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How-to Guide: Recruit and Retain Strong Volunteers

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How to Recruit and Retain Strong Volunteers:

Table of Contents: 

Introduction

Bonded, organically-growing, diverse teams are best-suited to scaling and sustaining the kind of quality work that makes a real impact on a close race. There is no shortcut to building such teams but there are absolutely best practices, norms, and orientations you can easily adopt to get there. While it takes time, this is what Sister District does best. We grow teams election cycle after election cycle to create lasting Democratic infrastructure, and welcome more people into our progressive organizing community

Recruitment – building capacity for increasing impact – along with authentic face-to-face voter contact is our best tactic to winning campaigns. Continuous improvement in the area of growth is key to avoiding leader burnout and maintaining healthy teams. Try making creativity and effort toward growth visible. Celebrate it. Communicate about and prioritize growth such that it functions in your culture as a source of pride.

Use this guide to learn the best practices to build a team of volunteers and leaders and keep that team happy, engaged, and growing. 

Recruitment

Recruitment Targeting

The first step to recruiting new volunteers is to figure out where to target that outreach. Of course we want anyone and everyone to be involved with Sister District. But we don’t necessarily have time for that. We want to focus our recruitment efforts on groups that we know will be most likely to get involved. Starting with…

Your Friends and Family: The best people you can get involved are the folks that are easiest to reach and you already have a strong relationship with. First, you know they will answer your call — or maybe you see them in person every day! Which can be half the battle of recruiting new volunteers. And you know what they care about. You can craft your recruitment proposition to be tailored to their interests…or you can call in a favor 😉 When you bring a friend, partner, family member with you to volunteer activities, you have just doubled your impact. That’s a big return for a small effort. 

Active Volunteers: The hottest (non-family/friend) volunteer leads are people you have already engaged with this year. These are people who know the importance of our work, want to be involved, and are ready to go. Reshift every single volunteer. 

The best way to grow your team is to have the same folks come back week after week, while you also add new volunteers. Make sure your volunteers are signed up for the next event before they leave. It’s easier to get them shifted when they are right in front of you instead of trying to call, text, or email them later. 

Use the social pressure of the event to get volunteers signed up again. Whether on Zoom or in person, ask your volunteers when you will see them again and if they say “I don’t know,” give them the next meeting time and ask if they can come. As more folks chime in to say they will be there, the community and pressure builds to join again. 

Did they leave before you could shift them again? Use Mobilize event sign-ups and/or Action Network volunteer tags to pull a list of folks recently involved. In Fall 2021, Sister District Organizing Manager Madison pulled a list of everyone that had completed a National Phonebank and wasn’t scheduled for a GOTV shift and recruited them to come back. Reach out to your Organizing Manager to help get your list of most active volunteers. 

Brand New Volunteers: Brand new volunteers find Sister District online and through social media every day. When new volunteers sign up for your team’s list, reach out right away and welcome them to the community! They signed up because they want to be involved, so find the right opportunities for them. It’s important to have a Welcome Wagon role on your team to reach out to new sign-ups.  You’ll introduce yourself, provide them with relevant information, assess their interests, and get them plugged in. Try to get every person that you have this conversation with to commit to attending at least one event.

Inactive Volunteers: Reach back out to folks who have volunteered with you in the past. You already have a personal connection with them and a personal touch can help reignite their motivation. Reach out to your Organizing Department Staffer to get help pulling a list of past volunteers from Action Network and/or Mobilize. 

Methods

There are three main tools we use to recruit new volunteers and grow our teams. The most important element across all three to remember is that consistent communication is key to keeping volunteers informed and engaged. Each touch, from email, text, and phone call, increases a volunteer’s likelihood to get involved. 

Email: Email is a great way to keep your volunteers informed about all the upcoming events and activities your team is hosting. Use weekly newsletters to maintain consistent communication about efforts, and specific “Call to Action” emails to catch volunteers attention and highlight important efforts or special events. Check out the How To Guide: Email Editor for a detailed outline of how to build an effective email program. 

Recruitment Calls: Phone calls are the most effective way to engage and recruit volunteers by personally inviting them to join your team’s activities. Each call helps volunteers know and build relationships with their team leaders, increasing the sense of community, and helping the volunteer know they are individually valued and wanted. This builds a layer of trust and familiarity that lowers the barriers and hesitations to entry. Use the Volunteer Recruitment By Phone Guide to get started setting up your recruitment calling program.

