Scaling up the grassroots: How big organizing change everything
Rules for Revolutionaries: How Big Organizing Can Change Everything, By Becky Bond and Zack Exley (Sept 2016). Noted references are from the kindle edition. Read and purchase the full fantastic book! “What that we’re doing now is not good enough. Obviously we need way more organizing. That’s not happening with the structure we have, which has become over the decades more and more foundation dependent and more professionalized. It’s not saying that all that needs to shut down, but it’s just saying that we need other things happening.”
INTERVIEW: Frontline lessons from the Bernie Sanders campaign. By Don Hazen, Steven Rosenfeld, Ivy Olesen /AlterNet December 26, 2016 on AlterNet.org.
Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign didn’t just defy conventional wisdom by mobilizing millions of Americans. Its organizers and activists rewrote the political playbook by situating the campaign as part of a massive, grassroots, volunteer-driven movement for social, racial and economic justice and real change. Becky Bond and Zack Exley were at the heart of the campaign’s extensive volunteer effort. They and legions of young and older supporters used a mix of digital tools to communicate, organize, inspire, track and turn out voters. They tell the story and the lessons of what worked, what didn’t and why, in their new book, Rules for Revolutionaries: How Big Organizing Can Change Everything. Bond and Exley spoke with AlterNet’s Don Hazen, Steven Rosenfeld and Ivy Olesen.
Don Hazen: Tell us how the book came about and what you really mean by revolution. Becky Bond: We wrote this book over the course of five weeks in August and September. We felt it was really important to capture the lessons of how the big organizing that we were doing on the Bernie Sanders campaign could be used by social justice activists. We knew they would have too few resources and a huge job no matter who was going to be the president. We thought it was more likely that it would be Clinton at that point than Trump.We felt these were things that needed to be in the hands of activists. These were lessons we learned. These are an in-progress set of rules. We felt it was really important to set up a new marker for what organizing could do based on what we had learned on the Bernie campaign. We did this really, really quickly because we thought after the election and before the inauguration would be an important time for organizing. It was awkward to write a book before the outcome of the election was known. Most people were shocked at the election of Donald Trump, but it’s something we always saw was possible, even if we didn’t expect it.
Don Hazen: Even though you thought it was possible, you’re still shocked?Becky Bond: Yes, it’s stunning, we’re stunned. Zack, maybe you can expand on that or talk about this question of what we mean by revolution, and why we even thought about it in terms of rules for revolutionaries and how that falls now.What’s a Revolution?Zack Exley: I think what Bernie meant by political revolution was just electing a whole bunch of people who actually represent the people, and who will carry out the sweeping changes that are needed to get Americans back to working, with good jobs and for some communities to stop being terrorized by their own government.Becky and I have always believed in that. When Bernie announced and said, We need a political revolution, and thousands of people started mobilizing right away and he started raising millions of dollars right away, I was so thrilled because of the good use of the word revolution. I had always thrown that word around and a lot of progressives had always chided me and said, Stop using that word, people are thinking about Stalin and Lenin when you say that.It’s interesting how Bernie got away with that. Another thing, Republicans have been winning their kind of revolution for a long time now. They control 30 state legislatures and have 33 governors. They have their majority in Congress. They’ve been winning their revolution.Steven Rosenfeld: You both write about how Bernie’s campaign attracted a lot of people who wanted to do something meaningful. But then it became hard to channel that energy. You wrote about how technology played a key role.BB: One of the amazing things about working on the presidential primary was things were possible that haven’t been possible in previous cycles, in part because of the technology. That’s the state of consumer technology, but also how bad things are for the American people.We actually saw consumer technology that wasn’t available before like Slack and Google Apps and Trello, which allowed supporters to work together. They weren’t just connected to us. They were connected to each other. They weren’t connected to each other inside this proprietary software that the campaign controlled, they were connected to each other in free Slack teams, some of which were run by the campaign, some of which they set up in their own cities and Facebook groups. They had all their tools and scripts and documents in Google Apps which they had access to download and use and copy and put to other things. We couldn’t stop them from pursuing things.
BB: We couldn’t stop them even if we wanted to. That’s the beauty of it. They’re connected to each other and that’s why they’re continuing to work together. Millennials for Revolution is a really good example of that, which was it came out of Millennials for Bernie Sanders. It started as a Facebook group associated with People for Bernie Sanders and it became this big very active social media group that also pushed people to take action in real life. After the campaign they renamed themselves Millennials for Revolution. Now they’re planning hundreds of millennial marches in connection with the inauguration. There’s no relationship to the campaign, campaign staff, to Bernie Sanders’ senate office or anything like that. They were organized for Bernie, now they’re continuing to organize for their causes that they care about and they can continue to do that.MillennialsDH: While you’re mentioning millennials, there’s a map we’ve seen that indicates if only millennials had voted, Hillary would have won 48 of the 50 states or something like that.BB: Millennials did come out and vote. Millennials did come out and they voted overwhelmingly for Clinton as that map showed. The problem wasn’t the millennial vote, the problem was….DH: Were there enough of them compared to Obama’s vote?BB: It’s almost like putting it on any one group, you guys have to show up 100% or else we’re going to blame it on you, right? You know what I mean? People say the same thing about the African-American vote. They say the same thing about the Latino vote. The voter turnout was suppressed across all demographics for Clinton. In fact, voter turnout was suppressed in some ways for Trump. I think there was an issue with the fact that the Clinton campaign did not have a robust millennial turnout program nor a campus program that registered at all and they left that essentially to third parties. For example, NextGen Climate and Tom Steyer’s operation registered 80,000 students, 80,000 millennials in Pennsylvania alone. They collected 100,000 commit-to-vote pieces of paper on campuses in Pennsylvania. The Clinton campaign relegated that to third parties. We don’t know what would have happened if there had been a more rigorous effort. She wasn’t talking about the issues that young people cared about, and yet to expect them to overperform relative to other voting demographics…There’s this weird blaming of millennials that I don’t really understand in this election. I think some of it comes out of the media crossfire of the Democratic primary where they became this narrative that millennials were naive and that they were takers. They just wanted free stuff and they didn’t understand what the candidates were talking about. Even [Clinton campaign manager] Robby Mook said at the Kennedy School debrief a few weeks ago that sort of thing; blaming it on young people who didn’t get it. The financial crisis 2007, 2008. Many of them had been from downwardly middle-class homes. Instead of being tracked to a four-year college they’re being tracked to community college or having to take time off and work instead of going to college at all.Zack Exley: There was a CNN panel interviewing these 20 millennials and the host’s assumption was they were spoiled brats who don’t care about politics. The number one thing that kept coming up was, “How am I going to take care of my parents when I’m older because they’ve lost their incomes and they’re having trouble staying in their house. I’m afraid I’m not even going to be able to make as much money as they made.” Then the commentator was like, “Oh man, I never thought about how I was going to take care of my parents. When did that become a thing again?” There were mostly white middle-class students.Becky Bond: The younger millennials who volunteered for Bernie, and then many of whom also continued on to work to try and defeat Trump, they’re incredibly diverse. They’re digitally native but they’re really hard working. They really got out of social media and into the streets and into the real world. They really got into voter contact, the knocking on doors, making phone calls. There is a radical practicality of this generation. When people say that they’re naive or they don’t know and then they’re described as takers, they’re missing the point. Young people get that they are inheriting a climate crisis. They understand that we can’t solve income and equality until we address structural racism. They understand that the immigration reform on the table is far short of what we need, even in the Democrats’ plans.They’re described as idealistic, but they’re practical because they understand the only way they’re going to deal with these urgent crises is with solutions that are as radical as the problems that we face. It’s very important to keep them in politics and move them into leadership because otherwise clearly with the leadership we have—I mean there’s a crisis of competency in the Democratic Party and in the progressive movement. We need to switch out a lot of people who are running our institutions. I think we need to switch them out with some of these people who are under 26.The Sanders CampaignSteve Rosenfeld: The book talks about how to bring people into positions of responsibility despite the resistance from headquarters. These are people who don’t have titles, but end up making things happen.ZE: In some ways it was a very traditional campaign and that’s true. In some parts of the campaign that was good because the traditional model, at least traditional as of the Obama campaign, is really the way to go. For example, our advance team was amazing and the leader of the team was from the Obama advance team. They did such an amazing job running those huge rallies. Also in Iowa and New Hampshire, it was a great field operation run by two amazing field leaders. Our part of the campaign was on the fringe. It was called the Distributed Organizing Team, although sometimes our bosses would mispronounce it as the Distributive Team, like that math property. That gives you an idea of just how central either we were seen as being or not.We were doing this experimental thing on the fringe of the campaign. In the beginning we had 46 states in which we were doing this experiment. It was all the later primary states where there was no staff on the ground. Some of those states became staffed later on. But because we were off on the side doing our own thing, we really were free to bring in all those new people—thousands and thousands of volunteers into a really new way of organizing.That was our mission from the very beginning. We knew what we were doing. I have worked on presidential campaigns in the past and Becky had done some amazing pioneering work with Credo Super PAC where they mobilized a great many volunteers for national campaigns. We had this kind of fully formed idea of what we wanted to do. We didn’t really have many resources to build a team in the beginning or in the end, but that was okay because the whole point of what we were trying to do was to mobilize volunteers.Only a volunteer-powered movement can scale to 46 states. A mostly volunteer campaign is not how to win Iowa. Of course there’s going to be a lot of volunteers participating, but the core of your operation in Iowa, in a relatively small state, is going to be paid staff. When you’re looking at trying to build something that’s actually going to accomplish something fast across 46 states including, states like New York and California and Texas, it has to be volunteer-led and has to be a volunteered-powered operation.Volunteers Will Make the RevolutionSR: A traditional campaign has a staff, but a movement has volunteers…Becky Bond: Another way to think about it is the challenges that we face are so big right now that we just can’t take the staff that we have in the progressive movement and actually run something that will be large enough to overcome the huge obstacles that are in our way, now that we have Trump and a cabinet filled with all these billionaires and generals. We could be on the verge of martial law, right? I even can’t underestimate how bad things are.We had this presidential candidate who had this amazing message that people responded to and who was an authentic messenger that people really could trust. We had 3% name recognition in the beginning and how is he going to win the Democratic primary for the presidency against Hillary Clinton, who had every single donor, every single endorsement, had locked up all of the top staff?The only way that we thought Bernie was going to have a chance was getting so many people involved that the campaign was driven by volunteers. I think we’re really facing a similar situation now with the president-elect Trump and with the people he’s putting in charge of huge parts of the government. It’s going to take a huge number of people, not just the people who already are involved doing it smarter and having a better strategy or being more coordinated. We need way more people. How does that happen? One idea is to actually let all the people who are just waiting to be asked to do something big, to let them take on responsibility that’s in scale to their skill and desire to be involved.One of things we learned too on the campaign was people are