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Recruitment and Building Capacity

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Hello Sister District Leader! The following is adapted from a handout I developed for my coaching work with campaign staff and progressive groups. All groups are different and some of this material might apply to you and stimulate thinking/discussion and some might not. As a former overworked organizer myself, much of this falls under the category of light-lift adjustments leaders can make in communication, and in the focus and cultural norms of your teams. I am here to talk shop and think creatively with you about adjustments that might increase your capacity for impact and help you organize yourself out of the jobs you’d like to hand off.

-Neal Morgan, Head of Organizing

Recruitment & Building Capacity

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. One big idea I hope you’ll keep in mind: we aim to create cultures of growth. This means, among other things, that we deputize those around us as active recruiters; as co-creators of your team and responsible for its growth.

Recruitment – building capacity for increasing impact – along with authentic face-to-face voter contact most helps us win. 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.

Improving Volunteer Recruitment

Lead by Example

Always be scouting. Always be inviting. Your team sees you give ten hi-fives to someone who brings a friend to knock doors; your team hears you challenging another leader to a friendly recruitment competition. You tell stories of how you recruited someone in a grocery store. You set the tone!

Uphold the Organizer’s Oath

The big prize is organic growth: volunteers recruiting other volunteers who then recruit other volunteers. This only happens if you do a bunch of things right (most important: real connection!) such that those volunteers want to come back in the first place, let alone recruit others to join. The Oath is: “I will do my very best so that your sacrifice of time and energy maximally serves our shared mission, feels to you like a part of your life well-spent, and one to which you’d like to return.”


When I was in grade school, a poet named Will Staple who looked like Bob Ross visited our classes from time to time. He gave out a “poetic license” – an official-looking license we’d both sign – if we wrote and read aloud a poem that gave him goosebumps. If he felt something, we were poets, and he issued a license to prove it. I kept that license in my wallet for years. I’d been deputized – empowered, given permission and freedom to share myself, be creative, and do something important. All in your group need to be explicitly deputized as proud recruiters co-creating the growth needed to win.

Recruitments are Victories

In addition to friendship, the feelings of pride and fulfillment that come from achieving victories (making an impact toward winning) keep volunteers coming back and motivate them to recruit others to join. For volunteers who fade from a lack of such feelings, the problem is not that there aren’t many victories to be had in any kind of volunteer activity, or that achieving victories is out of reach. Quite the opposite. The problem is that leaders and organizers too often fail in identifying, explaining and thus teeing up the victories their volunteers can and will have. One example: learning that a voter has moved is a canvass victory that should create feelings of pride and fulfillment, but many canvassers go away from that house feeling their visit was a waste. Make recruitment feel like a victory and your team will grow.

Set Goals

It’s hard to celebrate success and build pride if you don’t communicate expectations and set goals. Organizers deal in metrics and goals related to recruitment. Find ways to do this with your volunteers. Sister District organizing staff is here to share ideas and help you set appropriate goals.

Make Creativity, Effort, And Progress Visible

Visibly track volunteer recruitment progress. Create space for recruiters to share stories of success and creativity. Praise and thanks for recruiting needs to be broadcast for all to see. Do you have a pen-on-butcher-paper thermometer in your office related to volunteer recruitment goals? Do you focus on individual and team performance in all-group debriefs? How can you be creative in making this a visible, vibrant, fun part of your culture?

Celebrate Success

My silly line for voter registration is that every time we register a progressive voter, an angel gets its wings. This is the mentality and tone you want to create around growth. A recruited volunteer is gold – celebrate! At a canvass or phonebank debrief, ask for and applaud success stories. Celebrate whole-team recruitment performance after each action, day, week.

Diversity is the Big Prize

A well-rounded team – age, background, race, ethnicity, identity, professions, skills, interests, experience – will have the kind of broad and deep reach uniform teams can only dream of. Diverse teams can grow more quickly, develop leaders more effectively, and bring to bear the expertise and experience needed to engage the full spectrum of progressive voters. Think in terms of creating diverse coalitions also – if you have questions, please let me know! One general principle about reaching out to potential partner organizations is to start with expressing an interest in possibly collaborating – first listen and generate your ideas based on what might feel good, appropriate, and effective for the potential partner org.

Put Recruitment At Center Stage In Trainings, Debriefs

The medium is the message here – we signal to volunteers what is most important by how we train and debrief; what we focus on. An invitation from a volunteer to a potential volunteer has to come from the heart and this is best done showing not telling; also wise to include urgency messages, some data, some dot-connecting, etc. Intention and practice to hone such invitations is crucial. Have volunteers practice recruiting each other in trainings. 2 minutes each during a canvass launch, say, then send them out feeling confident and with recruitment on their minds. Take time to coach individually.

