Bringing Political Organizing Tactics to Civic Tech

Code for America Brigade members at the inaugural Brigade Congress in 2017

President Obama and his presidential campaign made history in 2008 by employing community organizing tactics to engage large numbers of voters, building complex organizing structures which helped elect him as the 44th President of the United States. These tactics were built on even further in his 2012 re-election campaign, one I was fortunate to be a part of.

Through my work organizing voters for presidential campaigns in Nevada (for President Obama) and in Virginia (for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign), I have overseen operations of thousands of volunteers who come out to phone bank and knock on doors during an election. During the 2016 presidential campaign we managed tens of thousands of volunteers across Virginia, especially during “get out the vote” efforts in the final four days of the campaign, which ultimately helped Hillary Clinton win the state of Virginia.

Organizing staff at a 2012 Campaign Rally in Nevada

The incredible turnout of volunteer (wo)manpower begs the question: how do political campaigns convince hundreds of thousands of people nationwide — over the course of many months and then much more urgently in the last few days — to volunteer for a presidential nominee? Especially since this often entails spending time away from your family, knocking on doors in unpredictable and sometimes extreme weather, and usually takes over a large part of a volunteer’s life.

“How do I get people to show up? How do I get people to keep showing up?”

The relative ease of organizing people for political elections can often fall in stark contrast to the ability to organize volunteers in other spaces. In community organizing, the age-old question has always been “How do I get people to show up?” And even if you get people to show up, it then becomes “How do I get people to keep showing up?”

Politicians, their campaigns, and campaign consultants have spent many years and countless dollars figuring out how to best maximize tools to spur community engagement. In all honesty, most of the research and organizing tactics revolve around understanding some simple psychological aspects of volunteering: how and why are people incentivized, and how do we maximize that incentivization?

Given that political campaigns have put so much effort into developing successful organizing tactics, I have thought a lot about how we can use some of these tactics in long-term community engagement — specifically in civic tech — to attract volunteers, and then keep them engaged.

Code for America Brigade volunteers put technology to work in service of their local communities

In my current work at Code for America I work with the Brigade program, which consists of more than 25,000 volunteers across 75+ chapters around the country. Brigade members work on projects that provide technical solutions to problems their communities are facing, and each Brigade recruits and organizes volunteers to work on these projects. Volunteer recruitment and retention can be challenging, and finding ways to keep volunteers engaged and committed are essential to the Brigades’ work.

Below are six tactics from political organizing that we can apply to long-term volunteer efforts in civic tech, to increase our volunteer engagement and sustainability.

Have a Strong, Engaging Mission

Civic tech and political campaigns already have similarly strong missions, in the sense that both aim to developing solutions that will “fix” (or at least improve) government. Though this isn’t a lesson that needs to be “learned” in civic tech, per se, it is still important to recognize that a strong mission is a key precursor of building a strong and steady volunteer base. Having a strong mission that people will buy into will always be the number one need in organizing volunteers.

Set Deadlines

When volunteering one’s time, a person needs to have a clear expectation of what they are signing up for. People don’t want to feel as if they are signing over their day-to-day lives for an undefined period of time, they need a set timeframe for the activity they are engaging in. If they are going to choose to skip dinners with friends or spend time away from their families, they need to know that it won’t be forever. They also want to be able to see what success looks like, and know how long it will take to achieve that success. Setting deadlines helps define periods of volunteer time and keeps people engaged.

Political Campaign : In a political campaign, there is obviously a clear deadline for when a campaign will be over. For example, if I am looking to volunteer on a congressional campaign for this year’s midterm elections, I know that the election will be over on Nov. 6, 2018, and my work will end at that time. After Nov. 6, nothing I can do will affect the result of the election. Therefore I am willing to work hard now, and will work harder and harder as the deadline approaches, to contribute to the outcome I want. It essentially is a tour of duty to volunteer for this effort.

An Open Seattle hack night

Long-Term Volunteer Engagement : One way to set deadlines in a civic tech meetup setting is to put a timeline on an existing staple of Brigade work: a project. At many hack nights, I see organizers display all current projects as a way for attendees to choose which project they’d like to work on for the night. Adding a timeline to the description of the project can play into someone’s decision-making process about whether they want to become involved. It makes the expectation around participation more concrete for the individual volunteer, as well as for the Brigade that relies on various skill sets for a project’s completion. Setting deadlines also increases accountability for participants. We are programmed throughout our lives to meet deadlines, first at school and then at work, so engaging in a project with a deadline increases our feeling of responsibility for completing the project.

Now this doesn’t mean that every project has to have a hard deadline, or that a project that doesn’t meet its deadline is a failure. But it does give an expectation to volunteers about how long their commitment is expected for, and also incentivizes people to work towards a completion point.

Appoint a “Political Director”

Clipboards ready for use at a Nevada field campaign office

Political Campaign: Political campaigns always hire a political director for battleground states. The political director’s goal is to work with existing community groups to organize volunteers, and host activities such as phone banks, canvassing excursions, and voter registration. Existing community groups in this case can include unions, churches, small businesses, graduate chapters of sororities/fraternities, or other affinity groups. By working with groups that are already established and functioning, a campaign does not have to outlay energy, time, and money to engage the group’s members. The campaign can engage tens, or even hundreds of people in a community to volunteer with limited investment in recruitment, and with heightened levels of output.

