"In a post-COVID world, one where loneliness is the next epidemic, the organized left must do our part to organize socially."

I remember the panic I felt knocking on my first door at 21 years old for an unpaid internship on a congressional campaign. It was a long-shot race against a popular incumbent with good politics, but I was not from New York and didn’t know the difference. At the time, I was happy to be in the room talking to a campaign manager who had gone to Harvard and who I assumed was smarter than me. Like many subsequent campaigns in my career, I would spend this time making friends with people from all walks of life, all there for different reasons.

Together we did research that would never get used, knocked on hundreds of unanswered doors, made thousands of calls mostly to people uninterested in our race. But I persisted, taking the train two hours every day from Jamaica Queens to our office in Gowanus, and then back up to Bushwick to socialize with a rotating cast of canvassers who couldn’t afford the travel time or train fare. I stopped coming too, eventually, for those same reasons. The pro-social element of building community became overshadowed by the anti-social behavior of getting rejected over and over again at doors.

Fast forward ten years, and I somehow didn’t give up on the work despite my best efforts. I have knocked on thousands of doors, made tens of thousands of phone calls, and have worked on campaigns of every size—and without fail, in all of the spaces I have worked in, we would all run up against the same problem. All organizations, campaigns, and member-driven nonprofits want to expand their volunteer bases, but very few know what it is that keeps volunteers coming back. What they don't realize is that the answer is surprisingly simple: relationships. We've known for decades that politics is personal, but what we've yet to accept is that campaigning is—or should be—explicitly social.

If you have worked on campaigns or in volunteer centered non-profit spaces you have without a doubt encountered scenarios of extreme volunteer recruitment goals. 100 callers on a phonebank to make 100,000 calls in an evening. 800 volunteers to knock 4,000 doors in 2 weeks. 50 texters to make 300,000 texts on Election Day. Metrics pulled from a grant written by a graduate student who has likely never knocked on a door or a campaign’s fundraising team who decided doorknocking just “wasn’t for them”. Despite the sometimes dubious sourcing of these goals, volunteers remain the most cost effective means of hitting necessary campaign metrics. It cannot be overstated that in the professional world of progressive politics volunteers aren’t just sufficient, they are necessary.

And yet, despite its obvious importance, we often aren’t trying to improve volunteer retention. Turnout? Of course. Everyone wants to be the next 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign with Facebook events that self populate with hundreds of volunteers minutes after posting or the digital events of 2020 where a thousand people could be turned out to protest police violence with less than 24 hours notice. These moments of organizing triumph are magical and  important moments in the history of the American left movement but they are not a model of organizing that is sustainable. We do ourselves no favors by sitting and waiting for the next moment of explosive change. In-between these moments, there were organizers and volunteers doing the hard work of building organizations and relationships, and those threads make all the difference.

With moments like 2016 and 2020 looming large in our memories, we have to remember to ask important questions like, “why did those volunteers show up in the first place?”, “why did they, or did they not, come back?”, “where are they now?”. If we look at volunteering with a more social, and less metric driven, lens we are much closer to answering those questions and workshopping the ways that we engage in the lucrative business of free-labor.

I recently faced traditional volunteer organizing in an untraditional space when I signed up for strength training at a local gym. Since there were no prices on the website I made the mental note that this was likely a gym I could not afford. But I inquired, against my better judgment, and moments after signing an inquiry page I received a personal text from a man named Nick confirming that I could not, in fact, afford this gym. While I graciously declined, he insisted that I come in for 3 sessions so I could at least leave that experience with better form. “What did I have to lose?” he asked.

Upon arriving at my first lesson I noticed the unmistakable feeling of being “organized”. Nick introduced me to the small class, he asked me questions about myself, he gave me positive feedback sandwiching the corrections he had on my form, and he made sure to give personalized attention to each of the 12 other members following their own workout plans. He asked people about their grandparents' recent passing, their workout successes, their upcoming engagements. For the first time in 2 months of arriving in a new city, I felt seen. I hadn’t expected such an emotional reaction from a person trying to get me to spend a car payment on a workout ,but suddenly I noticed myself looking forward to the next session.

There is a deep and human value that we attach to feeling “seen” that it often feels has been lost in the hard-hitting metric driven worlds of grant writing and campaigning. There is self interest, certainly, the old adage of organizing volunteers based on their self interest has been drilled into organizers since Alinsky. But so much more than a person’s self interest, there is the connectivity and humanness that keeps us coming back to work that we might not have otherwise seen ourselves doing.

In a post-COVID world, one where loneliness is the next epidemic, the organized left must do our part to organize socially. Our potential volunteers are not just metrics in a grant report or a nixed campaign budget line. They are people, often feeling unseen, who decided for whatever reason that their time could be used to serve something bigger than themselves. There is danger, too, in ignoring those who feel unseen, or closing off spaces. With extremism being a refuge for people feeling lonely and disconnected, reinvesting in the social elements of our work feels more pressing than it ever has before.

Abroad, there are examples of successful organizing that taps into the unique qualities of volunteers. Organizations like Brand New Bundestag, which—inspired by the U.S. based Brand New Congress—prides itself on deep engagement. Where volunteers are asked to share their unique skills to be part of a community. These community-centered and pro-social ways of engaging challenge the standard model of measuring volunteer labor in terms of doors knocked, phone calls made, or texts sent seems critical to the success of a true left movement. The relationships we form in communities that ask us to engage deeply with one another encourage healthy discourse and healthy disagreement. They keep organizations from being publicly torn apart by a single tweet, and they keep individuals engaged in our shared social project.

The work of organizing and encouraging people to invest their time is more than cost saving, it’s a fight against alienation. As we work from home and feel disconnected from the fruits of organizing and electoral successes, our very sense of impact in the world has become more and more disconnected from our personal involvement with any one cause. Those of us on the left must find a way back to a foundation of fostering relationships. Volunteering that isn’t grounded in community-building might still earn us hefty grants or save campaign budgets, but it won’t protect our movement and prepare us for the many challenges presented by the ever-growing threat of fascism that preys so heavily on isolation.


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