Hustle: Text recruitment can be an easy way to catch the attention of potential volunteers. Use Hustle to invite volunteers to special events like big fundraisers, weekends of action, and important phonebanks. Check out the How to Guide: Text Recruitment with Hustle to learn more about using this system. 

A good recruitment program will include all three of these elements to engage and recruit new volunteers.  But how do we use these methods to make effective recruitment asks? 

Best Practices: Making A Strong Recruitment Ask

To start, what is a “recruitment ask?” A recruitment ask, or just “ask” for short, is how organizers indicate inviting someone to an event, fundraiser, phonebank, or otherwise engaging them in our community. 

There are a few key elements to making a strong recruitment ask to a volunteer. Recruitment asks should be: urgent and specific, personal, and layered. Let’s look at each of these elements: 

Urgent and Specific: 

Volunteers, like all of us, are very busy. Our recruitment asks should include the specific information for when, where, and how volunteers can get involved and emphasize the urgency of why we need their support now. Volunteers’ time is valuable, so we must communicate the importance of taking action now. 

For example: “We are calling voters for Candidate X’s to make sure supporters have a plan to vote next Tuesday. We know this race will be won by reaching every voter we can and making sure they turnout. We’ll be calling over Zoom from 5:00pm-7pm ET this Wednesday, can you join us?”

Personal: 

The best way to develop committed volunteers is by helping each volunteer find their own personal motivation to be involved. Is there an issue they are particularly passionate about? Are they looking to be a part of a community that is fighting for progressive change? 

The reasons we do this work are three-dimensional but our asks are often two-dimensional. I personally like canvassing because I like: 1. being outside, 2. exercising by walking, 3. meeting people, 4. the feeling of pride I get after canvassing knowing I did something to help, 5. that I feel less depressed from the news throughout the week because I know I’m doing something to win, 6. that I feel more a part of a community. “Will you canvass with us on Saturday?” is two-dimensional. As you connect, listen and learn, you can shape your invitations in three-dimensions. Chances are that sharing how doing this has been fun/helpful/valuable for you will help someone see how it can be fun/helpful/valuable for them. Check out this article on “Getting to a person’s why” for some prompting questions to ask to guide these conversations. 

“Share, Don’t Tell”:  Share your own personal stories for why you got involved or how you’ve enjoyed your experiences volunteering so far. There is great beauty and adventure to be found in doing this work. Show others what you’ve found and help them envision what they too can expect to find. For example, in recruiting someone to a phonebank: “I talked to a woman last week who was going to be out of town on Election Day. She forgot to request an absentee ballot so I helped her find an early vote location to vote early in person before she leaves.” 

Layered

Our volunteer asks should be layered in two ways: addressing any hesitancy a volunteer may have and providing secondary, and tertiary options to get involved. 

Often, volunteers won’t say yes to our initial ask. It’s important to ask follow up questions to understand where they are coming from so that we provide the best opportunities to stay involved with our community! There are usually two reasons why volunteers say no to an ask: 1) They have fears or hesitancy about the specific event (often phonebanking or canvassing) 2) They aren’t available at the time we offered. Both have solutions, and we can find what works best for our volunteers. 

Addressing hesitancy: there can be a lot of misinformation and misconceptions about what volunteering for a campaign entails. If we can correct these notions we can open up an opportunity to a volunteer who otherwise thought volunteering was not right for them! Here are a few common fears and how we can disarm them: 

  • “I don’t want to argue with people” – me neither! The campaign doesn’t either! They want to only send us to engage and learn about voters who will likely vote our way.
  • “I’m no expert, I wouldn’t be good” – I’m also not an expert! We will start with a training, you’ll have a script, and most often we’re just gathering important information by asking questions. Also, if we do talk with someone who is undecided or not sure they want to vote, we have the script and LISTEN and speak from the heart – this is more effective than facts and figures anyway.
  • “I’ve called (or canvassed) for a campaign before and didn’t reach many voters, so I didn’t feel like it was effective”: It’s normal for only around 10% of the people we call (or canvass) to answer– and that’s one of the reasons why we need more volunteers so we can reach more voters each time! These elections come down to small margins, especially at the local level, so every single person we speak with is a pivotal vote. And beyond helping turnout supporters when we speak with them, we also help the campaigns by cleaning the lists of bad numbers or moved voters, building name recognition, and being friendly ambassadors of the campaign.  

