September 18, 2020
Activism in the Age of COVID-19: a Study

Sister District Volunteers Remain Fired Up For Change

The COVID-19 pandemic has completely upended every aspect of American life. Early on, the situation was changing rapidly, and it felt nearly impossible to predict how our daily lives would change.

At Sister District Action Network, our thoughts quickly turned to how the pandemic would affect our civic lives as well. Would volunteers simply feel too overwhelmed to participate in grassroots activism, or would they stay engaged through this important election year?

We expanded our annual in-depth volunteer survey to include questions that would take the temperature (so to speak!) of Sister District volunteers, and investigate how the pandemic might be affecting their desires or ability to participate in political activism this year.

The results were loud and clear: the Sister District community is more fired up than ever to effect change.

How we ran our COVID-19 volunteer engagement survey

This survey asked active Sister District volunteers to answer questions about their involvement in Sister District, their feelings about the social aspects of Sister District, political issues they find important, and volunteer motivations. It also asked several questions relevant to COVID-19, including questions about mental health, work, and life changes due to the pandemic.

On April 27, 2020, Sister District Action Network (SDAN) generated a list of Sister District volunteers who had opened an email in the last 3 months. This list received an email invitation to participate in the study on May 18, 2020. People who did not participate were sent a reminder email on May 26, 2020. Data collection closed on May 31, 2020. This resulted in a total sample of 754 complete or mostly complete volunteer responses.

Statistics for coronavirus positive test and fatality numbers by county were downloaded on June 23, 2020 from USAfacts.org and fatality rates were calculated by dividing the number of fatalities by the number of positive cases in a county.

What we learned: Major findings and takeaways

  • Volunteers plan to be more involved in 2020 than they were in 2019 or 2018.
  • When looking ahead for the whole 2020 cycle, participants estimated an almost doubled intention to phonebank compared to 2019.
  • Sister District volunteers are even more invested in Sister District than ever before, with higher average social investment scores in 2020 over 2019.
  • Volunteers who expressed more social investment in SDP reported being more involved in SDP in 2019 (i.e., they did more volunteering with SDP; p = < 0.001*). This echoes findings from last year that social factors of SDP were some of the best predictors of involvement in 2018.
  • Interpersonal closeness with other members of one’s team also significantly predicted involvement in 2019 (p < 0.001), replicating findings from last year’s volunteer survey.

Volunteers are worried about coronavirus, but are more motivated than ever to volunteer. Volunteers reported planning to do every single Sister District voter outreach activity at higher rates in 2020 than they did it in 2019 (outreach activities included donating, canvassing, phonebanking, textbanking, sending postcards, generating name recognition for candidates on social media, and attending team meetings).

Key Descriptive Findings

  • Volunteers plan to be more involved in 2020 than they were in 2019 or 2018.
  • When looking ahead for the whole 2020 cycle, participants estimated an almost doubled intention to phonebank compared to 2019.
  • Volunteers have increased their perception of fundraising as one of the best ways Sister District can have the best impact for candidates by a large amount (62.07% chose in top 3 in 2020 compared to 43.32% 2019).
  • Volunteers have increased their perception of phonebanking as one of Sister District’s biggest contributions by a large amount (32.89% chose in top 3 compared to 17.71% in 2019).
  • Self-reported activism scores (an aggregate score of a variety of items focusing on the frequency and personal importance of various aspects of political volunteerism) were lower in the 2020 survey than in the 2019 survey (48.73/63 in 2020 vs 51.25/63 in 2019). Further, respondents reported being less liberal on average in the 2020 survey (1.657/7 in 2020 vs 1.515/7 in 2019). This interesting finding tracks with research on threats of disease making people behave more conservatively.1,2,3,4
  • Volunteers are even more motivated than ever to oust Donald Trump, with 74.54% of volunteers responding that they were motivated to volunteer for Sister District to prevent the damage caused by Donald Trump in 2020, compared to 51.45% in 2019.
  • Social investment scores increased since last year, with people averaging 35.827/50 in 2019 and 36.866/50 in 2020. This indicates that social investment in SDP has increased/deepened slightly among the Sister District volunteer base.

a. How many times did you do the following activities with Sister District in 2019? b) How many times have you/do you plan to do the following activities with Sister District in 2020?
0 = 0 times, 1 = 1 time, 2 = 2-5 times, 3 = 6-10 times, 4 = 11+ times

Activity Average rating 2018 Average rating 2019 Average forecast 2020
Donated 1.656/4 1.744/4 2.037/4
Canvassed 0.359/4 0.285/4 0.468/4
Phone banked 0.719/4 0.759/4 1.158/4
Text banked 0.450/4 0.347/4 1.159/4
Sent postcards 1.727/4 1.609/4 2.196/4
Built name recognition on social media 0.984/4 0.751/4 1.060/4
Attended a team meeting 1.159/4 0.864/4 1.688/4
Average involvement in activities (aggregate of all of these) 7.054/28 7.706/28 10.94/28

