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As more and more candidates announce their intentions to run for the 2020 presidential election, it’s easy to get caught up in the unfolding drama of what promises to be a crowded and diverse race. For instance, who could be an inspiring ‘first’ if elected? Who’s raised the most within the first weeks of their announcement? Who are the possible frontrunners, and who among them have yet to announce? Though it’s tempting to watch as a passive observer, if there’s someone whose candidacy has captured your inspiration, now is the time to step up and create something powerful with your support.
Alex Stevens, Sorcha Rochford, and Jay Godfrey are all campaign experts who worked as organizers across the political spectrum before joining the team at NationBuilder, the software platform used by thousands of campaigns around the world. Here are their insights on why your grassroots organizing can be impactful and how you can get started—even if it’s your first time.
Why you should take the initiative
For any one candidate’s campaign to succeed, they’ll need the committed grassroots support of people from all over the country who are willing to corral their own friends and family to organize on the ground—wherever they are, wherever it’s needed, and all the way up until election day. As the last few election cycles have proven, a traditional, broadcast-based campaign that relies predominantly on the national party won’t cut it (at least not on its own).
Let’s start with the people who aren’t officially running yet. The most compelling case you can make to get someone to run is to show them how many people will be in their corner if they do. Some of the most high profile campaigns that have run successfully on NationBuilder started with viral supporter petitions encouraging a candidate to enter the race. In those cases, as soon as the candidate officially announced, they could quickly mobilize the small-dollar fundraising support that’s so critical to amass early on in a campaign.
What you can do that the national campaign can’t
The first priority for the candidate’s national campaign has to be winning early primaries and caucuses in the states where they can. Any resource-strapped campaign (as most are) won’t be able to send field staff to larger, later states until much further along in the race, so the work you do knocking on doors, handing out pamphlets, and creating buzz in your local community will help create the infrastructure of on-the-ground supporters your candidate will surely need down the line.
Moreover, the independent group you create will be able to organize faster, with more agility, and with greater freedom to speak directly to the people around you about what you know matters to them than the official campaign ever will. You can communicate authentically without having to navigate the complex priorities and PR challenges that face large campaigns. When the national campaign team does arrive in your area, they’ll find a groundswell of support that’s stronger for having grown organically, based on the relationships you’ve built.
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Step 1: Find your niche
Do a quick search for groups of supporters for your favorite candidate in your area. If there’s a local group already in operation that speaks to your identity and interests—great! Join them, participate in their next event, and bring your friends. But if not, creating your own group starts with taking inventory of what inspires you most about your candidate in the first place. What moves you as a person to support them? What feels most relevant about that support to your identity and the communities in which you participate? Get those thoughts on paper. Identify the community you’re most meaningfully connected to that opens up a network of people you can organize, and decide where you want them to start—whether it’s signing a petition for your candidate to run or just generally declaring their support.
Step 2: Create your nation
All you need to get up and running is an affordable website you can launch quickly, along with a couple of close friends, family, or confidants who can join you. Though we’re admittedly biased, we recommend starting on NationBuilder, where you can begin a 14-day trial for free and pay as you grow, based on the size of your email database. From there, you can spin up your home page and action pages in minutes using one of many professional-looking templates—just add your messaging and it’ll be ready to share. Whip up a Facebook and Twitter page for your group, start pooling you and your teammates’ contacts, and connect those social media accounts to your nation so you can get a better sense of the database you’re working with. As you’re building your site, customize social media share prompts that will encourage supporters to spread your message to their networks every time they take action.
Step 3: Gather your people
The next page you create on your site should be a calendar, so you can start filling it up with occasions for your group to build community with each other. What are the next three to five events you can plan? Can you build toward a “knock the block” canvassing effort in your neighborhood? Once you’ve aligned on your first event, start putting together your first outreach email to your supporters—put your group in context based on what’s happening in the world and in the campaign, and let your people know what you care most about and why. When you invite them to your event, ask them to commit to bringing friends. Once you’ve assembled your list, send yourself a test blast and fire away. Keep sending reminders as the event date approaches.
Step 4: Keep up the momentum
It’s a long campaign cycle, so get creative in how you can keep driving and harnessing enthusiasm for your candidate. Think of your group as a magnet that should keep drawing people together on a regular basis, and identify who among your supporters can host events like mixers, phone or text banking parties, and debate viewing sessions. Create opportunities for people to self-identify the skills they have and host events they’re uniquely suited for. If someone’s creatively inclined, get them to host a craft night where you can assemble to make your own campaign posters and swag, and get people fired up about what you’ve created together. Set up a fundraising page with its own payment processor to keep gathering small dollar contributions you can share with the larger campaign as they grow. In addition to the infrastructural support you’ll be creating for your candidate, you and your group will be providing valuable support for each other as you work toward your mission.
Step 5: Partner with a larger campaign
As election day looms closer, if your group is thriving and you’re proud of what you’ve built, don’t wait to get in touch with the national campaign to let them know. Share how many volunteers you have, which events you’re hosting, and let them know how and where to find you. It could be that they don’t get back to you or aren’t ready to put you to work yet—that’s ok, because the opportunity will come to help them get out the vote. Or, it could be that the community you’re building has larger designs than the next presidential election. Keep organizing around policies and causes you believe in, and identify national groups working toward the same thing. Make your group part of a grassroots network that can have powerful influence even after the next wave of officials win elections. NationBuilder customer Unite America is a prime example of what it can look like to harness powerful networks to create campaign infrastructure outside the existing two-party system.
Though you can always find ways to chip in, volunteer, and contribute to national campaigns, there’s nothing more valuable than what you can do in person. What you can offer that no one else can is your capacity to build enthusiasm throughout your network, and put your relationships to work toward a shared goal in communities you facilitate. Take every opportunity to do what you can locally, in person, because that’s what will keep the people closest to you engaged in the long run. As the leader of your own grassroots movement, you have the unique ability to create a community that functions less like a sophisticated digital operation, and more like a social club full of like-minded people. Who wouldn’t want to be part of that?
Jay Godfrey is NationBuilder's Sr. Director of Enterprise Customer Success. With a background in field organizing and PAC data management, Jay previously worked for the National Association of Realtors and Romney for President.
Sorcha Rochford is a Sr. Account Manager at NationBuilder, where she works with some of the largest-scale campaigns on the platform. She has developed and managed grassroots organizations for a variety of candidates, ballot initiatives, businesses, and non-profits, and served as a political advisor with the Dewey Square Group on federal, state, and municipal campaigns in New England.
Alex Stevens is a Customer Engagement Manager at NationBuilder who, prior to joining the team, was a co-founder of the grassroots advocacy organization 99Rise, a strategic nonviolence trainer for the Center for the Working Poor, and a veteran of several state Democratic campaigns.