If the volunteer still isn’t interested in the first ask after addressing these hesitations, then we can layer our asks with other opportunities for them to be involved in our community.  At Sister District, there is a place for everyone.  We call this “making lemonade.”

Always have a primary, secondary, and tertiary ask you can make for volunteers to either attend the next event, donate, write postcards, or help out on the leadership team.

Still getting no’s after all those layered asks? Our final layer is just to get the volunteer information to potentially act on later: “I understand, we’ll have lots of opportunities to get involved in the future, whatever that looks like for you. It looks like you’re on our email list, so please open those emails and keep tabs on what’s happening, maybe you’ll find something that works for you.” 

When volunteers are busy: If volunteers are busy now, or can’t make the date and time we’ve offered, have other options available! Can they join the phonebank or canvass next week? Come to the next event? Donate? Write postcards? Help the leadership team? Use your conversation to find what skills and time commitment they have and where they can best fit into our team.

The last key element of layered asks is asking big! If a volunteer says yes, great! Keep going and see how else they can and want to be involved. We are making these asks to win so don’t be shy: don’t settle for 1 shift when you could have 5.  Ask the volunteer to sign up for a recurring shift each week, see if they are interested in helping lead the event, have them to commit to bringing a friend.  Asking big telegraphs how much they matter, how much work is needed, and sets a tone that desired/expected contribution be commensurate with the importance of this moment.

Volunteer Retention (aka How to Keep People Coming Back)

So you’ve recruited these amazing new volunteers, congratulations! Now, how do you get them to stay involved? There’s an old adage in organizing: “volunteers come for the candidate and stay for the organizer.”  

There are a few key ways to get volunteers to buy-in and keep coming back for more. We’ll get to that. But first, you have to make sure they show up! Between recruiting your volunteers and building community at your events, confirmation calls and texts are an important step to increase actual attendance. 

Confirmation Calls

Confirmation calls remind volunteers of their commitment and help show volunteers they are individually valued and you expect and want their presence at the event.  It is a great way to kick off strong community building and help volunteers feel comfortable joining, especially for their first expereince. 

Confirmation calls, followed by a voicemail and/or text message if they are unavailable to answer the phone, also help answer any last-minute questions, clarify instructions, and potentially settle an uneasiness that can help your event run smoother.  

Use confirm calls to reiterate the location (Zoom or physical address), time and date, what volunteers should bring (if anything), and anything else they can do to prepare. 

If the volunteer can no longer make it, use the opportunity to reshift the volunteer for the next shift they are available. It’s much easier to get them signed up in the moment, than spending the time and energy to reach them again later.

For text reminders, check out the How-to Guide: Text Reminders for more details. 

Training

Once volunteers are in the door, training is an essential element to preparing them for success and welcoming them into the community.

Your training is each volunteer’s first impression of your team and organization. A clear, concise training will reassure the volunteer that their time will be effective and well spent working with us. It is also a critical foundation to avoid any frustrations or misunderstandings down the road. 

We want every volunteer to understand the value they bring to our campaigns when they choose to volunteer. Trainings should outline not only the “what” and “how” of a particular volunteer activity, but why it supports the campaigns.  Drawing that connection between their work and how it directly impacts the election is key to creating happy volunteers. 

Set Expectations and Define Success: Training allows us to outline expectations and define success for our volunteers .  For example, if a volunteer expects to reach every single voter they call and talk to an undecided voter, they are going to be unhappy when only 1 in 10 voters they call pick up. When we outline that a 10% contact rate is normal, and to be expected, they will reframe how their experience should feel. And when we define success as finding wrong numbers, disconnected numbers, moved voters, nonsupporters, increasing name ID, recruiting local volunteers, and being a friendly ambassador for the campaign, they will come out of their volunteer experience feeling much more successful than if they believe that success is only convincing an undecided voter. 

When volunteers feel like their expectations have been met and they have been successful in participating and providing value to the campaign, they are more likely to return because they know their time was well spent! 

Be Patient: Every volunteer comes from a different background and is welcome in our community.  Some volunteers may struggle more with technology like Zoom and phonebank links. Don’t let technology be a barrier to participation! Have someone prepared to provide tech support to volunteers who need a little extra time to learn the system. If you’re using Zoom, consider sending a leader to a breakout room with the volunteer.

View a sample phonebank training slideshow from our 2021 cycle here.  Click “File” and “Make a copy” to create your own and edit with your candidate phonebank and information!