so talented and committed that if you actually give them control and there’s a strategy that makes sense to them, it will get us from the world where we are to the world where we want to be. They’ll take on any number of tasks. We went from people writing music and software and holding bake sales and doing honk-and-waves, all this creative energy for Bernie’s campaign and we told them, “How you’re going to help us win is by getting involved in voter contact in the key states at scale.” Most of them switched to working together on the plan. I think part of it there needs to be plans that are big in scope, that people can participate in it to scale.DH: How do you translate the energy and talent of Bernie’s campaign to what’s needed now?BB: Zack, do you want to talk about Brand New Congress? That’s one thing.Brand New CongressZack Exley: The Brand New Congress is a campaign that I’m working on with a bunch of volunteers that came out of Bernie and some other places. It’s trying to follow through on the idea of revolution we talked about earlier. The goal is swapping the people who are in government out with people who actually represent the people. We really believe people want to work on something big. They want to put their time into something big and worthwhile that will actually fix everything.The target of Brand New Congress is to run 400 candidates in a block and with one campaign organization behind one plan to fix America and rebuild the economy, reform the criminal justice system, and a whole bunch of other stuff. It’s an audacious idea, but what we found in the Bernie campaign is we just ran into so many volunteers who are already thinking about this. They were saying, Well, when Bernie gets elected, he’s not going to be able to get anything done with this Congress, and there’s all those state legislatures out there redistricting and making it harder and harder, so we just need to keep going and take over everything. We said okay, and again, so many professional progressives have just not been willing to think on any kind of scale like that because we’ve been getting beaten. But so many Bernie volunteers, so many people who became world-class leaders in the Bernie campaign in their cities and doing all kinds of stuff, they’re ready for something this big. That’s why we’re going for this.DH: Let me pivot here. Zack, in your In These Times piece, you raised the question, ‘Why hasn’t the progressive movements’ leadership brought about the radical shakeup that the country needs?’ You argue there should be an overthrow of the non-profit foundation-industrial complex. One of your principles is the revolution will not be foundation-funded. How does this take place?ZE: We don’t think that just because you take money from a foundation that you’re tainted and bad and incompetent. Revolutionaries used to rob banks…DH: They had no obligation to the bank if they robbed it, correct?ZE: Well, not necessarily. If you believe in what you’re doing and are going to stand by your principles, you can take money from a foundation, as long as you’re prepared, and as long as you set up your structure so that you’re not creating massive dependencies. Also, there are a lot of great radicals in foundations. If you feel like you can do your work and take some money from foundations, fine.To your example, you didn’t owe anything to the bank, but you had to run for your life and stay undercover after you robbed a bank. You’re left with a lot more room to maneuver and operate if you just take a foundation grant. We’re not purists on this, but I don’t think that we need to overthrow the progressive establishment.BB: There are a couple of points. One is to say basically what that we’re doing now is not good enough. Obviously we need way more organizing. That’s not happening with the structure we have, which has become over the decades more and more foundation dependent and more professionalized. Right? It’s not saying that all that needs to shut down, but it’s just saying that we need other things happening.That’s something that we’ve learned from the Bernie campaign, and can be seen in efforts like the anti-fracking movement. When you align incentives and the base is actually paying for the efforts, what the organizers spend their time on and what they tend to maximize is participation. Right? As opposed to having to spend their time chasing down the big money, which may or may not be like, “I’ll only fund efforts in this state,” or “I can only fund you to work for regulations on fracking, but not a ban.” That sort of thing becomes a barrier to all of your energy, and all the energy of your members and to work that moves the cause forward.If you have a big vision but can’t build a base of people who are willing to support it, you won’t have a mass participation movement behind that vision. You’ll need to pursue that idea in a different way, or drop it and follow someone else who is getting more traction. The Bernie campaign was able to go up against the establishment and go up against the conventional political wisdom because we were small-dollar funded. Too many people wait to get started until they can raise the foundation money, or set up the organization or pursue ideas that go beyond their usefulness because they have this funding, and they don’t have to be responsive to more people. We need more member-driven, small-dollar funded, movement-oriented organization. We’ve got a robust institutional sector, but we don’t have the same kind of structure that supports mass participation. Some of that has to do with where the money comes from.Race MattersDH: While we’re on a controversial area, can we talk about race? One of the things I found striking and positive about the book was your core principle that race has to be part of all the decision-making processes. Clearly, race was a problem for Bernie for reasons that were mostly not his fault, but he had to learn along the way how to deal with groups like Black Lives Matter. After the election, there is still some controversy as he’s talking about what is political correctness. He’s trying to communicate to white voters, in some ways maybe validating their feelings, even though they may be displaced. How do you experience all of this?BB: To be really clear, we’re not speaking for or as part of Bernie’s team, but as part of the movement. Bernie wasn’t the movement. Bernie was in this movement. We are in the movement. Clearly over the course of the campaign, the campaign got better and better at including more people and at reaching more people with a motivating message and at prioritizing so that everybody could bring their full selves to the movement. What we were working on was going to help everybody.In the beginning, we were getting younger voters of color, but the campaign struggled in the early states to reach older, specifically African-American voters, but also older voters in general, and include them in the conversation. We had to basically get people to know who Bernie was and then understand what his message was and persuade them to bring them into the campaign. That was a big task. By the end of the campaign, those numbers were going up. If we had started earlier or had more time, then we could have continued to improve on that.After the campaign was over, one of the things that Zack and I did was we looked at what black leaders and intellectuals said about the campaign, many of who personally supported Bernie, but who had a critique of the campaign. That specific critique is less important than what some of these really thoughtful black leaders and intellectuals had to say about race, which was: if a campaign is going to be successful and include everybody, then fighting racism has to be part of the core message to everybody, not just added on for a specific constituency. If we’re truly going to be in this together, and it is going to take all of us, because we have to have a majority to win. It’s not a question of adding up all the little constituency subsets until we get to 50 plus one.We actually have to work together and be in this together to win, and then we’re going to have to win majorities, not just to win the White House, but to win back Congress and win back statehouses. Everybody has to be not just included, but everyone has to be part of this movement that we’re in together.Heather McGhee and Ian Haney Lopez wrote this article while the campaign was still going on in The Nation, pulling a lot on Ian Haney Lopez’s book Dog Whistle Politics, where it talks about how the billionaire class has used race to divide working people. This has been going on for decades. This has to be part of the analysis. This isn’t something that happens in some back room in some campaign office. It has to be shared with everybody because everyone is going to have to understand where we are, what the plan is to get to where we need to be, and then what their work is to be part of that. It’s not honing down on the two messages to be said on TV to fool people into being with us.Also, you can’t have fighting racism as part of the core message to everyone if you don’t have a diverse leadership. That’s been something that the progressive movement has just largely failed to do, with some exceptions. Not just a token representation, but working-class people of color and immigrants in the inner circle, part of making decisions, as campaigns get built. While we had a lot of amazing surrogates on the campaign, people like Nina Turner, people like Keith Ellison. People like Rosario Dawson. Dozens, really too many to name.We had some of the most amazing Dreamers on the campaign, too, that really made a difference in terms of how we were able to gain a larger and larger share of the Latino vote week by week. But this has to be part of how campaigns are built. It’s multiracial working-class representation in leadership and putting racism as part of the core message to everybody, not just something that is only given to one constituency. And white people have to take responsibility for persuading and educating white voters to share in this analysis, so we can all work together because there is just no other way to win what we need to win.There is no other way forward. I’m very grateful to people who laid this out very clearly and with confidence but also with love. I also am really hopeful about the younger generation of volunteers. They get this. So I’m very hopeful about the ability for campaigns to look more like this in the future and for us to learn from where we fell short because I think it’s important to admit that we fell short, even though we improved throughout the campaign. Bernie BrosIvy Olesen: There was a gender dimension too. You wrote about people projecting on you, and the feminine erasure of being called a ‘Bernie bro’ and what that means.BB: I do want to say that the campaign that happened in person was really different from the campaign as it was portrayed on social media and in the media. I’ll give you one example. I was talking to Moumita Ahmed, who was one of the leaders of Millennials for Bernie Sanders, who’s from Queens. She’s Muslim, she’s a working-class democratic socialist. We were talking about a news report that came out from Massachusetts, where Clinton was talking about young people, and said you can’t blame them for voting for Bernie and not understanding that the Clinton campaign was fighting for things that were big in the context of what was possible. One of the things that Hillary said was they were living in their parents’ basements, and they have to work as baristas. My interpretation of that was that Clinton was trying to understand why young people supported Bernie, and they were going to vote for her, but they were not putting the same kind of work into her campaign.But Moumita said to me, “No, I find it really upsetting she said that, because time after time after time, I’ve found myself and other young women of color who have been leading so many of the efforts on the ground, first for Bernie Sanders and then for the Democratic platform, we feel so erased. You know who lives in the basement of their parents’ homes? It’s white guys. Guys live in the basement. Girls don’t live in the basement.” This is someone who is one of the leaders of the youth movement for Bernie. So many of the nationally recognized leaders were actually young women of color. In place after place I saw, the volunteers on the ground tended to be much more diverse, in terms of ethnicity and in terms of class, than the voting base and how the media portrayed it.IO: Didn’t that happen to you? You’re a woman was attacked as a Bernie bro?Becky Bond: I just wanted to set some context, which is that there was this media narrative of aggressive white Bernie bros and that was reinforced by the Clinton supporters on social media. These were fights about people that were actually not the same ones doing the organizing in their communities because this was an existential fight for them. In fact, our best volunteers leading efforts on the ground and managing other volunteers were almost always working-class women of color. I think there’s just a misconception of the Bernie movement in that. The media really did not represent very well that which was a huge part of our daily experience on the campaign, especially when it came to volunteers.This is the same idea that people don’t want to do something small to win something small, but they’re willing to do something big to win something big. This idea of revolution, it really appealed to them, that actually if enough of us got together, we could actually change who was in government, and then actually get some things done. This idea of changing everything and it being a political revolution because we’re going to do it by voting in a peaceful way was really important.I saw Clinton surrogates say they came from countries where having revolution is a negative thing. But people are smart. They understood what we meant by a political revolution. They were engaged in the biggest voter contact machine ever built in a presidential primary because they saw that this was the way they were going to change things, even though it was unlikely, even though it was the longest of long shots. But it was the thing that was worth pursuing, given how urgent and how huge our problems are as a country, and how few politicians in power actually seem to recognize and connect to how bad things are and how big the changes are that we really need.