Long-Term Volunteer Engagement: Throughout the Code for America Brigade network, there’s been quite a lot of talk about working with existing community groups to scope projects that best serve the communities’ needs. Code for Asheville ’s work with BeLoved Asheville is a great example , as is the work of many Brigades around the country. The benefit of partnering with existing organizations is two-fold:

  1. You are actually practicing user-centered research and design by working with affected community members.
  2. You are creating strong bonds and relationships with groups and individuals in your community
Brigade volunteers and other members of the community attend Code for Tampa Bay events

By attending meetings of other groups in addition to just your own, Brigades can hear directly from an affected community about how they may be able to provide a tech solution to combat an issue. But in the lens of member recruitment and engagement, you are also potentially gaining Brigade members who now have a vested interest in your mission. They have seen you commit to an issue that they care about in another setting, and they are therefore more likely to be inspired to be a part of your group. Additionally, it’s easier to tap into a group of people than try to recruit new members individually.

Hold Events

Everyone likes a party! And people are more inclined to show up continually when there are in-person events that they can look forward to which provide social interaction and a heightened level of excitement.

Political Campaign: I can’t tell you how many days of action, weekends of action, and events we hold on political campaigns. One of the most difficult parts of being an organizer is working your tail off recruiting volunteers, registering voters, making phone calls, and knocking on hundreds of doors for a day of action that was pitched as the most important day of the month… only to find out that in two weeks, there’s another day of action where your metric goals are even higher and is pitched as even moreimportant. But as hard as the work was building up to these days, do you know what? When we held events, no matter how arbitrary the purpose, people showed up — and then they kept showing up for more mundane meetings and smaller events, exponentially increasing the campaign’s productivity.

Every year, Brigades and other groups across the country gather for a day of action on National Day of Civic Hacking

Long-Term Volunteer Engagement: There’s been lots of discussion about the effectiveness of events and hackathons in the civic tech community. How effective are hackathons, really? But I think the better question is whether events themselves are effective for engagement. Events have the benefit of creating publicity, bringing people together in person, and giving attendees the opportunity to hear from government or non-profit partners. Instead of holding a hackathon, I’ve heard of many Brigades that host events in the forms of guest speaker series, project showcases, and competitions. The point of the event is not necessarily to produce as much code as possible in one day, but to engage the community around a fun event — and therefore get people excited about the Brigade and possibly increase name recognition around the community. The more people are familiar with your Brigade and excited to come to your events, the more engaged they will be in doing the actual work.

Know That Turnover Is Normal

Political Campaign: Large election operations occur every four years on a presidential level, and every two years on a congressional or local level. This means that most volunteers are doing a three to six month sprint, and then take anywhere from two to four years off until they volunteer for the next election, if they even decide to do so.

Long-Term Volunteer Engagement: With long-term volunteer engagement, unless deadlines or time commitments are defined, there is no “off-season.” And I think it’s important to understand that people phasing out of volunteer work after a period of time is OK. Most volunteers aren’t going to be civic tech standard bearers for life. The real question is: How can we keep people engaged long enough to make a significant impact? A lot of the time, the impact in a Brigade is tied to the completion and deployment of a project. As I said about deadlines above, if we can keep folks engaged through the full duration of a project, we’ll keep volunteers happy because they are able to see the completion of their work, and the mission won’t suffer because people aren’t leaving projects unfinished and “under-staffed.” It’s also worth exploring avenues such as newsletters, active social media accounts, and other communication tools to keep volunteers and potential volunteers engaged, aware of the Brigade’s work, and involved.


People want to feel like they’re a part of something and see recognition for their work, even if they aren’t directly named.

Political Campaign: Presidential campaigns are by far the most successful organizing operations in the political world. This reality juxtaposed against the fact that most of the day-to-day decisions that affect our everyday life are made at a local and state level. Local and statewide elections receive much lower turnout and garner much less volunteer support than national ones.

From a article on the 2016 Clinton campaign

One of the biggest contributors to this is the feeling of inclusion and impact that many presidential campaign volunteers feel is the months-long press coverage of presidential campaigns by the 24-hour news cycle. Articles by newspapers and digital outlets, TV spots, and other public-facing coverage of the election increases a volunteer’s feelings that their work is meaningful and cared about. As the nation watches results come in on election night, volunteers feel a part of the results, knowing that their contribution directly impacted whether or not their state turns red or blue on the TV screen. And it’s true, volunteer power has been the key to election results in many battleground states, particularly over the last ten years.

Long-Term Volunteer Engagement : In getting folks engaged in your work, it’s important to remember that people want to be a part of something that they think is making a real change in their community. Because of this, being a part of something that gets publicity is especially rewarding for a lot of folks. It’s a reminder that the work you’re doing is important, and it is rewarding to know that you are doing something that others in your community will hear about. It’s not as easy to get press coverage for a local Brigade as it is for a presidential campaign, but you may be able to get local news outlets to cover a project that is making a real impact on the community.

There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all strategy for volunteer engagement, but it’s my hope that in sharing my experience of organizing and overseeing volunteers across different fields, people in the civic tech network will be inspired to go out and try some new tactics to keep people engaged in and excited about the incredibly important work that you’re all doing.

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