Community Building & Developing Leaders

We know that community building is one of the elements that Sister District does best. We create fun, welcoming, and creative communities bound by a passion for progress and a commitment to make change. There are a few key elements to keeping our communities strong and vibrant: 

Trainers and Greeters: Whether meeting over Zoom or in person, always have someone designated to welcome new and returning volunteers alike. Have an icebreaker question to ask and have volunteers respond in person or in the chat. Allow people a few minutes to share stories and connect before jumping in. For new volunteers, reassure them that you will provide training and answer questions shortly. 

Get Creative! Change up the theme and style of your events to keep volunteers engaged. Have fun and get silly with it and others will too! Sister District New York City had a well attended “Prince”-themed phonebank this summer. It increased attendance by 100%! Add prizes or competitions to provide incentives to volunteers. Meeting in person? Everyone loves snacks. 

Try a phonebank battle! Check out the Phonebank Battle Case Study for how SD Portland and SD East Bay increased volunteer engagement and had a ton of fun through their 2020 phonebank battle. 

Track Progress: Monitor your volunteer activities over time and keep volunteers updated on the progress of your phonebanking, texting, postcarding, or fundraising efforts. Make a large goal thermometer and fill it in week by week or send an informal weekly newsletter to your volunteers. 

Track and celebrate not only your big goals, but your little victories too! Ask volunteers to track how many plans to vote they make with supporters on each phonebank, how many local volunteers they recruit, or how many numbers they clean off the lists. Make a leader board of individual volunteers and turn it into a friendly competition or simply celebrate those successes and use them to recruit new volunteers and motivate existing volunteers! 

E.g. “This Sunday, phonebankers made an average of 4 plans to vote with supporters they talked to over the phones. Join us next week to do your part and turn out 4 more voters in this tight race” 

Check out Phonebank Leader Jordan Hiller’s weekly newsletter to all SD Portland Phonebankers here and Neal’s wrap email to Sister District National Phonebank volunteers here.

Build Personal Relationships: Our Sister District community supports not only our candidates but also each other. Ask how your volunteers are doing. Listen, share, listen, share, and listen some more. Start with deepening your existing connections and set about making new ones.

Consider one-on-ones: these are individual meetings between a volunteer leader and  a new or newer attendee/volunteer. Ask them about themselves, why they got involved, share about you, explain how this has been an enjoyable experience for you. These meetings can break the ice and make the new person feel more comfortable and feel that they have an ally, someone they can come to.

Read more about SD Sacramento’s “Phonomonal Phonebankers”: A group of phonebankers that come back week after week and year after year not only because they love the work, but especially because they love strong connections and community they built together. 

Turn Volunteers into Recruiters:  Scale your program by turning existing volunteers into new volunteer recruiters. Ask current volunteers to bring a friend to the next event. Encourage new volunteers to bring a friend to their first event. It will help them feel automatically more comfortable to have someone to connect with right away. 

In 2021, National Phonebanker Kari joined her first phonebank with Sister District and enjoyed the experience so much she invited a few friends to join her the next time around! By recruiting a few friends she was able to double, even triple, her impact on the races in Virginia. Go Kari!

Lead by example: In both volunteer activities and recruiting new volunteers, your team will take notes from you and match your energy. On a phonebank? If they see you focused on dialing voters, they will focus too. Did you bring a friend, partner, or family member to the last meeting? It will encourage them to reach out to their networks and bring friends too. Share your stories, be active, and others will follow suit. You set the tone!

Debrief and Reshift Volunteers:  At the end of an event, have everyone share their highs and lows from the activity. This is a good way to build camaraderie, even if it’s commiserating in a low contact rate or rude voter. It is a good team-building opportunity and an important time for others to share what worked well for them that may help other volunteers in the future. It also gives you as a leader the opportunity to reassure any concerns that come up or address any last questions. If you can’t get a whole team to do this, it’s still a good activity to do individually with an attendee/volunteer, which will help you build a relationship with them and reassure their concerns.

Then of course, make sure each volunteer is signed up to come back again soon. Use the social community of the meeting to get folks to sign on again. If using Zoom, ask people to put in the chat when they are joining next, or individually call on volunteers to make sure they have the next date in their calendar.  The hardest request to turn down is one in person. 

Check out the Hard Ask Memo from 2021 for tips and tricks on how to best ask volunteers to return and get them to say YES. (hint: do you want oatmeal or cereal for breakfast?) 