Research shows that, contrary to the conventional wisdom, the big money approach to elections isn’t what really moves voters. When it comes to moving voters to the polls in elections, it’s not the broadcast television ads that matter. Campaign robocalls make a difference only to the consultant who earns money making them. Direct mail doesn’t have much of an effect. As it turns out, when you look at the actual campaign results, the gold standard for moving people is a volunteer having a conversation with a voter on the doorstep or on the telephone. This is great news for everyone who believes our country needs radical change. It will be hard to dispel the myth that spending big money on advertising is the path to electoral victory, but we do know that if people organize, we can go up against big money and win.122
We spent most of the campaign in volunteer outposts that were generally beyond the reach of the traditional field operation, working with volunteers to forge a new set of rules to embrace and scale a growing movement of people willing to do something big to win something big. From the point of view of many of the traditional staffers on the campaign, we were the fringe—an almost totally irrelevant part of the campaign.139
No matter who wins in 2016, the revolution is here. In democracies, people do not accept decline forever. Real wages have been falling for forty years. Our maternal mortality rate has fallen behind every developed nation in the world and many developing nations. Forty percent of Americans will live below the poverty line at some point in their lives. Tens of millions of children who grew up in middle class homes are finding themselves firmly in the working class. Criminal justice systems at every level of government prey upon Americans of all backgrounds but disproportionately on African Americans and Latinos. As should have been expected, when candidates emerged who were talking about the decline—and offering to do something about it—millions of voters backed them, despite how unconventional they were and despite all the baggage they carried.156
As things get worse and worse, voters will support candidates who promise radical action. And if there are no principled alternatives emerging on the left, this creates an opening for right-wing candidates like Trump, no matter how reprehensible and no matter how crazy their solutions may be. This is a well-established pattern in history for democracies in crisis.162
Passing laws and paying for government programs will not even scratch the surface of what must be done. This will require organic mass movements in neighborhoods, towns, cities, and regions. It will require unions and small business associations organizing not simply to demand concessions from big businesses but to actively reshape the economy. It will require students, parents, teachers, administrators, and community members organizing and participating effectively to make our schools places where children get world-class educations. It will require creating revolutionary change through every sphere of our society.175
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 church, 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. 221
The point is not that the revolution will be phone-banked but that 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
The Bernie phenomenon was even more surprising because over the past two decades most organizing at the presidential campaign level was based staunchly on small organizing. Campaign staff used data and technology to “microtarget” tiny slices of the electorate in the hopes that winning these segments would add up to a narrow majority. Once elected, these politicians promised to achieve incremental change via mundane policy tweaks. In return, they asked for only minimal participation from the people being organized. Small organizing drives a negative feedback loop where fewer and fewer people participate because the changes promised are too small to be worth anyone’s time, leading campaigners in turn to lower their expectations of participation. Even though campaigners and policy makers are the drivers of this process, they experience it as proof of the apathy of the people. The result is that too many elected officials are basing important decisions not on what would be best for all Americans but on what they imagine would appeal to a small number of swing voters usually at the center-right of the political debate.241
We thought we had seen big organizing emerge via digital advocacy groups that emerged in the decade following the (stolen) election of George W. Bush. These groups built huge email lists that could be contacted to raise money, collect petition signatures, or gather people together to attend protests. The organizations themselves, often with no brick-and-mortar offices, operated with small staffs and low overheads. But the task of the staff of 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
The big organizing that was the hallmark of the Bernie volunteer movement seeks to turn out big majorities in support of big ideas by integrating new disruptive technology into the practice of political organizing. Small organizing works well enough when incumbents want to maintain the status quo, but it isn’t big enough to challenge the establishment. Technology is now continuously revolutionizing daily life. 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—whether it’s in a big national fight to take control of government or in a series of meaningful local fights leading to victories that matter.
Big organizing isn’t just about the effective use of the newest technology to scale participation in politics. At the most fundamental level, 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 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. We have to have voters make demands of their representatives in Congress. Together, we will constitute a wave that will swamp the influence of big money, corporate media, and other establishment players who are invested in maintaining the status quo. What do big organizing goals look like? Make public college free. End the drug war and stop the mass incarceration of black and brown people. Let everyone enroll in Medicare and make health care truly universal. Pursue an industrial policy that seeks to put everyone to work in the best jobs possible. None of these are crazy things to ask for. And it’s not crazy to ask for them all at once.268
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
Small organizing candidate campaigns depend on so-called “big data” to narrow the number of people that must be engaged with predictive modeling, micro targeting, and message testing and segmentation.
Big organizing depends on technology as well, but it emphasizes a very different approach. 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
At the heart of Alinsky’s methods was the one-on-one personal relationship between the organizer and the subject who was to be organized. Through one-on-one conversations, regular people were to be enlightened to their disempowered lot by a charismatic super organizer who came in from outside of the community. In Alinsky’s organizing theory, the organizer gradually activated community members and built what’s called a mass power organization, the purpose of which was to move people from despair to action in small steps—climbing what the digital organizing generation would later call “the ladder of engagement”—and then to create disruptive campaigns that brought powerful forces to a bargaining table where the organizer could negotiate for incremental victories. Rules for Radicals, which he published in 1971, encapsulates this organizing philosophy. Some of these rules are tactical and helpful to any activist, such as “A good tactic is one your people enjoy,” and “The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself,” and “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.” But other parts of his philosophy are more problematic.321
Alinsky believed that the purpose of building power was not to put the people in power, but to compel negotiation. He wanted to win a seat at the 1950’s and 1960’s establishment tables for the poor and disenfranchised. Part of the reason this seemed like a reasonable strategy to so many good people was that, at the time, the table was overflowing. Surely there was enough for everyone! His vision of constant campaigning was aimed at recruiting members into an organization and keeping them engaged as a noisy army that an organizer could then leverage to win as many table scraps as possible. It didn’t matter what the controversy was, just that it kept people engaged. Alinsky’s approach was premised on the paternalistic concept that an enlightened core of outside organizers was necessary first to show the poor that there was a better way and then to represent them in a battle with elites.333
We’re not saying you can just ask people to do anything big and they’ll do it. That’s absolutely not it! Here are the rules behind the rule.
- 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 In fact it has been said that
(Sometimes) it is only smack in the middle of maximum chaos that radical innovation has a chance.439
I had been shooting my mouth off for two decades about how mass movements were supposed to be run by the people, not by mercenaries, and how there were more and better leaders among a movement’s supporters than a movement could ever hope to hire. I had been lulled into a permanent dependence on staffers while working with big nonprofits and campaigns. Now I, of all people, was wondering how we were going to have the revolution without first filling out a bunch of W-4 forms. It hit me that this extreme situation that Bernie had forced on us was the only way we’d ever get to do this. And this is one of the many reasons I appreciate and am forever grateful to Bernie for being Bernie and not letting anyone talk him into being a typical presidential candidate. Bernie was forcing us to rely almost 100 percent on the volunteer leadership that was already out there—among us.466
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
Voter contacts produced and recorded in the campaign’s voter database, known in campaign shorthand as VAN (Voter Activation Network). The campaign had a central plan, the work was distributed into teams, and every team had a staff supervisor. The slogan of the Obama 2008 field campaign was “Respect. Include. Empower.” In Jeremy’s office and in most of the Obama offices you could see those words in big letters somewhere on the walls. The neighborhood team model had a limitation, however: It could only scale in proportion to the number of paid staff—each team had to be created and overseen by a paid staffer. Each of the verbs in the (Obama team) command “Respect. Include. Empower.” were sandwiched between a subject and an object. The actors were paid field organizers. The acted upon were volunteers. This worked fine for the battleground states in Obama’s 2008 general election run in large part because only a dozen states were in play and they had tens of millions of dollars available to pay staff to blanket those states with that thin layer of snowflakes. And in the primaries, the snowflake model was really only tried in earnest in South Carolina. The primary campaign didn’t have enough money to massively staff all the states at the level required by the model. No presidential primary campaign, including Obama’s, both of Clinton’s, and Bernie’s, has ever had the resources to do that—and it’s unlikely one ever will.577
How could we go from two people to hundreds in such a short time? And how could those hundreds be structured into a productive organization of interlocking volunteer teams?597
I got busy creating teams to handle the immediate needs we had as we organized toward the 2,700 distributed organizing events. One volunteer team led to another. First came the help desk. We emailed a handful of volunteers who had said they were ready to take on special challenges, and asked them to staff a volunteer email help desk—to answer the questions and deal with the problems coming in from all volunteers, especially the ones who needed help with their July 29th event and who were causing such headaches in Burlington. One great benefit of this was that volunteers would be better served, but the real necessity was so that we could stop exposing the campaign manager of a national presidential campaign to the trials and tribulations of volunteers struggling to connect their computers to their televisions or understand the differences between time zones. I kicked off the team by inviting them onto a conference call. And after a round of introductions and a little discussion, a man named Craig Grella surfaced as someone who had helped nonprofits to set up help desk software. Craig was a professional at this! He had a whole business that assisted nonprofits and sometimes campaigns in doing this sort of work. He was familiar with several of the help desk products on the market and offered to configure the product and lead the help desk team. Would he have volunteered for any campaign or organization? No, but we weren’t just any campaign—this.616
We were so busy with other preparations for July 29th that I spent almost no time on the help desk after that call, save an occasional check-in call with Craig. In those calls he told me about training calls he was holding, videos he was making, and documents he was writing.632
The help desk was the first verification that we could build out a large and powerful central campaign infrastructure using volunteers instead of staff. In fact, it was working so well that we realized, for some functions of a campaign, a team of three or four committed and talented volunteers was equal to or greater than a full-time paid employee. In this case probably greater than, because their combined talents and life experience led to them being able to provide higher quality help desk support than any one person we would have been able to hire to do this task (should we have had the budget to do so). And having a paid staffer replaced by a team of part-time volunteers—instead of a single full-time volunteer—meant that if one volunteer on the team had to drop out, the team could continue on and just recruit a new team member. This is one of the reasons we began to focus on building volunteer teams instead of recruiting individual volunteers to take on discrete tasks on their own.637
I’d follow a simple process to form each team:
- Step 1: Email a list of between one hundred and one thousand individuals selected as candidates for the team, inviting them to join a conference call. This list could be a random selection of our list, in which case I’d have to email one thousand, or it could be a list based on criteria from the database designed to target people more likely to succeed on the team.
- Step 2: Conduct a conference call with the between ten and fifty prospective team members who typically signed up to join. I’d explain the team’s purpose, the type of work it would involve, and also the big picture of how we were running a volunteer-driven campaign that would depend on volunteer teams to function.
- Step 3: If possible, give the volunteers a task to do to make it onto the team. This would weed out people who, despite the best of intentions, were not serious about doing the work. Sometimes in the beginning, however, I was too busy to set people up with a task and evaluate all the results, so I just let people get started based on a promise that they really wanted to work.
- Step 4: Invite a subset of people from the original call who seem to really want to do the work—either because they did the task or promised to—onto another call. On the second call, choose a leader (or two or three coleaders), cover more details about how to get started, and answer questions.
- Step 5: Invite the team to a Slack channel or in some other way get them together so that they can productively communicate.
- Step 6: Pray they will make it! The crucial thing to remember in forming volunteer teams is that you don’t ask who wants to lead. You ask who wants to get to work.655 So the best test of leadership whether someone is willing and able to do the work, follows through on important tasks, and is willing to be held accountable. These are not necessarily self-identified leaders. And to be clear: It would have been better to be more deliberate about team building.
