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I first stumbled upon the wonderful world of improv in high school, when “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” was all the rage, Myspace and AIM had just been replaced with the endless feed of Facebook, and a fun afternoon meant aimlessly walking around the Glendale Galleria with a slurpee in hand.
It was the middle of freshman year when “Comedy Sportz,” an improv program that encourages friendly competition, arrived at Glendale High and changed the way my brain worked forever.
Improv meant I could be anyone, anywhere, doing anything. We’d create entire worlds in mere minutes, and then just like that, they were gone. Mistakes were seen as gifts. Scene partners quickly became great friends. I didn’t know it at the time, but we were doing so much more than playing pretend and making people laugh—we were developing a skill set that would be invaluable in countless areas of our lives for years to come.
I was fourteen then, and now, over a decade later, I’ve had the incredible opportunity to rediscover just how powerful improv can be for building and strengthening a community—and perhaps this is why when I arrived at NationBuilder, the work our customers do resonated so deeply with me.
With that said, here are my five takeaways from the land of making things up to help you strengthen your organizing efforts:
Keep an open mind.
Improv is all about creating a shared reality and telling the story of that reality. And to do that, improvisers accept the information that their scene partner introduces—no matter how wacky it may be. But not only that, they also add information to keep the scene moving forward. This is the basic principle of “Yes, and.” For example:
Janet: “Wow, it really is hot out here today.”
Sarah: “Yeah, it’s the hottest day in Austin we’ve had yet.”
Sarah not only accepts that, yes, it is hot—she adds on that they’re in Austin.
On the flip side, a big improv no-no is blocking or denying information. If information gets denied, a scene will quickly lose momentum and likely end up at a standstill.
Similarly, keeping an open mind to input when organizing is essential to bringing your supporters closer together, and strengthening their commitment to your cause by building trust and inclusivity.
For example, if you have an upcoming fundraising event, you may have volunteers who have helped at previous events that want to chime in with some suggestions. This is a great time to try on your “Yes, and” hat—stay open, listen, and think about how you can help build on the ideas your community members are proposing. By fostering an environment of collaboration, you’re also laying the groundwork for new, innovative ideas to surface, while giving your community members a voice. This will make it more likely that they’ll stick around, take on more responsibility, and even recommend others to join the community.
Distributing leadership in this way is made easier by a digital infrastructure, which enables you to keep track of your most engaged supporters, open up a conversation with them asking for feedback, and in the long-term, continue to grow their engagement with your cause.
Be prepared for what you can’t predict.
Beyond its positive impact on inclusivity and collaboration, “Yes, and” is a tool for preparedness—because the very thing that defines improv is that you never know what’s going to happen next. So, whether an improviser’s scene partner reveals they’re an invisible chicken entering in a beauty pageant, or an audience member suggests that the location for the scene be an underwater theme park from the future—an improviser is always prepared, because they’ve got the “Yes, and” card right in their back pocket.
The realm of organizing isn’t a predictable place either. Whether you had ten volunteers drop out on their commitment at the last minute, or a major donor let you know they had to cut down on their contributions—surprises lurk around every corner. Once again, this is an opportunity to put on that “Yes, and” hat, take a moment to accept the new reality you’re in as a result, then think about what you can do to keep things moving forward.
Whatever you do, don’t panic. If you’re armed with a searchable database of all your supporters, you’re set. Rather than looking for scraps of paper where you jotted down the names of those volunteers that helped out at the last event, or searching your inbox for the most recent email you sent to a potential donor, you can quickly search your database for the people best suited to help you through the situation–and before you know it, you’ll have a back-up plan in action, and last minute surprises won’t even have you thinking twice.
In fact, they’ll have you thinking: How can I maximize on this? For example, a few years back there was a decision in Australia to put same-sex marriage to an optional vote—not a great indicator for voter turn out. But a group known as Australian Marriage Equality acted fast to organize a powerful GOTV campaign in just a few weeks.
The optional survey was an unpredictable circumstance that could have easily been discouraging, but AME turned it into a major opportunity. How? It's simple: they were prepared. They knew a large portion of the Australian population was in favor of marriage equality, and they had a growing supporter base to prove it. All they had to do was turn to their database of engaged supporters and move them to vote. At the end of the day, they said “Yes, and” to that survey in the best possible way—and in doing so, garnered 7.8 million “Yes” votes in favor of marriage equality.
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Practice active listening.
As an improviser, passive listening is simply not an option because the information your scene partner shares directly affects what you say next. To move the scene forward, you have to listen. What are they saying? How are they saying it? How does that affect your character? How does it affect the reality you’re in together?
The same goes for listening to your supporters. What role do they want to play in your community? Are they interested in becoming a recurring donor? Their feedback should inform the way you move forward in how you communicate with them next. And, chances are higher that they’ll be open to your ask, since the way you’ve framed it shows that you heard their needs and recognized their actions. A little bit of listening can go a long way. That volunteer who dropped in to help with canvassing last week? They may end up leading the entire field operation of your next campaign if you listen hard enough.
