Notes on organizing, from the Bernie Sanders campaign…

May 6, 2017

The revolution will not be staffed.  The work is distributed.  Volunteers supervise volunteers.  Share!

Big organizing is what leaders do in movements that mobilize millions of people. Not everyone in these movements is a leader, but in big organizing, volunteer leaders emerge by the thousands from every classroom, family, office and work area, neighborhood, and prison block. The movement doesn’t need to awaken or even train them—these leaders emerge ready to make change, and they bring their full selves and life experience to the task of building a movement that works. Our families, workplaces, schools, social networks, and other institutions are all inherently political. And in the current social context, people don’t need to be awakened politically—they are ready to get to work to make change. A movement powered by big organizing provides these already existing leaders with a scalable way to make a difference that evolves and becomes more sophisticated and powerful over.

The revolution will be led by volunteer leaders who take on the work of a campaign plan, a plan that is so big it can only be accomplished when everyone who wants change (a majority of the people) works together. This could be everyone on a campus, in a community, in a workplace or industry, or in the entire country. In big organizing, leaders operate with a high level of autonomy and creativity while all working toward the same, centrally determined, shared goal. Sometimes that shared goal is decided upon by a central movement leadership and sometimes it is presented by the circumstances of history.229

Avoid becoming part of the nonprofit industrial complex.  The task of the staff of (these) digital organizations (more often than not) was less about organizing the people on the other side of the emails and more about managing the list.250  Small organizing works well enough when incumbents want to maintain the status quo, but it isn’t big enough to challenge the establishment. When organizers figure out how to integrate the huge opportunities that new, social technology provides with effective peer-to-peer organizing principles and practices as part of a smart, centralized plan—that’s big organizing. And it’s the way we can win revolutionary or systemic change

Big organizing is how we create campaigns that allow people to work together to realize their dreams for a more just world. Big organizing is big in more ways than one. We have to have a meaningful message and big goals. Instead of asking for the change that politicians and some leaders think is possible, we have to ask for the change that is actually needed to solve problems. This will necessarily be big.

In big organizing we have big target universes. We need to talk to everyone—not just narrow slices of assumed swing voters—about what we want to achieve. We have to get as many people as possible engaged in the work of talking with voters

So how do we talk to everybody about our big ideas? Part of the answer is to leverage technology to talk to everyone and allow thousands to scale up into leadership roles. What that looks like is a volunteer-driven campaign with consumer software—connected by custom coding—at the center; this structure makes it possible to scale the participation of people doing sophisticated work on central plans.291

Big organizing uses technology platforms—particularly free, consumer-oriented, social collaboration tools—to get as many people as possible engaged in executing a campaign plan and to enable those people to talk to each other and to as many others (voters, people in the pews) as possible regardless of where the volunteers live or how much time they have to spend doing it each week. In big organizing, volunteers act as the staff of the campaign. With a structure where leadership roles at nearly every level are primarily filled by volunteers, a campaign can scale up with everyone doing more and more valuable work at every level.294

Big organizing demands a structure that scales. And this structure requires the ability to absorb and delegate work to volunteers at all management levels as the campaign grows.303

  • First, the goal you’re asking people to spend their precious time on needs to be worth their while. Remember, people are struggling every day at their jobs or their schools, in their neighborhoods, and sometimes in their families. Why should they join your fight? If you win, is it going to make a difference for them personally, or for their children or grandchildren, or for their community or country? Your big ask needs to be big in the real lives of the people you’re asking to join you. It’s not enough that you believe it’s big.
  • Second, you need to be able to tell people about a plan that gets from the world as it is to the world where you’ve won. And that plan needs to be credible. People are smart and, for good reason, are increasingly cynical when it comes to sussing out plans that will never work. They’ve seen countless political failures in their lives—personally, locally, and nationally. Your big ask needs to make sense to them.
  • Finally, you need to offer people a way to participate that will truly make a difference. And again, people are super smart about sensing when they’re being given busy work. Moreover, you need to give people small, medium, and really big ways to contribute—because some people will be able to put in a lot of time, and many more will only have one day per month or a couple of afternoons per week. If people see that you’re able to give everyone a way to participate, this makes your plan more credible (which helps win over more people) and allows you to take full advantage of all the people who are available to help—which is what’s going to propel you to win! Any campaign, no matter the size, can ask people to do something big if it’s working toward something people believe is worth fighting for. So the key to big organizing is that you don’t just ask people to pay staff at an organization to do something big (though supporting some staff with small dollar contributions is part of it). You ask people to be part of that something big. Because doing something big is only possible if everyone is doing it together.393

 The ask should never be for volunteers to add their names to a list so that organizers might call them back later; it needs to be immediate and crucial.412

People are less and less inclined to take small actions in isolation for small gains. Especially when our problems are so big, and it’s gotten so bad, and everybody knows it.414

The revolution is not something you order to your own specifications. You have to take the obstacles with the opportunities. And oftentimes it’s amid chaos that you find the best conditions for introducing radical innovations.434