The Obama folks had the resources and the luxury of doing all kinds of team-building activities that really helped teams to function well and be happier. It would have been great if we had had the time to do all that! But we didn’t have time, and so we settled for just getting to know each other by working together as peers toward the goal we all shared. (Marshall Ganz organized Obama’s organizer team building, but then was later critical when, post-election, the groups were still ready to work but Obama ordered them to be disbanded.) For us, in the chaos of the early campaign, it was all a huge mess. But the snowball kept growing, and more and more work was getting done every day. I think this part of the story is particularly important for groups that are looking for a way to breathe new life into their work. Any group can build a snowball. We did it without resources and by only accessing a tiny portion of our list. You don’t need a presidential candidate. What you need is an urgent cause that people are passionate about.671 We took a leap of faith and trusted the volunteers because we believed that was how the revolution should be built—and because we had no choice: Either we gave our supporters staff-equivalent positions, or we had no distributed campaign.709
(We have to do it) with patience and love. Their message: The only way to bring down the elites who use race to divide us is to put race at the heart of our fight to build a truly just society. It’s time to build a movement that is big enough to win and allows everyone to bring their full selves to the fight. Consider these statistics. According to Michelle Alexander in her book The New Jim Crow, black people are ten times more likely than white people to go to jail for drug use, even though they use drugs at similar rates. And more black people are in prison or the probation/parole system than were enslaved in the 1850s. The Institute for Policy Studies and the Corporation for Enterprise Development published a report, “The Ever-Growing Gap: Failing to Address the Status Quo Will Drive the Racial Wealth Divide for Centuries to Come,” showing that at the current rate the wealth gap is closing, it would take the average black family 228 years to achieve parity with the wealth that white families enjoy today. The richest four hundred Americans have the same amount of wealth as all black people in the United States plus one-third of all Latinos! Black lives matter. But in the United States, black lives are not valued equally to white lives. Not in the streets, not in the courts, not in our work places, not in our halls of government, not in our schools, not even in our progressive movements for change. Making change requires more from white people than simply saying “black lives matter” (though that’s an important start).744 We need to “authentically engage and be led by people of color and immigrants” and to hold the Democratic Party accountable for its “epic failure to address the needs of the majority of people in this country.” She also asked that white progressives take on the work of “engaging white working-class voters who have been abandoned by the Democrats and exploited by the Republicans.”756
Racism is not only crushing black people, but that it is also “a political weapon wielded by elites against the 99 percent, nonwhite and white alike.”766
Since the Reagan era, maintaining the status quo has meant shoring up the plutocratic class even as the white middle and working class see their standards of living eroding. Elites are now using racism and white supremacy to keep struggling whites in line with the elites, no matter that it is not in their economic interest. In this new economic reality, there are openings to organize whites—as Garza also calls us to do—to join a multiracial movement with a vision for an economy that truly works for everybody. The problem we have to solve is not just that not enough white people believe that black lives matter. It’s that not enough white people who say black lives matter are taking action to help dismantle racist structures. White people need to understand that supporting black liberation in a material way is an essential part of any political revolution. We also need to understand that white supremacy is at the heart of the problem—not just a racially associated economic inequality. Our fears of blackness and a white culture that criminalizes blackness are helping to maintain a status quo that benefits the elites to the detriment of working people of all races.769Yes, Bernie marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., got arrested protesting segregated housing, and was one of the lone white voices in Congress who endorsed and delivered his state to Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign in 1988. Those are personal acts of solidarity, but they do not excuse us from the need to anchor our political analysis in a critique of structural racism. To change the system—and that’s what revolutions aim to do—our movement needs to heed the words of leaders like Garza, Haney-López, and McGhee. We all must unite to defend black lives and build a movement with authentic leadership from working class people of color and immigrants. We have to hold our parties and our government accountable to the majority of the American people—not corporations, not the 1 percent, and not even just demographics who have historically higher voter turnout. And white people have a special responsibility to ensure that white working and middle class voters choose multiracial solidarity as the only true path to addressing income inequality.786
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—and the few attempts to resurrect it by building old-style chapter organizations from established email lists have ultimately failed despite some valiant efforts.846
instead sought to simply get to know him, learn all that I could from him, and develop a truly mutual relationship that would hopefully become the basis of a productive partnership.858In big organizing, we get back to building organizations by empowering thousands of people on our lists to become builders.860
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 YouCanBook.me 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. As a rule of thumb, if we emailed one hundred people who had signed up to volunteer but were not yet involved, we would wind up with about fifteen to twenty people on the phone—even with just a few hours’ notice. Your conversion rates will vary, but the idea is that if you email people, some percentage will actually get on the phone with you! There’s no need to overthink the scheduling. There didn’t seem to be a lift in giving people more notice. We actually preferred to give people only a few hours’ notice because we tended to attract people who were more available that way—people who were unemployed, retired, or for whatever other reason totally available and incredibly eager to work on the campaign. On the call, we would do a round of introductions, which would allow us to get an initial read on who might be a good, clear-headed leader—and who might lack key interpersonal skills, such as the ability to listen to others. We would then explain the task at hand and find out who was ready and qualified to get to work. Teams like the one managing the help desk all started when I—and some volunteers—picked up the phone. Beyond forming teams, phone conversations are key for strengthening relationships with individual volunteer leaders and tracking their progress. For some reason, getting to know volunteers on the phone—or even in person—is not something that comes easily to many organizers. To get someone’s story, all you have to do is ask.883Regularly checking in with volunteer leaders on the phone also allows you to troubleshoot their work and help them improve in their roles. And there may be some moments in a campaign when you have to call your volunteer leaders to inspire them with the long-term vision that they may not fully understand yet. If you are higher up the chain of command, you probably have a lot more visibility into the coolest parts of the campaign. You can see victories or potential victories coming. Tell your volunteer leaders about them. Through all these conversations with individual leaders, you will learn what is going on out there in your movement. This is one of the most important reasons to spend time on the phone. If you know what volunteers are facing, if you know what’s working and what’s not working, then you will be able to make and argue for decisions that are in tune with the reality of the conditions on the ground. If you’ve spent enough time on the phone with volunteers, and listened carefully to what they have to say, then you won’t be one of those organizers who comes up with ideas that’ll never fly, or shoots down ideas that could transform the campaign. 900
The Work Is Distributed.
beginning, he was using the crude measure of week-over-week growth of events on map.berniesanders.com to see if the model was working. Everything on the distributed team was being managed to produce more event hosts, more events posted, more RSVPs. The kinds of questions he was asking were “How do we get more volunteers to become leaders?” and “How do we get one-time event hosts to make their events recurring?”931At that point in the campaign, thousands of people outside the four states that would vote first were essentially running their own mini campaigns with their singularly home-brewed strategies.946
On the Bernie campaign, we didn’t need to multiply the activities of the national staff. We needed to take one huge task—actually building a massive voter contact machine—and break it up into little chunks that volunteers could start knocking out on a day-by-day basis.974Traditionally campaigns call only likely voters they think might be on their side. What if we had thrown out the conventional wisdom and simply called everyone? It could have been game changing. We developed the capacity to do this, but we never pulled the trigger on it. Instead of thinking of that as a missed opportunity, we believe it represents a great hope for the future. A public interest campaign for an audacious policy goal or another insurgent candidate can tap into this capacity in the grassroots and start approaching civic engagement in a radically bigger and potentially far more powerful way than most campaigns are run today.1119
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! Not all movements have such clear objectives and deadlines as electing a candidate to office—where your goal is to identify, persuade, and turnout more voters than your opponent, with Election Day as the ultimate deadline. Not all campaigns have a clear leader at the top—the candidate—who will be able to say “this is how we win and we need everyone who supports me to get in line with our strategy.” It’s important to recognize that a revolution won’t be launched by consensus. As organizers or volunteer leaders, you need to propose a strategic plan and invite others to join you. Don’t worry about being undemocratic. If your plan is not smart enough, not enough people will join you, and you can give up on the revolution and become a small nonprofit instead!1125
Create a centralized strategic plan using whatever process is right for your movement. Make sure the plan has tasks that can be repeated by volunteers that add up to progress on the plan. Then delegate chunks of work from your plan to a distributed network of volunteer leaders who can work across space and time, and in the numbers necessary, to meet concrete goals and make change possible.1134The Revolution Will Be Funded—by Small Donations
If you spend your time and energy asking rich people to support your movement, then your movement isn’t going to get anywhere. Spend your time talking to the people you are trying to organize, building your movement and resources as they are needed will come. Do not become part of the nonprofit industrial complex by claiming to be helping people who care about you so little that they won’t pitch in a few bucks to support your work.1138
It was always about delivering Bernie’s message, treating the people on the other side of the email as smart people who were our peers not someone to be fleeced by the latest marketing tactic. It was about being honest.1149Here’s the fundamental problem with trying to launch the revolution on foundation money: The stewards of all those foundation billions are not going to pay you to overthrow the system. The people running the nonprofits participating in the coalition are not going to support you when you try to blow everything up. They can’t because they are dependent on that money—and money almost always comes with at least one string attached: the one that says you can’t blow everything up. When it comes to climate change—as Naomi Klein brilliantly documented in her book This Changes Everything—some of the largest environmental groups and their supporting industry of consultants are deeply in the pockets of big corporations and their charitable arms. The plans they propose simply don’t call for change as fast as we need it. And in this case, gradual change means catastrophe. At the robber baron summit for creating a new group to fight climate change, the donors didn’t come right out and tell the campaigners to set their sights low. They didn’t have to. Everyone who was invited knew that truly radical climate solutions were not on the table. Another, simpler way to say all this is: No revolution has ever been launched with paid mercenaries and a branding agency. Ever. And it never will be.1182After almost twenty years of internet-powered politics, I think we can call it: If you want to overthrow the system, or any part of it, you still need to start with the people. Okay. Fine. But then where will the money come from? First of all, what Becky and I are saying is that revolutions usually are begun with no central source of funding. Start with people, not with money.1194To raise funds this way, you need to have a base that wants to support you. If you don’t have that base, you face two options: seek large donations from rich people and foundations, or build a base so you can seek small-dollar donations. There are consequences that come with each path. If you choose the large-dollar path, the people you get money from will play a part in determining your objectives, strategies, and messaging. You will get to know them better and better, and your perspective may be influenced by them on a deeper level than you care to admit. And all of the time you spend chasing this money will be time you do not spend building your base with—and becoming more accountable to—your people. If you choose the small-dollar path, the people you get money from will also play a part in determining your objectives, strategies, and messaging: If you find it hard to fundraise from your mass base, then probably there is a problem with your leadership or your plan or both! You will then have to keep changing until you connect with and finally communicate in a meaningful way with the people you are proposing to serve. The time you spend with your base will allow you to get to know your people better. You will be able to use that time to recruit amazing leaders out of your base. By relying on those leaders, you will find that you need fewer resources to get much more done than you could have relying solely on paid staff.1233Use mass meetings as a technology to put people to work in teams and immediately. Constantly redesign your technique to get more out of your meetings. Ensuring that your meetings can be replicated is key to scaling up for your revolution.1262We knew that volunteers who gathered together in person to make calls paused for less time between calls, called for more consecutive minutes, and got better faster at conversing with voters. They were also more likely to volunteer again, in part because of the accountability and camaraderie of working with fellow volunteers. To make an operation as big as we needed, we had to build a nationwide network of in-person (gatherings/)phone banks. But of course, we didn’t have field offices nationwide to host them.1279Logical extension of the campaign’s UI, or user interface, into the real world, optimized for the highest conversion rate of the in-person interaction. When we discuss it with old-school organizers, we say we are replacing Alinsky’s model based on one-on-ones and a ladder of engagement with a mass meeting where everyone gets to work right there. However you come to understand this tactic, we want you to understand it as a linchpin of big organizing and a rule that could change everything in how you approach your work. Mass meetings for organizing are not pep rallies. Their purpose is not to educate people on the issues. They are a tool for putting people who are already on your list to work on valuable tasks that will help you execute a strategic campaign plan.1336The goal of the meeting’s agenda was to put people already inspired to take action into teams where they could do meaningful work to help Bernie win. Bringing people together in person, communicating the national strategy to volunteers, and then explaining the concrete roles they needed to play in that strategy for it to succeed was how we moved people from feeling inspired to doing valuable work.1344There are people who are knowledgeable about the issues and ready to take action to change the status quo. They don’t need an organizer to tell them why they should get involved. They want to get to work to make real change. The mass meeting should be designed with these people in mind. No matter what part of the political revolution you are working to build, you will have to constantly iterate and reinvent your mass meetings to optimize for success.1348Once we figured this out and optimized for it, we could successfully roll into a city like Seattle, where in December, 2015, we assembled five hundred people at Town Hall Seattle, and recruited eighty phone bank party hosts during our ninety-minute meeting. But at this point, we were being forced to recognize another problem that had been mounting as we held more and more barnstorms. Once people understood the plan to achieve the big goal, they were willing to volunteer to do the big things we asked of them. The barnstorms were putting a huge number of events on the map at map.berniesanders.com. We assumed that once phone banks were there, the emails would work their usual magic and people would sign up and fill them to capacity. But in reality, all along at this early stage, many of the phone banks we were creating on the road got zero online signups. Or sometimes more awkwardly for volunteers who had never met before, just one person would attend. We had to come to terms with this in Seattle when eighty phone bank hosts filled the Seattle Area with their events—a new record—and the number of people we could turn out by email would be spread too thin across all those phone banks. We had created too many! We had optimized a powerful machine for creating volunteer leaders, and we had neglected to put mechanisms in place to recruit other volunteers to join their teams.1353
(We had to) stop depending on email for the RSVPs and instead have the audience sign up on the spot for volunteer leaders’ phone bank events. We were already having to do data entry of the forms with the created events. Why not also have people sign up on the forms and have volunteers manually enter that into the campaign database. If conversion rates went up enough, it would be worth the volunteer work to do the additional data entry. When they brought this idea back to the whole team, Corbin and Zack said that from their experiences on the road it would be impossible to choreograph the match-making between hosts and attendees who lived nearby. In a crowded room it was hard enough to get at least one out of ten participants to fill out the form to create an event. How would attendees figure out which sign-up sheet was for the event closest to them and on a date they could attend. It would be like a cross between a rugby scrum and a chaotic game of Twister.1367
Through trial and error, we figured it out. The solution was an “altar call” where phone bank hosts lined up at the front of the meeting and did a lightning round of pitches for their events. We told the audience to remember the person who was holding their phone bank at a location, date, and time that was convenient for them, and then when all the hosts had pitched (sometimes as many as forty of them!), we told everyone to get up and go find the host they had picked, and get their name on that person’s form. It was pandemonium every time, but it worked!1381Here are some elements that made our barnstorms successful.