With NationBuilder, you can practice your active listening through an activity log that tracks how your supporters are engaging with your cause. So whether they sent you an email two years ago, came to a rally last month, or donated $50 and recruited a friend to volunteer for your next event—you’ll know. But knowing isn’t the important part, what really matters is your ability to use this information in how you engage with your supporters, to show them that their contributions matter, and ultimately strengthen their interest in your cause.
And with all this information at your fingertips, there’s really no excuse not to practice active listening with your supporters. They each have a unique story attached to their involvement with your work—make sure to treat them that way.
Commit with confidence: make strong choices, and then stick with them.
Improvisers make bold choices, because bold choices make for better characters and stories. But whatever decision they make, they have to truly commit to it, otherwise it’ll fall flat.
A character that lets out a high-pitched cackle after every sentence—strong choice. Easy to carry out for a full three-minute scene? Not so much. But with commitment (and no take-backsies), it can turn out to be an incredibly rewarding choice as the scene plays out.
With digital organizing, you’ve already taken the first step toward being innovative with your work. Why stop there? Turn your craziest ideas into reality, and find out what doors those strong choices can open for your cause.
For example, NationBuilder customer Voters Not Politicians, a volunteer-led organization with a mission to put an end to gerrymandering in Michigan (and they did), had the idea to send volunteers print directions on how to create a cardboard costume of one of Michigan’s heavily-gerrymandered districts. The idea was creative and unconventional—the perfect way to highlight the wonky shapes of districts in Michigan and bring attention to the underlying issues that caused them. Voters Not Politicians could have hesitated, doubted that their volunteers would go for it, and scrapped the idea altogether, but they didn’t—they ran with it, and it more than paid off. Volunteers had fun with the costumes, took to the streets, and successfully expanded the community of people who knew about gerrymandering in Michigan. Strong choice, commitment, and well deserved success.
Embrace mistakes, don’t fear them.
Some of the funniest moments in comedy have come out of complete and utter mistakes. But the only way it was possible for the performers to turn their mistakes into gold was by embracing them.
Organizing can be a messy business, with tons of moving parts to keep track of, and even more people. In your efforts to mobilize your supporters, especially if you’re just getting started, you’ll likely run into some mistakes—nobody’s perfect, right?
But whether you mixed up the information on a digital flyer, or you emailed the wrong group of canvassers—don’t spend too much time mulling it over. Instead, think about how the mistake might actually be an opportunity for something you might not have stumbled upon otherwise. Lean into the mess, and see what there is to discover.
And, when you know what’s gone wrong, and which of your supporters were affected (ahem, here’s where that people database comes into play again), then a mistake becomes an opportunity to reach out and connect, and share what you’re doing to improve things moving forward.
The key here is: don’t get paralyzed by mistakes. Know that they might happen, and know that you’re equipped with the digital tools to handle them with grace.
Build strong relationships.
There are three important things every improv scene must establish—a who, what, and where. And the who, meaning who the characters are and their relationship to one another, plays a huge part in how the scene will pan out. Are they long lost twins? A teacher and their disgruntled student? A frantic bride and her soon to be mother-in-law? In order for the scene to develop into something deeper, the performers need to establish this information, and then steer the scene to focus in on that relationship rather than the simple activity they’re involved in (e.g. baking a cake together). The heart of a scene, where the conflict and resolution can take place, lives in the relationship.
And similarly, at the heart of your efforts are your supporters—and you need to establish and maintain personalized relationships with them to ensure that their involvement with your cause can grow into something more. That means diving deep and exploring what stirred their interest in helping your organization. Was it the mission? A personal experience? A friend who’d recommended your org? Exploring these themes with your supporters will not only help you better understand them, but will help you better understand how your messaging is resonating in general.
It might seem like a lot to maintain personalized communications with every single one of your supporters, especially as your efforts scale, but a digital infrastructure like NationBuilder is built to grow with you. With an integrated database, you’ll have all the data on your supporters at your fingertips for when you plan to reach out to them. And, with smart fields, you can easily plug a variety of information about your supporters into each email, automatically making it personalized to that individual’s involvement with your cause.
I feel really fortunate to have found my way back to improv in my adult life, and for the warm, welcoming, and diverse community of individuals I’ve met through it, who put the values I’ve outlined into practice day in and day out, both on stage and off. In fact, the improv school where I've been taking classes was founded on the notion that improv is for everyone, and that what you learn from improv extends far beyond the stage, into every area of life. And naturally, I couldn’t agree more.
So, I encourage you to go out into the world and organize with your “Yes, and” hat on.
Trust me, you’ll never want to take it off.