Follow up and thank volunteers: Send a quick text to volunteers the next day thanking them for joining and encouraging them to come back again soon. A quick “Hey _____, it was so great to see you at the event last night! Thanks so much for joining us and I can’t wait to see you again soon. Will you be there next week?” can go a long way to making a volunteer feel the warm welcome and their value in our community.  

Read this Case Study from the National Phonebank Program in 2021. Sister District GOTV Fellows helped send follow-up and thank you messages to volunteers to create a strong phonebanking community.

Develop New Leaders by “Laddering Up”: If you’ve heard the term “Ladder of Engagement,” it’s used to described how we as organizers can help those we work with take small steps from an initial entry point activity like donating or phonebanking or writing postcards to taking on increasingly larger responsibilities and ownership of organizing tasks or leadership roles.

From supporter, to volunteer, to volunteer leader, we always want to move people up the ladder when we can. Compliment and reassure your volunteers that they are valuable members of the team. Ask them if they can take on more responsibility and move into a leadership role. It doesn’t have to be a big role, anything from event cohost, to trainer, to volunteer leader.  Giving volunteers more responsibility only reaffirms their commitment, makes it more likely they become a recurring volunteer, and helps your team grow even stronger. 

It’s all about the relationship you build with someone and the extent to which you can encourage and empower in a way that reflects and matches their constraints, resources, likes and dislikes, and their intrinsic motivations for volunteering with your particular community/team. Here are a few examples from within the Sister District family:

  1. In 2020, SD Portland phonebank leader Jordan reached out personally to invite three of his most frequent phonebankers to “co-host” his phonebanks. They would have the title of Co-Host, which created good feelings and helped the phonebankers feel valued. He was clear about what they’d do: help answer questions and encourage phonebankers in the Zoom chat, help with tech support if any phonebankers had trouble with the technology. One of those co-hosts eventually became a Host of her own phonebank, giving them a second weekly option. And two of the other Co-Hosts were able to lead Jordan’s phonebanks when he was on vacation. He gave them shout-outs on the phonebanks themselves and in his phonebank report emails. One of the Co-Hosts ended up taking over his weekly emails to phonebankers! Now that’s what we call “organizing yourself out of a job”!
  2. In 2021, Trudy received a Welcome Wagon call from an SD East Bay leader. She attended a fundraising event, then the leader followed up, asking if she’d help make calls to thank and resolicit their higher-dollar 2020 donors, and she agreed! She moved “up the ladder” to a leadership role for 2022, with sights set on helping the team with recruitment.

Consider the route you yourself took to get to your role with Sister District. Who encouraged you? How did you make your way? What was your particular journey on the Ladder of Engagement? Think about what went well, what worked for you, and what could be improved. Pro tip: Offer a title to inspire/entice someone to take on a task or more responsibility. People like titles and positions, they help us feel valuable. A title also clarifies an organizer’s particular function. 

In terms of how you chart a particular path up the ladder for someone, the sky is the limit and, as always, it’s a conversation and a dance to find the way an individual person wants to get more involved! Here are just a few ideas:

  • Phonebanking: first-time phonebanker attends > leader reaches out personally to thank afterward, tells them they did great and everyone hopes to see them again next week, same time same place. Leader sends the link to sign up. Leader gives a shout out in her weekly phonebank email > phonebanker returns and leader gives them a shout out on the phonebank. Leader follows up to ask if they could help be Recruiting Captain for the phonebank program — “we’re going to try to each bring a friend” > after a few phonebanks, phonebank leader invites volunteer to become a Co-Host similar to the SD Portland example above.
  • Postcarding: you invite an old friend to write postcards with you & they do > you invite them to join a meeting to meet everyone and be part of the community & they do > you ask if they’d help recruit friends to write postcards too & they do > you ask them to join the Postcarding Committee & the do > you hand off one of your several tasks and they become “Appreciation Captain” of the Postcarding Committee, thanking postcarders after you complete projects.
  • Recruiting: anyone can be a Recruiter! Anyone can be asked to bring a friend, to reach out to another volunteer group they’re part of
  • Donors: someone donates > a leader thanks them > leader reaches out to invite them to a leader meeting featuring one of their candidates > leader asks donor to become a Matching Donor for their upcoming fundraiser

Check out the Tips for Leadership Development article to learn more about escalating potential team leaders and how to grow a stronger team. 

And that’s a wrap! You now have a strong, loving, committed team of volunteers and leaders and have scaled your impact. 

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