- The meeting needs to have a clear and coherent agenda and end on time. A volunteer’s time is valuable and should be respected. An organizer’s time is always in short supply and should be maximized by keeping meetings efficient.
- There needs to be a system to stop blowhards from hijacking meetings, alienating volunteers who want to get to work, and wasting people’s time. The majority of people who are attending the meeting want to get to work. Issue debates or personal agendas can be entertained after the meeting is done and people are free to go.
- The organizer should lay out a clear campaign strategy that is heavy on tactics, timeline, and a concrete path to victory, and light (if addressed at all) on explaining the issues, providing inspiration, or engaging in punditry.
- The organizer should shift the interaction of the web sign-up process into the real world to dramatically increase conversion—with manual intervention by volunteers to get the sign-ups back online. To do this, there must be an in-person sign-up form that is treated as a valuable technology, tweaks to which can have a dramatic impact on conversion rates.
- A strong and specific ask will get people get committed and prepared to do actual work in teams formed right on the spot. Ask who can lead events and have them agree to a time and date on the spot. Write it down on a piece of paper with room for others to RSVP. Then have the hosts announce their events one at a time and ask everyone else in the meeting to sign up for their event right there. Aim for 10–20 percent of the room to step up as volunteer leaders, and 70–80 percent of the room to sign up to join their teams. This makes everyone accountable not just to the campaign but to each other in a real and personal way.
- There should be a support layer of people, processes, and software. Engaging volunteers in work at a mass meeting isn’t simply a handshake between a website process, an invitation to volunteers, a tested meeting agenda, and set of paper forms. It depends on layers of volunteer support teams connected by social platforms and the campaign’s central organizing technology to do the data entry, follow up with hosts, send reminder RSVPs to make sure the work happens, and track the vital statistics for the relationship between the meetings held, organizing events planned, and volunteer shifts completed.
By January, barnstorm meetings were responsible for creating the majority of distributed phone banks for the Bernie campaign. To put the impact of the barnstorms in context, when we held our first Arizona barnstorm meeting using this model in a union hall in Phoenix, the state director, Jose Miranda, remarked afterward that we created more phone banks in ninety minutes then he could have in three weeks of full-time work. He mentioned that a supporter who had turned him down to host a phone bank in a one-on-one in the past had stepped up and volunteered to host at the barnstorm. Jose was a great organizer. He was one of our best state directors. It wasn’t that he wasn’t already doing everything right. It was that the barnstorm model was that powerful.1389
Training of barnstorm hosts was moved to YouTube livestream events and eventually 650 of the campaign’s 1,000 barnstorm meetings were led by volunteers. We considered the barnstorm meeting the most valuable innovation devised by our department over the course of the campaign. We love that one of the biggest tech innovations by a bunch of digital organizers involved big, in-person, mass meetings. Being part of the Bernie campaign was a constant exercise in throwing out the conventional wisdom and trying unlikely approaches until you found the vehicle that could scale volunteer impact big enough to go toe to toe with the billionaire-backed candidates.1416Zack came up with a revelatory way to prevent the tyranny of the annoying from popping up in that part of the over one thousand barnstorm meetings we organized. It was brilliant because it was so simple. In the barnstorm instructions, we required organizers to ask the audience to raise their hands if they were new to campaigning. More than half of the room inevitably raised their hands. While those hands were up, we would pick out a few to call on to share their story of why they were getting involved with the Bernie campaign. In the barnstorm instructions we wrote:
- Make sure you deliberately call on specific people. Don’t lose control of the mic, whether that’s a real mic or just control of the room.
- Choose people who are often excluded from the political process: women, people of color, and very young people. Their stories are often the most powerful.
- If someone starts going on for a long time, politely ask them to wrap up. If they continue going on, ask them to stop and call on someone else to speak. This isn’t a time for extended discussions of strategy, messaging, or political ideology—it’s a time to share personal stories with the group. But when we personally trained staff, we got practical and simply said,
“Always call on people new to politics who are women, people of color, or the youngest people in the room.” When we followed this to the letter, we almost always got short, inspirational, authentic personal stories. When we didn’t, we inevitably ended up with a white guy on the mic wasting another twelve hours of collective volunteer time going on a political tirade that, while important to him, was not what others were attending the meeting to hear.1487
The People for Bernie was tailor-made to make a presidential campaign nervous. Here was this independent social media empire with Bernie’s name on it run by people who were totally unaccountable and uncontrollable. No one was funding them, so no one could tell them what to do (and more important, what not to do!). They were posting memes about Hillary Clinton when Bernie staffers had explicit instructions not to be negative about the Clintons on social media. Also, The People for Bernie kept expanding into constituency groups that the campaign didn’t even have official staff assigned to. They were running out ahead of us and outflanking us with new social media properties like African Americans for Bernie and Millennials for Bernie. And they were getting news coverage.