Notes on Recruitment Conversations and Process

IT’S ALL CONNECTION AND BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS Always been true of organizing, always will be. Ask how someone is doing. Listen, share, listen, listen, share. Since so many of us are dealing with big emotions and since those emotions likely had gotten you off the sidelines, you could share: “I’d been so depressed since the election, but I’m feeling so much better now that I’m out helping to make sure progressives vote and I’m meeting all these great people. Come with me!” Start with your existing connections and set about making new ones.

FINDING THREE-DIMENSIONALITY The reasons we do this work are three-dimensional but our asks and invitations 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.

CONNECT THE DOTS Authentic face-to-face conversation with voters is up to 20% more effective for turnout versus other means. Illustrate, ideally using numbers, how the action you’re inviting them to take helps us win. Be able to explain the value of, say, phonebanking to potential volunteers (see Phonebank. It’s Worth It.)

SHOW, DON’T TELL I find that I’m most successful when the core of my appeal is a picture I paint about what connecting with voters when canvassing or phonebanking has looked and felt like for me. I tell success stories from the doors that made my heart sing. A touching conversation; a progressive family learns a primary election is happening; an apathetic voter decides to engage. 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.

CONVERSATION IS QUEEN If you really want someone to show up, you’ll actually speak with them and make a personal ask. It’s not enough to just send out an email or get Facebook RSVPs. My dentist used to say “floss only the teeth you want to keep.” I’m here to tell you: “call only the people you want to show up.” ALWAYS capture phone numbers on sign-in sheets and require people to provide phone numbers on RSVP pages.


  • “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 no expert either! 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’m an introvert” – Me too! In canvassing, you’re going to walk with someone else, and maybe a few people if
    you bring someone too, and out of 60 houses, we might talk with 10 people. You might talk to 5. With phonebanking, you’ll have a group of people doing the same thing. See Phonebanking: Conquering Your Fears and Making a Difference and Phonebanking for Introverts.

THE ASK LADDER – ASK TO WIN We start with the Primary Ask – an invitation to do the thing that most helps us win – and move down the Ask Ladder based on what we learn: obstacles or constraints, what of your asks seem compelling. From the very top, we disarm, connect the dots, and present the Primary Ask in full compelling context: “knocking doors most helps us win, you’ll meet cool people, this is the best bang for your volunteer hour.”

IT’S A DANCE – STICK WITH ’EM, THERE IS A PLACE FOR EVERYONE Many times people want to take the plunge but just need a friend to encourage them and find the way for them to think about stepping in that allows them to overcome inertia and to find their place. The medium is the message here: I care about you, I’m sticking with you, you have an important role to play, we respect and value all people – this is the progressive movement writ large, no?

FIND THE SPARK While moving down the Ask Ladder, we’re listening, learning, tailoring invitations, sticking with ‘em and at a certain point you’ll notice a change in body language, a giggle or a change in tone. Follow that spark.

ASK WITH CONFIDENCE, ASK BIG Meet them where they are. Be sensitive, and never fail to respect obstacles to involvement. We help find ways to work around and with those obstacles. Having said that, never ask for 1 shift when you can ask for 5. 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.

ALWAYS INCLUDE A STRETCH ASK When someone accepts an invitation, thank, confirm and always add a Stretch Ask: this is something that a) helps you achieve your goal and b) gives the person you’re working with a chance to ascend the Ladder of Engagement (moving from a first-time volunteer to a regular to a recruiter to a leader, etc.). A great Stretch Ask you can always add is some version of: “I’m so glad you’re joining us! We’re all focused on doubling our impact this week – we’re each bringing at least one person. Who can you bring?”

MAKE LEMONADE If your invitation is turned down – someone can’t make it – give them an opportunity to delight after disappointing. Tell her she’ll be missed at the fundraiser but she can still help by donating anyway. Send her the link with a thank you note. Turn her into a recruiter: “we’re all bringing 2 people, and even though you can’t make it, you can help that way. This is a perfect event for someone new – let’s call them up!”

URGENCY “This is going to be an incredibly close race. The stakes are too high to leave it to chance. We get serious results with folks committing to vote when we go talk with them. If you bring one person with you, you’ll double the impact you have on winning this thing and making history. Who can you bring?”

CONFIRM, THANK, PRAISE If you don’t repeat the plan and confirm, praise and thank, it’s less likely they’ll show up. They’ll feel less valued, and this telegraphs to them that perhaps they won’t continue to be supported or have a good time if they go. All’s well that ends well – do not shortcut this step. At least two confirmation calls ideally: the night before and ideally 3-4 days before. And, of course, if you don’t write it down, it didn’t happen.

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