Volunteers can be an excellent source of free manpower for your campaign.  They will make up the bulk of the campaign organization for many smaller campaigns, and can provide services both big (setting up events and gathering signatures on your nominating petitions) and small (stuffing envelopes and answering phones).

When planning your volunteer operation, take it seriously.  Far too many campaigns are flip about volunteers (“Oh yeah, we’ll find something for them to do.”)  Disorganized volunteer operations can be a huge headache for campaigns – often, it’s better not to utilize volunteers than to run a shoddy volunteer program.

Remember, anyone who volunteers for your campaign should be made to feel like they are part of the “team.”  People who have a good experience with your campaign will want to go and tell their family and friends (read: other voters!) about it.  I’ve often overheard volunteers from campaigns I’ve consulted with telling their friends, “Oh, yeah, I’m helping run Jim Smith’s campaign.”  That may be a big overstatement (often, that volunteer just got done a shift stuffing envelopes), but it shows just how involved (and supportive) volunteers can be when they feel like they are part of your campaign team.

Finding Great Volunteers

Be on the look out for great volunteers (volunteer superstars).  There are tons of places to look for volunteers to aid your efforts, including:

  • Your local party organization
  • Colleges and universities
  • Your campaign database (your supporters file)
  • Local issues groups, unions, partisan clubs and organizations
  • People who volunteered for other campaigns (ask friendly past candidates for help with getting their volunteers to volunteer for your campaign)

Your campaign staff and supporters should keep their antennae up – be prepared with a volunteer sign-up form every where you go.  Many times, people will say, “I’d love to get involved!”  When they do, you can say, “Great! Here’s a sign-up form.  Can you fill it out?  I’ll take it with me and someone will call you tomorrow.”

Get people involved right away, and keep them involved.  Remember, busy volunteers are happy volunteers.  Bored volunteers go work for the opposition.  Be sure to offer your volunteers training before asking them to get to work.  Many people want to help, but have never worked on a campaign before.  To learn how to train your volunteers for success, read How to Train Your Political Volunteers.

Using “Super Volunteers”

Your campaign should also keep a sharp eye out for what I call “super volunteers.”  These are competent volunteers who have lots of time to donate to the campaign.  They may be college students on summer break, retired persons, stay-at-home moms whose kids are all in school, etc.

If you can find people who want to volunteer, are competent and committed, and have lots of free time available to work, you may be able to assign them “real” jobs in the campaign.  For example, I’ve seen campaigns that use super volunteers as front desk receptionists, event coordinators, candidate drivers and even press secretaries!  (If using a volunteer for a position like press secretary be sure they are qualified).

Successfully Managing Volunteer Activity

Keep your volunteers busy, or else they’ll get bored and go elsewhere.

Managing people who aren’t getting paid for their work is always tricky.  You have to be firm enough to get people to do what you ask, yet gentle enough to make sure your volunteers don’t walk right out the door.  Finding the right balance takes patience, understanding, and practice.

In order to effectively manage your volunteers:

Keep Them Busy – Idle hands make volunteers go nuts. People are there to help – don’t have them come to HQ and then have nothing for them to do.  Keep volunteers busy.  Make up work for them if you have to.

Use ‘Em or Lose ‘Em – Closely related to”keep them busy.” If someone signs-up to volunteer, find something for them to do.  If you don’t, they’ll eventually get mad and tell their friends that the campaign doesn’t want their help.  When you run out of real work for them to do, give your volunteers busy work.  Ask them to make phone calls to registered voters from a list you provide using a script you provide, teach them how to go door to door, or hold a sign-waving campaign.

Don’t be Afraid to Say No – Volunteers will come to you with lots of ideas. Some will be good.  Many will be bad.  Don’t be afraid to say no to the ones you don’t want to use.   Many candidates are in the habit of saying, “that’s a great idea, we’d love to do that” and then hoping that the volunteer forgets.  He doesn’t.  He just gets mad.  If you’re not going to use one of the volunteers’ ideas, just say, “Wow, that’s a really interesting idea.  I know the campaign doesn’t have the money / time / ability to implement it this time around though… but keep up the good work!”

Track, Track, Track – Keep track of what your volunteers are doing. Constantly monitor quality.

Thank, Thank, Thank – Volunteers are working for free – thank them! Buy pizza for the group, send thank you notes in the mail, invite volunteers to campaign events…

Reward, Reward, Reward – Reward great work with accolades and increased responsibility.

Volunteers can be an amazing resource for your campaign.  Spend time early on in your election effort to recruit and train strong volunteers so you will be able to utilize them effectively throughout your election.