Charles and Winnie both rebelled against the completely normal campaign mindset that certain things had to be tightly controlled, like messaging, data, and access to senior staff. They embraced the big organizing tenant of trusting in more people more often. They also embraced risk in order to make sure there was room for everybody. Which is why they gave away the passwords. Back in April when The People for Bernie launched on Facebook, Winnie Wong created a host of other pages: Latinos for Bernie, Moms for Bernie, African Americans for Bernie, Jews for Bernie, Socialists for Bernie, Asian Americans for Bernie. The list of social media properties goes on. Winnie and Charles thought that everyone should be able to bring their authentic self to building a movement behind the Bernie candidacy, and they knew speed, depth, and breadth was of the essence. But how were two people going to curate and manage so many iterations of these dynamic communities of Bernie supporters? That’s when they started to give away the passwords. Giving away the passwords is a metaphor for the radical trust and community building that The People for Bernie brought to their brand of big organizing. But it wasn’t anarchy. Like most big organizing, it was structured, it used social platforms to help it scale, and it sought to get as many people involved as possible, instead of just a desired few. After they sent out the open letter in late April, The People for Bernie community was small but growing. Winnie and Charles sent out a Facebook invitation to attend a conference call where interested, movement-oriented folks could learn how to help build out the community on social media. The primary channel for this invitation was the one million people who liked Occupy Wall Street on Facebook. RSVPs started coming in. First there were one hundred, then five hundred, and eventually over one thousand people joined the call. They were prepared for the onslaught of eager volunteer leaders. They’d already been using a conference call product called Maestro via InterOccupy, the online hub where the Occupy movement shifted to collaborate and organize after Zuccotti Park. The call was no navel-gazing hippy confab. There was an introduction. A seasoned facilitator from Occupy who goes by the name Jack Rabbit led a discussion about why everyone had come together and why specifically they were supporting Bernie. Winnie and Charles explained how people could get to work, and then the invitation was issued: If you’re interested in organizing social media groups by constituency, press 1 on your phone. About a hundred of those who pressed 1 ended up in a private conference call “room” with Winnie. What happened next was the kind of thing that no official campaign ever could have done with its messaging—but it parallels our initiatives of building volunteer teams to run vital infrastructure. Winnie started with ten constituency communities she had set up on Facebook: Asian Americans for Bernie, Jews for Bernie, Vets for Bernie, and so on. Then she explained what the process would be for “handing over the keys” to these pages on Facebook and asked people who were interested in being administrators to email her directly and let her know what constituency group they could help lead….1552The People for Bernie truly inspired us to stretch even beyond what we’d done in the campaign to give away the passwords and put the people in charge of defining the campaign’s messages, personalizing it across all communities, and building a powerful alternative to (though not a replacement for) the mainstream media.1601If 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.1606We talked with them at length about two rules: “Get on the phone!” and “Barnstorm!” Both of these rules are about engaging volunteers and putting them to work.1613I told him that I understood how scary it was to put your brand in the hands of volunteers because we were also hyper sensitive about our brand at CREDO, especially because we were a company with a product the revenue from which supported our social change work.1618I 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 were going to get this ugly system up in three days. There would be problems, but we already were having problems. Volunteers had been complaining about how few voters they were talking to for the hours they were putting in at the phones. And again, building out custom software on top of the dialer was also guaranteed to come with problems—just problems closer to the election! If we were going to demonstrate that this could be done, people on the team were going to have to be motivated by more than my arbitrary deadline. It was time to eat some of our own dog food. We were going to have a phone bank right in that conference room.1742
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
It was radical on a presidential campaign to simply use the virtual call center software solution marketed largely to debt collectors and not worry about having a slick interface on top with our brand and a unified log-in. We just shared our scripts in Google apps since we couldn’t get them embedded in the software. This turned out to be better than fine, as when our scripts had mistakes in them, volunteers used the comment feature to send us suggested edits. We decided we’d put the dialer out there before training materials were complete and see if people could figure it out while we caught up with the necessary documentation. In the end we did come up with a one-page guide and we held optional webinars, but as it turned out, people didn’t need nearly as much hand-holding as we thought. We launched in three days with something messy instead of waiting to launch something pretty with more features and a complete training package a month later. This rule is even more important for smaller organizations and volunteer-led movements that want to be big than it was for a well-resourced presidential campaign. 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.1812Revolutionary teams need to be hard-driving, results-oriented, nimble, respectful, and adaptive to constant change. Members of a team need to appreciate uncomfortable questions, welcome new strategies, and align quickly and move to implementation when a direction is set. We’re in this to win. But we’re also in this together. At the end of the day, you want to be able to love the other people who are on your team. To make this more likely, you need to learn the basics of good management. Early in my time on the Bernie distributed organizing team I drafted a document for the team about “how we want to be,” offering guidelines for creating an environment that encouraged good management. Here is a version of those principles. They are written specifically for people working on elections, but they could be adapted for any campaign or movement. We will be outcome-focused. Process is important, but we care most about outcomes. That means decisions are based on outcomes, not on personal concerns. We don’t take things personally. We don’t make things personal. We trust in the team to set the best course possible, and we all work in whatever way we’re asked to by leadership in order to achieve our goals. We will respect and learn from volunteers. On our team, we make our impact through the massive amounts of work that volunteers are willing to do. All of our systems must be optimized for helping volunteers make the biggest possible impact. There are three ways that volunteers can make the biggest impact: (1) going door to door talking to voters; (2) talking to targeted voters on the phone; and (3) helping the campaign increase the number of volunteers engaged in (1) and (2). Some of the most productive volunteers can also be the most annoying at times. We will love and attend to the annoying ones, even when we don’t want to. That said, if annoyance turns into real disruption and diminishes our capacity or other volunteers’ capacity to produce voter contacts, we’ll do what it takes to change the behavior of or fire disruptive volunteers. We will practice “high input, low democracy” as a team. Our team needs everyone at every level to bring suggestions to the table for making our work better. That means improving our volunteer engagement, bettering tool performance, and exceeding our voter contact goals. We won’t win if everyone doesn’t contribute the best ideas, offer constructive criticism when appropriate, engage in problem solving, and help anticipate future problems as we scale. That said, it’s up to project leaders to make decisions and for the rest of the team to align with those decisions. Fast and effective decision making can’t happen by consensus, but it should be informed by all the smart people we have working on the team across various areas of expertise. We will choose speed over perfection. A campaign happens on an accelerated time frame. There is a deadline, and we don’t have the luxury of all the time we need to get things right. We will be more successful in exceeding our goals if we prioritize the fastest solution that is good enough over the perfect solution. That said, there are some errors we should never tolerate. We will embrace productive conflict but not yelling. Because we encourage passionate disagreement to make our organizing better, we need safeguards to ensure this doesn’t escalate from productive to unproductive conflict. We never allow anyone to yell at or raise their voice with a member of our team. This includes team members, staff members in other departments, and even volunteers. Everyone at all levels has a responsibility to pause any interaction where there is yelling or someone perceives that they are being yelled at. If the conversation can be continued at least a half hour later with no yelling, fine. If not, escalate it to a manager. We will not get into email trouble. If there is disagreement in a Slack thread, quickly move to a real-time conversation on the phone or use the hangout feature to communicate face to face. It’s easy for tone or intent…1841
We will eat our own dog food. In order to design the best model for volunteer-voter contact, we need to be participating in our own programs. Everyone on the team should engage regularly in voter contact, using the tools promoted by the distributed organizing team. That can mean volunteering to call other volunteers via the Bernie Dialer tool, volunteering to host or attend phone banks, or following through on any call to action emphasized by the distributed organizing team. This is the best way to understand the volunteer experience and provides valuable feedback to our team. It is also respectful. It shows to the volunteers that we think what we are asking them to do is so valuable that we also make time to do it ourselves. We will take care of ourselves and each other, and take necessary breaks without slowing down the work. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Everybody needs to take necessary breaks (within reason and in coordination, so as not to inconvenience others). While we’re all sacrificing our comfort and health to some degree to work on a campaign, it’s important to remember that we’re more productive soldiers for the revolution when we get a decent amount of sleep, eat regular meals, and get some basic exercise—even if it’s just taking a twenty-minute walk during the day at some point. If you start skipping sleep, skipping meals, and not moving for days on end, your health and your work will both suffer. If you have such an intense workload that you feel like you don’t have time to take care of yourself in a basic way on a continual basis, talk to your manager. We will be grateful for our team. This is an amazing team and a once-in-a-lifetime chance to help elect a president who will truly change things. When we hold each other and ourselves accountable, if we fall short of what this moment requires of us, we will do it with a spirit of forgiveness and generosity. We are grateful for this opportunity and recognize what an honor it is to work with each other and the volunteers to build the political revolution. If you’re a manager of staff or volunteers, you’ll also need to acknowledge that when hiring, you need to do thorough reference checks, especially if you think you know the applicant. You also need to give other people both positive and negative feedback, and ensure that your own time management idiosyncrasies don’t make it hard for others to do their work on time. Being willing to hold people accountable—especially on a campaign, where time and money are precious resources—is essential.1884We can be tough competitors, highly accountable managers, and still be humane partners in our shared struggle. No matter what your role is, as a staffer or volunteer, seek mentors and other resources to help make you a better manager and a better member of your team. Reading the book Managing to Change the World is one place to start.1913
At every barnstorm and phone bank meeting we attended, we found that the dominant demographic was women who had working class jobs, service jobs, and professional jobs such as health care worker or teacher. Their sincerity and authenticity, their concern for everyone, their down-to-earth professionalism, and their firsthand understanding of the life-or-death stakes of the campaign for millions of Americans helped make Bernie’s movement great. If you’ve got nurses in your revolution, you know at least you’ve got a shot.1960In a successful movement, campaign, or revolution, everything is growing and changing too fast to make detailed long-term plans. Nevertheless, to grow big, processes will have to become more and more complex. Grow complexity by solving practical problems as they arise in conversation with involved leaders.1966The reason we were able to build a working structure successfully in such a short time was that the teams added roles, processes, and other forms of complexity as solutions in response to real problems.1977With virtually all the staffed states coming online at the same time, everything began exploding. It was hectic as hell. There were too many people in the dialer monitors’ Slack channel to manage—and too much monitoring to take care of with a random assortment of whoever showed up. Schedules were needed. Plans. Discipline. And this—the team decided—called for a new role: monitor coordinators! Ceci, Sam, and Kyle invited the “cream of the crop” of the dialer monitors to join the new team. They invited people who had basic leadership instincts and “who weren’t disruptive or weird,” people who were clearly trying to help others. Then—as usual—there was an invitation to a call, a conference call to train for the new role, and invitations to a new Slack channel. And off they went! Everything got more formal at this point. Dialer monitors (DMs) and monitor coordinators (MCs) signed up for scheduled shifts. And with a gradually rotating group of super volunteers, a few staff people—also rotating over time—spent hours and hours on conference calls identifying and solving large and small problems with the system as it grew.2023looking back, it’s easy to see how a few unilateral decisions that were made without hashing out the details on a conference call didn’t solve problems; they created them.2037if this constant improvement isn’t done with consistency, patience, and attention to detail, then it will all fall apart. You need to find the right personalities to drive that process: people who are detail-oriented, tenacious, and willing to stay in the weeds until they get things right. At this point in the campaign, the technologies of the Bernie Dialer and the barnstorm—with all the teams that supported each—were feeding into each other and causing our numbers to spiral out of control. Everyone was burnt out. But they felt that what they were doing could be making a difference in the election, and they saw so many opportunities every day to grow our numbers and to improve the quality of the calls—so they kept on moving, kept on pushing, and kept on making everything better every chance they got.2043many other things—three crucial rules for the dialer. (1) Turn off the pop-up blocker that’s on by default in most browsers. Without this turned off, the dialer wouldn’t work. (2) Say “hello” to the voter right when you hear the