The Revolution Will Not Be Staffed

There will never be enough money to pay all the organizers the revolution needs. The good news is there are more than enough amazing volunteer leaders among the people, and three or four talented and committed volunteers working part time can often do the work of a full-time paid staffer. When you’ve got at least a handful of people committed to a cause signed up on a list, you’ve got what you need to kick-start a vibrant organization. Most hard work gets done by teams. In the world of organizing, the 2008 Obama primary popularized the strategy of forming “neighborhood teams.”550

Even in our digitally connected culture, talking in real time is still absolutely essential in order to develop deeper relationships, keep up with conditions on the ground, and work out tough decisions.800  Good organizing requires you to get on the phone every day. Use the latest conference call and online scheduling tools to talk more effectively with more people.801

When I started out as a union organizer, we spent hours every day doing “call time”—following up with members of our organizing committees.840  When the center of the organizing world moved from small community, labor, or campaign organizations to mass “internet organizations” with huge loose memberships, real organization building seemed to disappear/  But when you’ve only got a few full-time staffers and you’re being bombarded by thousands of unserved volunteers—or worse, you have thousands of inactive people on your list—then you had better start recruiting some new, committed, talented leaders to form an organization that can realize the full potential of your membership. Beyond recruitment, phone calls should be a staple of your daily organization-building work, accomplishing all sorts of different purposes.869

(To increase capacity I) would email a large group of people to invite them to talk if they were available, with a link to a web-based scheduling tool. On the campaign we used tools like or Calendly, but the tool itself isn’t important. You just need something to avoid the hassle of back-and-forth messages to schedule a call. Sometimes it’s appropriate to get on the phone with people in small batches. A simple low-tech way to do this is to create a Google spreadsheet that anyone can edit, add the time slots you want to fill, and send the link to your people so they can sign up for available time slots.874

Perhaps the most powerful thing you can do on the phone is to form a new team—and you can do it using one simple conference call.881  Countless times on the Bernie campaign, work teams were launched by sending out an email to a portion of the list with an invitation to a conference call. The invite might have said something along the lines of: Dear Supporter, We have an important job that needs doing, and we think you could help. If you have time, please join me on a conference call at 2:00 ET at the number below, and I’ll tell you all about what we need and answer your questions. If you don’t have time today, don’t worry—I’ll email you another day to get you involved.

This work was accomplished in large part by volunteers managed by other volunteers—no other presidential primary in recent history had done this. Volunteers weren’t only asked to call voters, they were also asked to run huge parts of the campaign’s digital organizing technology infrastructure, including our virtual call center and our peer-to-peer texting program. Some of them even opened rogue volunteer offices!  If you want to be perfect, your reach will be limited by your budget. To go big you need to hand over control of key work, education, and management processes to volunteers.1606

I explained that at CREDO and at Bernie we used this rule. I explained that you have to make a decision. Do you want to be perfect? Or do you need to be big? Sometimes you need to be big in order to win. If you want to be big and you can’t afford to pay everybody you need to get there, you have to accept that giving volunteers responsibility means that things won’t always turn out exactly the way you want them to all of the time. That said, by scaling with volunteers doing valuable work, you’ll get far more work done, and that will mean a large net gain even when all the work isn’t perfect. I suggested doing what we did at CREDO when working with volunteers: manage to an 80–20 split. That means 80 percent of what you do has to be good or great. And then be okay with it if 20 percent turns out to be not so good and maybe once in a while something is horrible. If you can allow yourself to let mistakes happen (but not too many!) in order to scale up, you’ll end up ahead. And don’t forget, paid staff aren’t perfect, either! Of course, some things are too important for the 80–20 rule. We didn’t suggest that volunteers run a national press operation.1621 Usually I think we were hitting more like 95–5 because volunteers are generally amazing if you trust them to do meaningful work.1631

We think scaling person-to-person contact will be key to any kind of big organizing in the coming years. It’s important for anyone who wants to do big organizing and scale meaningful engagement between people. To organize peer-to-peer contact via the phone at scale, dialers can help in almost any size campaign.  If you’re a lone activist, you can take a spreadsheet of city employees, put it in a dialer, and then whip through the whole list in a fraction of the time it would take to do it dialing one by one. You could even prerecord a message from yourself that could be left on voice-mails the dialer encounters while you’re already on the next live call. Let’s say you need members of the community to attend a local commission meeting on permits related to shipping fossil fuels through your town. You could get a voter file for your local area and then call through a list of voters living within five miles of passing oil trains and invite them to join you at the meeting. A dialer is also helpful for dividing up the work among multiple volunteers. Instead of dividing up a list of numbers and giving ten volunteers a spreadsheet of numbers to call, put all the numbers in a dialer and give those ten volunteers a log-in. You can control when they can call, see which calls have been made, find out how long the conversations were, and if two of your volunteers blow you off, the other eight will still be able to call the numbers you would have assigned to the no shows. And everyone can do the calling from wherever they are—at work, home, school, or a local cafe with Wi-Fi. Also, over one hundred thousand of Bernie’s best supporters were logged into the dialer at some point—and1797

The fewer people you have in your organization or community group, the more work you need to put in the hands of volunteers. Get the work started and figure it out as you go along.1812