How to Recruit a Grassroots Army

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Five clinical case studies to help you recruit, manage and retain your campaign volunteers.  


Democrats routinely field more effective volunteer armies than Republicans, largely due to the help of their allies in organized labor. But Democrats have also had more success building grassroots organizations because they’re often better at communicating with and organizing their base.

Even in the 2010 midterms, when GOP voter enthusiasm was supposed to have been at a 15-year high, campaign staffers across the country were at a loss as to how to get enough unpaid boots on the ground. As the 2012 cycle ramps up, down-ballot candidates—particularly in the early states—face the added challenge of competing for volunteers with half a dozen presidential campaigns.

Some campaign managers may simply throw up their hands and hire paid workers rather than recruit volunteers. But don't put out the call for resumes before spending some real time trying to build a homegrown volunteer effort.   

From my observation, volunteers tend to fall into five distinct categories, which I've developed into five "clinical case studies." Using these in your recruiting process should help identify the right volunteers for your campaign and help you manage and retain them once they're on board.    

1. The loyal foot soldier

Diagnosis: The foot soldier is the Republican version of the Democratic union faithful. These are the tried-and-true volunteers that turn out every election cycle. Their stomping grounds are county GOP meetings, civic organizations (think Rotary, Kiwanis), VFW halls and trade associations. Common varieties include middle-aged local businessmen, grannies who could stuff envelopes with their eyes closed and wiry old veterans with their phone-dialing fingers at the ready. 

Benefits: Good foot soldiers are worth their weight in gold. They’ve been there, done this, so they understand what volunteer duties consist of and won’t get bored or require constant attention. 

Risks: They’ve seen campaigns, and campaign hacks, come and go, and are usually not shy about expressing their opinion of your operation. To retain these volunteers, it’s important to present a competent and professional front. Also, as they trend older, they occasionally resist new technology, so they may need some coaxing to get comfortable with innovations like VoIP phones.

Prescription: Cherish your foot soldiers. Let them do their preferred task, and rest in the knowledge that they will do it well. Use them to train other volunteers in their age range, and reward them with campaign merchandise, they probably collect it.

2. The groupie

Diagnosis: These volunteers are all about your candidate. They either have some personal connection to him or her or, on a larger race, they might just be a big fan. The thrill of being around the candidate, and the idea that they are making a difference for him or her, is the driving force behind their involvement in the campaign.

Benefits: Groupies will literally walk over hot coals for your candidate. You can’t instill that kind of devotion in anyone else, paid or volunteer. As long as these volunteers believe that what they are doing is the best way they can help the candidate, they will do just about anything.

Risks: Because they are so invested in the candidate, often on a personal level, groupies tend to rank relatively high on the high maintenance scale. They can also be fiercely critical if they feel that the campaign is putting their candidate at risk, such as by releasing a negative TV advertisement.

Prescription: You know what they want, so give it to them. These are the ideal volunteers for visibility and crowd building at events, walking in parades and handing out literature at fairs. The caveat here is that these volunteers need to be well trained, or well supervised, so they understand what they are there to do and don’t spend the entire event trying to chat up the candidate. Still, once the event is over, make sure they get rewarded with a personal thank you, and get a photo-op sometime along the campaign trail.


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