beep. And (3) Click on “ready”!2070What we found over and over was that once a team had a clear mission, it would chase that mission fanatically. Because of our rampant barnstorms crisscrossing the country, our numbers of phone-banking parties were exploding. The ESM team’s mission was to talk to every host. At first this was a pipe dream, but they were going for it anyway. I remember talking to Ceci when they were calling only a fraction of hosts whose events were happening the next day. She set a goal to have the steady state be that the team would be calling hosts whose events were scheduled a week out. It took a little while, but she got there. And she got there by adding more and more people to the team and by working out processes that allowed them to do their job efficiently.2078Hannah took the lead in forming the new team. She grew it using exactly the same process all the other teams used: She began by doing the work herself. Then she trained some volunteers. When the team grew to the point of becoming unwieldy, she created roles and gave volunteers responsibility and, with that responsibility, titles. The live chat team soon had live chat volunteers (LCVs) and point of contacts (PCs). I remember meeting some of Hannah’s volunteers at a barnstorm. “I’m a PC!” one said. I was proud that2139Sam Briggs, working closely with Kyle, continuously fine-tuned the dialer, making it massively more efficient per caller. Paul Schaffer, who was on the data team, built an impressive dashboard that monitored every aspect of the program in real time. The final state of the phone-banking machine was awesome. If we had made it to the general election, we would have had the time to scale it to a ridiculous level, while also continuously working to improve call quality. It would have been amazing. With a lot more lead time and a little more resources, our calling operation could have been much larger and massively more effective. This is one of the most important things for the manager of the next insurgent presidential campaign to learn about: Your campaign will have a virtually unlimited pool of volunteers who want to help you win. But it takes several months of painstaking work to build a system that works at scale. When you build it, don’t buy some consultant’s giant plan. Build it with the people and volunteers and technology that are available to you, and build it iteratively in steps by adding complexity only by solving problems as they arise. RULE 15 Only Hire Staff Who Embrace the Rule “The Revolution Will Not Be Staffed” • zack • When you’re lucky enough to staff up, make sure you don’t hire anyone who will undervalue, patronize, or otherwise alienate and drive away volunteer leaders who are doing all the work. And if you find you have hired someone like that, fire them as soon as you can. By late November 2015, we had a very large and growing volunteer infrastructure gearing up to pull off the national phone bank of the century. We were holding thousands of other kinds of events every month and were attempting to build a coherent organizing model that could do more on the ground than just phone bank in the forty-odd later states. All supported by just seven full-time staff. It worked because the staff we had hired embraced the central role of volunteers. Some of them even had started as volunteers. They all understood that volunteers were our colleagues who were going to have to do the majority of the work of the campaign in the later states—not just repetitive work like making calls, but the complex management work of creating the systems to build and drive the phone banking machine and hopefully also all the other operations we had planned.2147
think that part of the reason typical political staffers don’t often work as colleagues alongside volunteers is that the typical progressive staff culture is often close to a monoculture of a very particular subculture. Volunteers in the progressive movement, on the other hand, come from all different cultures and classes. Progressive staff culture, especially in national organizations, tends to be dominated by upper middle class white college graduates—and if that’s not specific enough, they also tend to have assimilated into a specific urban subculture of highly educated, nonreligious people who even share specific similar habits and thinking around everything from food to exercise to child rearing. This is what makes the typical staff retreat for any progressive organization so awkward for someone from2190
Another unusual thing about Becky, which was also true of the staffers she brought on board, was that even though she (like me) had gone off and assimilated into the progressive culture, she never forgot that it is indeed a subculture, and she never stopped treating people outside that culture as though they were, well, people, too. Becky grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, the buckle of the Bible Belt, where she attended church and had a great time with her youth group and at Vacation Bible School, even though she knew on some unconscious level she was going to have to leave and, in fact, did move to San Francisco after she came out in college. Now that I have emigrated to the Bible Belt (from suburban Connecticut!), Becky is one of the few progressives I can never impress with stories of my adopted “exotic” community. The people Becky brought on board all just fit right in—and a big reason why each one of them came on board was that they believed in, and were excited by, the volunteer operation we were building. Sam Briggs came from CREDO SuperPAC and before that MoveOn.org and many other movement jobs. Jon Warnow cofounded 350.org with a bunch of his classmates and their college professor, Bill McKibben, and had spent his entire career in politics empowering volunteers.2196
Lilia Villa was a techie consultant and climate activist who shut down her own business and postponed her wedding to jump on the trail for Bernie. In the past she’d done a lot of relevant jobs, including training and technical customer support for a low-cost software platform that small community groups and down-ballot candidates use to run their campaigns. Will Easton was an email expert, but he came from CREDO Mobile where he had to be extremely customer-focused including jumping in to take sales calls. Daniel Souweine, a cofounder of Citizen Engagement Lab, was probably the furthest from the grassroots, but he was an excellent manager and Becky knew he would take on any task, adjust to any approach if it meant getting Bernie elected. And finally there was Zack Malitz, who cut his teeth in the early days of the antifracking movement (when it was practically all volunteer) and who had been working for Becky closely for three years at CREDO before jumping to the Bernie campaign shortly after she did.2208
the interns and the new staffers we hired never stopped bringing more and more volunteers into the fold. They never stopped seeing their jobs as unleashing the thousands of volunteers who wanted to do whatever they could to elect Bernie. In fact, those who had been volunteers before they joined the campaign felt an especially acute sense of urgency to give volunteers what they needed to get to work. This flowed from their own experience on the ground of being frustrated by the lack of direction that dominated before we got the dialer running, and from the endemic lack of literature, schwag, funds for renting event venues, and other resources local volunteer groups really needed. When you get down to it, the heart of this rule is Rule 3—the revolution will not be staffed—but we still have to acknowledge that most movements need some people to be paid at some point. To achieve a certain scale, a nucleus of full-time, “locked-in” people are required, which usually means you have to hire some of them. When that happens, you want to make sure they don’t kill the volunteer momentum that their role is meant to help grow. At its peak, the calling, texting, and other programs of the Bernie campaign were powered by probably hundreds of people who were putting in full-time or near full-time volunteer hours, many of whom played critical management roles in their organizations within the campaign. But the rule that “the revolution will not be staffed” isn’t a purist command. It’s a description of the reality of revolutionary movements.2233
we threw out formal trainings and built a whole lot of informal training resources into our program. Our biggest breakthrough was when Ceci Hall started knocking herself out doing three or four webinar trainings with potential phone bankers each day2295
Soon, Ceci had trained several thousand phone bankers on these webinars. Then we recorded one of the webinars and posted it online and that helped thousands more. People learn differently now than they did a decade ago. They are used to figuring things out themselves through a little online research or by watching amateur videos on YouTube. In the Bernie campaign, we learned that people who are really ready to get to work can self-train online and then simply ask questions in Slack or on a live chat or get support from volunteer peers. From our experience, we knew that a lot of people who come to in-person trainings never actually get to work; our new approach was far more efficient.2297
The Revolution Is Not Just Bottom Up; It’s Peer to Peer • becky • The best movements invite great leaders from the base into a structure where all leaders work together as peers to reach their full potential and win. Your base contains many talented and experienced people; treating them as peers is the best way to attract them into leadership; working with them as you would with paid colleagues is the best way to keep them in leadership while bringing out the best in them.2330
We know from behavioral political science experiments that contacts with voters are powerful to the extent that they are personal. This means a person-to-person conversation has the highest impact and an impersonal broadcast ad or broadcast robocall ranks among the least-effective tactics for mobilizing voters.2344
how volunteers and staff worked in a network rather than in a pyramidal hierarchy.2353
There were two things I loved about this request. First, the best experiments to run are those that probably won’t work, but if they do work, they represent not just a small incremental improvement but a breakthrough for growth. This was all that, plus it would be quick to test and analyze the results so we could start building a national program around it if it was successful.2370
Most of the people coming had life experiences that would allow them to perform duties on the campaign and connect with others in more powerful ways than any of the paid staffers. It wasn’t Texas Zack’s job to be the manager of the volunteers, or to put them on a pedestal in a vague and abstract way as the people who made this all possible. His job was to empower them as fellow leaders in the movement, which meant trusting them to do valuable work, providing them with strategy and resources, and then asking them to do a lot in return and holding them accountable to do it. This is a crucial principle. We were all building this movement together, and for the movement to truly work and grow as big as we needed it to be, staff and the volunteer leaders, who it’s important to note vastly outnumbered staff, would necessarily be peers in a network, not task rabbits to be managed.2398
Together we went through the detailed guide on how to run a barnstorm, including the script. We explained how each part of the agenda had been developed, why it was important, and how following the format of the meeting exactly was key to its success. We explained the best ways to find a venue (start with community rooms at libraries, try local union halls, and so on). Everyone was worried about “the ask.” What if no one stood up when they asked who could be a hero and become the person who hosts the recurring local voter contact events we needed them to establish? Texas Zack explained that we always worried about that part, too, and that the beauty of it was that they weren’t asking people to do anything they hadn’t already done themselves. What happened next was astonishing. Though I don’t know why it should have been. Texas Zack had a list of a few dozen cities from Abilene to Nacogdoches. He asked everyone to sign up for at least two cities and commit to doing barnstorms in those cities within the next two weeks. They would have to do everything and cover their own expenses. All the campaign would do was to invite people from the email list to attend. And he said that they could stay connected to each other and to Texas Zack to help each other through the process. They all went over to the signup sheet and started divvying up the cities until nearly every city on the list was taken. It was the best birthday present I could have imagined. Out of the sixteen people who attended the meeting that night fifteen led barnstorms. That’s a response rate of 94 percent. What’s more, when Texas Zack compared subsequent volunteer shifts completed as a result of those volunteer-led barnstorms with barnstorms led by paid staffers on the Texas team, outcomes were virtually identical. His hunch had been right. There was very little difference between the paid staff and the super volunteers when it came down to organizing the people into voter contact. We were truly building this movement together. Texas Zack would soon be promoted to the national team, where he rolled out the volunteer barnstorm hosting model countrywide. He started by inviting phone bank hosts to livestream trainings, and soon we had hundreds of these meetings happening all over the country. Eventually, with a huge lift from Alexandra Rojas, one of the interns from Orange Coast College, who was promoted to digital field manager, and Mary Nishimuta, a volunteer management consultant from Frankfort, Kentucky, the campaign held one thousand barnstorm meetings. Incredibly, 650 of them were led by volunteers. None of this would have happened if Texas Zack didn’t engage in every task with the assumption that the volunteers he was working with were his peers, coleaders in this movement that we were building together. The barnstorm was a perfect storm of the peer-to-peer style of networked organizing. It became a center of our distributed organizing strategy on the Bernie campaign because it accomplished three things. First, it was how we scaled our ability to connect individual volunteers with individual voters by creating phone banks, and in some case setting up canvasses or recruiting people for our peer-to-peer texting program. Second, it was about connecting volunteers to each other so they could work in teams, share advice, and practice solidarity. Finally, as we empowered volunteers to grow the program by running and not just attending the barnstorms, it was how we demonstrated the relationship of staff to key volunteer leaders as peers. RULE 18 Repeat “Rinse and Repeat” • zack • Mass movements can move mountains if you give each person a shovel. If you give your base some effective tactics that they can “rinse and repeat” to make progress on a strategic plan, then your movement will be very effective. But to make a revolution, you also need to discover a rinse-and-repeatable way to grow. For2419
they did not take off. In hindsight, I see that regardless of the difficulty in doing so, I should have found some easily repeatable tasks to put people on to start with.2461
I remember when she said on one of her first days, “We just need to figure out how to get the ‘rinse and repeat’ cycle going with the volunteers,”2463
The phrase is apt because what you’re looking for as a leader in organizing is something that your staff and volunteers can easily do over and over, as many times as they have the energy2474
Here’s what makes getting to rinse and repeat so hard: It takes non–rinse and repeat work to set up a rinse and repeat process.2479
To get phone banking up and running at scale, we had to figure out how to effectively recruit hosts, then get RSVPs for the events that went up on the map, and all the while hash out implementation of hundreds of other details like optimizing the dialer software, writing guides, making training videos, and so much more. But once all that was done, volunteers were soon on their way to making millions of calls, the rinse and repeat cycle. Rinse and repeat has always been at the center of organizing, and it is a central staple of small organizing.2480