Volunteers’ social investment: Key Findings

  • Volunteers who expressed more social investment in SDP reported being more involved in SDP in 2019 (i.e., they did more volunteering with SDP; p = < 0.001*). This echoes findings from last year that social factors of SDP were some of the best predictors of involvement in 2018.
    • Other significant predictors of increased volunteering with SDP (all p < 0.05) included: being on an anchor team (a large, established team with regular activities): liberalism-conservatism (being more liberal was associated with more involvement); and scores on the activism scale (composite of the items in the survey focused on respondent’s political activism with higher scores indicating more activism; people who scored higher were more involved).
    • Interpersonal closeness with other members of one’s team also significantly predicted involvement in 2019 (p < 0.001), replicating findings from last year’s volunteer survey.

Volunteer motivation during COVID-19: Key Findings

  • Overall, volunteers reported being concerned about COVID/coronavirus (average score on COVID-19 concern scale 26.288/35), and that their mental health has been affected by the coronavirus.
    • A large percentage of volunteers (43.37%) reported a decrease in their mental health during the pandemic.
    • As expected, volunteers are concerned about coronavirus, and the pandemic has been accompanied by an increase in negative feelings and a decrease in positive feelings reported compared to the established average for the mood measure used (the PANAS) in non-pandemic times.5
  • However, volunteers seem to be mostly more motivated than ever to volunteer.

Not only do they plan on doing 3+ more volunteer activities in 2020 vs 2019 (10.94 for 2020 vs 7.71 for 2019), they plan on doing every single Sister District outreach activity at higher rates than they did it in 2019 (outreach activities included donating, canvassing, phonebanking, textbanking, sending postcards, generating name recognition for candidates on social media, and attending team meetings)

Limitations of this research

  • This survey only surveyed Sister District Project volunteers. Because of this specialized population, the results should not be generalized to other populations.
  • The fact that this survey was run during a pandemic means that various measures may have been impacted by people’s current moods. This may have made folks more pessimistic, may have shifted the importance they placed on various issues or actions, and further, may have affected their feelings of self-efficacy, etc.
  • This study was conducted prior to the murder of George Floyd and the reinvigorated support for the Black Lives Matter movement, which may have influenced results.
  • Level of involvement in 2020 is both a self-report AND a forecasted measure, which means that it is susceptible to the optimistic bias of intentions to volunteer but people’s actions may not actually bear out these numbers. We did not ask for a forecast of 2020 involvement before the pandemic, so it is impossible to know if this number would have been similarly inflated if we had asked it during a different time.

What does this survey mean? Our conclusions:

We conduct this detailed quantitative and qualitative survey of our volunteer base every year. This year’s study replicated the main findings of our 2019 survey – volunteer’s social investment and interpersonal closeness with teammates remain significant indicators of involvement with Sister District.

In other words, the meaningful relationships that Sister District volunteers build with each other is what keeps them coming back.

We also found that while our volunteers are concerned about and have been affected by COVID-19, they aren’t slowing down. In fact, they are more fired up than they were in 2019 and plan to do more this year than ever.

Download a more detailed report of these findings

SDAN’s commitment: It is SDAN’s intention to provide as much context as possible to allow for the nuanced interpretation of our data. SDAN’s convention is to contextualize effects by reporting p values, confidence intervals, and effect sizes for all models tested (these items may be in the longer report linked in the blog). Additionally, SDAN always differentiates between planned and exploratory analyses and a priori and post hoc tests, and reports the results of all planned analyses regardless of statistical significance. If you have questions about these findings please send us a message and include “SDAN Research” in the subject line.

References:

  1. Prokosch, M. L., Gassen, J., Ackerman, J. M., & Hill, S. E. (2019). Caution in the time of cholera: Pathogen threats decrease risk tolerance. Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, 13(4), 311.
  2. Tybur, J. M., Merriman, L. A., Hooper, A. E. C., McDonald, M. M., & Navarrete, C. D. (2010). Extending the behavioral immune system to political psychology: Are political conservatism and disgust sensitivity really related?. Evolutionary Psychology, 8(4), 147470491000800406.
  3. Thornhill, R., Fincher, C. L., & Aran, D. (2009). Parasites, democratization, and the liberalization of values across contemporary countries. Biological Reviews, 84(1), 113-131.
  4. Inbar, Y., Pizarro, D., Iyer, R., & Haidt, J. (2012). Disgust sensitivity, political conservatism, and voting. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3(5), 537-544.
  5. Watson, D., Clark, L. A., & Tellegen, A. (1988). Development and validation of brief measures of positive and negative affect: the PANAS scales. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54(6), 1063-1070.