raised their hands to help.

Keep a list of open volunteer positions handy, so when someone offers to help you can get them involved quickly.

Tip Nine: Stay in Touch

You’re running a small campaign, and can’t afford a large staff. Your volunteers can do the hard work for you, but they need current marching orders. Your campaign strategies may change often, and your volunteers need to know about those changes.

Amaury Dujardin, the national organizing director for the Tulsi Gabbard 2020 presidential bid, talks with volunteers often. “We have weekly conference calls for Iowa volunteers to outline what they can be doing, and we try our best to call through those volunteers regularly to sign them up for shifts,” he explains.

That close contact ensures that volunteers know what jobs to take and how to do them. And the connection can give staffers a sense of peace, as they know their volunteers are well informed.

If you’re running a very small campaign, you could hold these meetings in person. If not, conference calls or even routine email messages can help you stay connected with your volunteer staff.

Tip Ten: Know When to Play it Safe

Chances are, you’ll have a few innovators and experimenters on your volunteer team. They may come to you with new ideas about how to spend campaign dollars and how to reach more people. It’s important to listen, but remember your goals.

Addisu Demissie, campaign manager for Cory Booker in 2020 and former campaign manager for Gavin Newsom’s successful California governor’s bid, says some regional or state-level campaigns have such tight funding that they can either do something new, experimental and unproven, or they can stick with the tried and true. An experiment here could be catastrophic. “Would you roll the dice on someone’s future that way?” he asks.

Striking a balance here is important. Listen to your innovative volunteers, but also keep your strategy, budget, and goals in mind.

How we can help

A few years ago we helped an independent candidate to the finals of the presidential election in Lithuania. Ingrida Šimonytė only had a couple of people working in the campaign office, but engaged a couple of thousand volunteers in her campaign.

If you’re looking for a software partner to help with team coordination at a grassroots organisation, get in touch with the experts on our team. Or jump directly to our grassroots mobilisation app, create a free project, and start coordinating right away!