I failed to start by rolling out a rinse and repeat activity that would build our movement—something that everyone could do wherever they were. Becky’s insistence that we start with simple phone banking—because there is no growth without rinse and repeat—changed everything for us. Thanks to one layer of rinse and repeat, we had a linear growth pattern.2486
We needed to add another growth process. But growth processes rely on rinse and repeat. So we needed another layer of rinse and repeat on top of the one we already had. We needed to find something that would radically increase the volume of phone banking, and then do that over and over. That, of course, was the barnstorm.2491
Becky led the effort to package the barnstorm into something that all of our staff could spearhead on their own across the country. It helped to get us all together to watch barnstorms in person, first in Seattle, then in New York where we did nine events in one weekend. We began doing a second fifteen-minute “stand up” meeting at the end of our team call each morning for anyone involved in barnstorms, where we’d talk about new tactics that were working. Here again, it took a lot of non–rinse and repeat work to turn the barnstorm into a rinse and repeat activity for our staff. We had to set up all sorts of volunteer teams and new tech tools to support staff in getting around the country, booking venues, and so on. Meanwhile, we also had to keep up with and support the explosion of organizing events that was coming out of the barnstorms. Only after we got a linear growth path going with a simple rinse and repeat process—one that practically anyone could participate in—was it possible to set up a higher-level rinse and repeat cycle with barnstorms that would repeatedly bump up the growth curve. But with a limited number of staff who could do barnstorms, we had not actually switched into permanent exponential growth—the kind of growth we needed to build a voter contact machine that could actually talk to every voter in all the Super Tuesday states to knock down our opponent’s big-money “firewall.”2494
We realized eventually that we probably could have held a barnstorm every week in any city, transforming what we had treated before as a one-time event into a routine, rinse and repeat volunteer-intake session. But who could hold these? The first volunteer-led barnstorm was a renegade event held by Nina Sherwood in Stamford, Connecticut. After she attended our Brooklyn event (the one with Eddie Kay that we described in “Rule 16: Best Practices Become Worst Practices”) she said, “This is amazing. We want to do these all over Connecticut.”2511
When a tactic works, stick with it. Your people get better at it, you refine your processes, and you have the potential for growth.2531
Look for rinse and repeat activities that will grow your campaign. Then look for additional rinse and repeat processes that will expand the number of people doing the work. Good luck! RULE 19 There’s No Such Thing as a Single-Issue Revolution • becky • The revolution is about everything. The people live in communities affected by all the issues, and all of our struggles are connected. That’s why there can be no single-issue revolution. What’s more, it’s going to take all of us, each motivated by the issues that directly affect us, working together to build the revolution.2533
You can’t build a mass movement around a single policy goal. Amazingly, this is almost universally understood by people under twenty-five years of age. Meanwhile, people who work in Washington, DC, or in the nonprofit industrial complex tend to use the word “intersectional” a lot, but when it comes to putting time and resources behind other people’s struggles, they don’t follow through for the most part. Even if they buy into the concept in practice, they tend to suffer from the tyranny of DC’s absurdly low expectations for what is possible.2543
Cesar explained to me that too often campaigns going after the Latino vote thought the only thing they had to talk to Latino audiences about was immigration policy. But in reality, a lot of the families he talked with on the campaign trail cared most about universal health care and free public college. They were also concerned about climate change. Yes, they cared deeply about immigration reform, but Latino families shouldn’t be treated as single-issue voters. They were facing the same challenges as the majority of Americans, and of course, all of our struggles are connected. I heard the same thing from students. Hannah Fertig was a cofounder of Buffs for Bernie, a student group at the University of Colorado Boulder. I met her at a giant barnstorm rally in Denver. She gave me a button with the group’s logo—an illustration of Bernie Sanders riding a unicorn with rainbow lasers shooting out of his fingertips. Incredibly, Hannah had come to the Denver barnstorm because she wanted to be extra prepared for the barnstorm we would be doing the very next night in Boulder that she was not only excited to attend but was helping to plan. Hannah was eventually hired onto the campaign first as an intern and then promoted as a staffer.2558
“When we ask students why they want Bernie to be president, they talk about climate change, followed by money in politics, then racial justice. Making public colleges and universities tuition-free is probably fourth on the list.”2570
Bernie ran on an idea: Power is concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite, and ordinary people have to struggle to take back their government. That struggle is what he called the political revolution. He proposed changes the country desperately needs, and he was honest that he would need a movement of millions of people to be with him to make that change possible.2573
We won’t be able to move closer to full employment in the United States without a commitment to moving to 100 percent renewable energy in a short period of time. The elites are doing better than ever. But the vast majority of people in the United States are losing ground and they are hurting. The reasons are interconnected. The solutions are interconnected, too. The movement that wins the solutions will necessarily be big and it will have to include everybody.2580
Counterrevolutionaries are almost always devotees of small organizing, while revolutionaries practice big organizing. Take note of the counterrevolutionaries when they reveal themselves. They’re definitely not allies, and sometimes they even become enemies in a particular political fight. But don’t forget to also take note of who is willing to join you not just in speaking up for big change but in fighting for it. If you’re aware of the counterrevolution, it won’t take you by surprise. Get ready for it. You can still be friends with people in the counterrevolution. But don’t let them distract or dissuade you from the work of making real, big, and lasting change. RULE 21 Put Consumer Software at the Center • becky • Consumer software on our computers and mobile devices has transformed how people organize their lives and their interactions with each other, and it is the new expanded terrain on which organizing succeeds or fails. Used well, free and inexpensive tools that are available to everyone can remove friction and enable teams to work across time and distance toward shared goals. A pinch of custom code can bridge whatever critical gaps emerge.2634
For the custom-coding piece, we were lucky enough to get to work with a developer who cared as much about organizing as he did about code. Saikat Chakrabarti was a very early employee on the product team of the giant tech company Stripe, which was founded in 2010 and annually processes billions of dollars of payments online and via mobile apps. Saikat was inspired by Bernie’s message, and he wanted to figure out how he could use his skills as a developer to help Bernie get elected. There happened to be a guy who was known to be pretty connected in Democratic circles on the product-engineering team at Stripe. Zack and I knew Ben Rahn through ActBlue, an organization that’s processed more than a billion dollars in small political donations. Ben had dropped out of a doctoral program in theoretical physics to cofound ActBlue with Matt DeBergalis, a computer science graduate of MIT he had met at computer camp in high school. Ben introduced Saikat to Zack, who recruited him to join the Bernie campaign as the director of organizing technology. Saikat wasn’t just a coder on the Bernie campaign. He was a hybrid developer/organizer who brought trenchant thinking about systems to our human as well as our computer assisted processes. He was very soft-spoken, but when he said something, people listened because it was usually something essential that no one had thought of or a unique synthesis of completely logical approaches that, as soon as he said it, the rest of us thought—why didn’t I think of that? Saikat always sought to build the minimally viable product that our volunteers needed rather than the cool tool a software guy might have fun developing. That was the impetus behind his highest-impact project, which he called Ground Control. Ground Control was a snappy user interface that allowed our volunteer teams to do everything and anything we wanted them to do with events without logging in to the campaign CRM. This included, crucially, reviewing, editing, and approving events; creating events and RSVPing attendees from barnstorm sign-in sheets; and mirroring the famous “calendar” from the barnstorm in order to allow creation of multiple events with just a few clicks. It also included an automated way for event hosts to make phone calls and send personal emails to Bernie supporters who lived near their events. It was game changing. This may sound overly dramatic, but without Saikat’s app, we wouldn’t have been able to scale our distributed2692
low-cost products like Maestro that allow call organizers to segment a mass call into multiple small “rooms”—for example, breaking out by state—that call attendees can self-select by dialing a corresponding number when prompted, and then to join them back into the mass call at a time decided by the organizer. Forums like Facebook and Reddit allow volunteers to self-organize in communities that paid staff can contribute to but that persist from campaign to campaign. Facebook provides better recruiting and RSVP tools than any commonly used email and web platform operated by progressive groups—and at no cost. The list of technology goes on and the relevance of the platforms we used will fade quickly. We don’t expect it will be helpful for readers to try and replicate exactly what we did. Instead, we wanted to demonstrate how this is a rule that social change groups can adopt to work collaboratively, cheaply, and powerfully when there are volunteers waiting to be asked to do the hard work of making change. RULE 22 People New to Politics Make the Best Revolutionaries • zack • In an exciting, growing movement, most people will probably be totally new to politics. Don’t weight these enthusiastic leaders down with the old baggage of past movements. If we’re not winning with the leaders we have now, why not embrace more and newer leaders?2806
Too often, organizations and institutions created in the movement live on past their moment in the movement. As they continue on, many passionate people who were a huge part of getting things done go back to their daily lives—and the people who are left are those who enjoy meeting and talking but not necessarily doing effective work. And this is okay because the movement died and there isn’t much work to do anymore anyway!2831
If the fossilized institutions leftover from past movements are allowed to play a key role in the new movement, then the new people will face all kinds of resistance as they enthusiastically try to get to work. We’ve watched this happen many times over the years. It’s tragic, because the new people look up to the people with roles in movement-associated institutions. They expect guidance. These new folks often have highly developed leadership qualities from their lived experience, where they are playing rich roles in their communities and forging meaningful careers that require a lot of skill. Oftentimes they are better prepared for leadership than the people they look to to set an agenda and put them to work for real change. People who are new to politics don’t bring all the baggage of the old ways things were done. Some new people bring with them so many talents and so much experience to solving problems that your campaign couldn’t afford to retain them full time. And we need these people’s talent and experience! Welcoming new people is especially crucial when we’re in a revolutionary or movement moment. Professionals tend to hone their skills in and tailor their plans toward fights for incremental change—they tend to practice small organizing. What works in small organizing doesn’t meet the movement moment. If people running things haven’t demonstrated that they can win big meaningful change, why wouldn’t we want to open up leadership to give more meaningful roles to people who aren’t part of the broken system we find ourselves trapped in? Where the greatest power lies is when there is a hybrid team of both people new to politics and professionals who are true believers, and they work side by side as peers.2836
In every new, energetic, and growing movement we’ve ever participated in, the most enthusiastic and creative people have been the ones with no experience. These people often asked us for advice and asked when “the campaign” would provide the expertise they lacked. We spent a lot of our time answering that they should stop waiting for someone to bring what they lacked, because when it came to being great organizers of their community, they were far ahead of where many of the old timers and pros were.2851
At first, she was hesitant and deferential, but as we kept agreeing with her about her assessments, she became bolder. “Are we sure that all of these people are really fighting for the same thing as we are?” she said. “Or is it just a job for them?”2862
In those two weeks, one question would come up over and over. Volunteers would say: We volunteers are running this office ourselves. We’re making thousands of calls each day out of this one office. We are ready to run canvasses. We’re ready to do anything. Why did the campaign wait until now to give us these resources when we could have been doing this for the past year? I didn’t have a good answer for them. But their question is clearly a statement about what needs to be different next time. Trust the people, especially the new people, with resources and know that they want nothing more than to execute a campaign’s smart plan to win.2890
we know that the distributed organizing program barely scratched the surface of what Bernie’s supporters were capable of achieving. One of our greatest failures was that we were not able to win enough trust from the campaign leadership and traditional field organization for the idea of volunteer-led organizing. We failed to secure key resources and authorizations that would have allowed us to build a massive and effectively targeted campaign. That would have included rolling out VAN, the campaign voter database, to all fifty states as early as July of 2015 and giving volunteers the ability to organize their own states well before paid staff would ever land on the ground there. We also could have allowed volunteers to crowdfund and open their own offices. And we could have developed a base of volunteer leaders who then could have formed the core of paid staff when the campaign was ready to start hiring in the later states. The problem of scaling volunteer-led field programs and integrating volunteers with traditional paid field staff is one that we are confident will be solved. First, the Bernie campaign showed us what was possible and pioneered new ways of mass organizing to make it easier for the next insurgent candidate willing to run on a big message with big organizing behind it.2913