About twenty minutes before a weekly team meeting this past September, I got a Slack message from our Organizing Director asking if we could talk about my role within the team. I was sure I was getting fired. Instead, I was tasked with building a Distributed Organizing Team for March For Our Lives (MFOL) through the 2020 election. 

Our election season campaign — “Our Power 2020” — was in full swing. It was a massive effort to lead three hundred-plus chapters through the most important election of our lifetimes — and it exposed many of the ways our chapter network did and didn’t work, particularly as we navigated an onslaught of volunteers in the leadup to Election Day.

Distributed Organizing is a relatively new concept for political campaigns. It has exploded in recent cycles with advancements in digital tools like peer-to-peer text messaging and predictive dialers, as well as the success of the Bernie 2016 campaign, which built a volunteer army with empty pockets and a small staff. Distributed organizing calls on campaigns to decentralize campaign work and create playbooks that allow anyone to become a leader. This might mean developing toolkits and infrastructure for volunteer-hosted events and trusting them to represent the organization or teaching chapter leads how to host meetings, book clubs, or canvases after school. 

March For Our Lives already took a distributed approach to our mission of ending gun violence by supporting chapters as they led the way in their local communities. Back when our organization formed, we told strangers across the country to organize marches in nine hundred cities in a single month. Since then, our members have organized bus trips, protests, banner drops, and lobby days — with our help, of course! 

But after two years, I knew there were cracks in the chapter network model. Managing finances, coordinating with supporters and volunteers, and setting a legislative vision is hard for a young person who doesn't have a massive organizing support network around them — and too often we saw overwhelmed chapter leads abandon their small teams after just a few meetings. This was particularly true in more rural areas, including BIPOC communities across the Sunbelt, which didn’t have the infrastructure to effectively support new organizing efforts.  As we geared up for the election, the Distributed Organizing Team was going to fill in these gaps by becoming our own, national chapter — an accessible community for everyone across the country to join and do something BIG. 

If our goal was to mobilize a record number of young people excited about the 2020 election, and to keep them engaged well after, we had to build out a program that reached MFOL members everywhere — not just the ones already engaged in a local chapter — utilizing campaign tools like VAN, Hustle, and Thrutalk. By building out this infrastructure, we believed we could not only help elect a candidate but, more importantly, grow a movement led by young people. 

 

Building the Team

My department got funding for two part-time staffers through the election, so I reached out to some former state directors who “graduated” through our chapter network to help me build what we called the “Distributed Volunteer Organizing Team.'' We spent the first day creating a Discord server (an online chat community) and organizing the different “channels” for the various actions that members could take. We built onboarding scripts for the future hoards of volunteers who would sign up and set up one-on-ones with some of the more active members of the initial chat. We added invitations to the chat to every event sign-up confirmation, join-a-chapter form, and email blast we sent. We modified our peer2peer conversation flow to invite no-shows to “follow up on the convo by joining our Discord!” 

The largest hurdle was getting our chapter network on board. Joining Discord disrupted their existing chats and mixed up their members. No matter how many invites we sent out over email, volunteers were trickling in at best. Our Distributed Organizing team created a memo: “How to Talk to the Chapter Network About Distributed Organizing.” It included stats from the Bernie 2016 campaign and talking points about why they should join the chat, like organization-wide announcements or early access to text banking assignments. In the coming days, after dozens of one-on-ones with chapter leads, we saw a steady stream of members joining the Discord.

Our next challenge was figuring out how to keep volunteers active. Recurring phone banking shifts work, but they’re not a great way to build community. Our most successful volunteer activity outside of voter contact was game night. People loved game night. We called it the “gamer caucus.” Every night, for weeks at a time, volunteers would pop in to late-night gaming sessions and meet other chapter members, volunteers, and supporters alike. We began to see a community form among our volunteers online. Many of the gamer-caucus volunteers became distributed volunteer leads, leaning in on text bank onboarding and supporting new text bankers when needed. 

We were starting to get a steady stream of volunteers wanting to text and phone bank, but we had a really hard time plugging people in to the right place. Volunteers wanted to join our texting team, but we didn’t have enough texts to go around or leads who could train new text bankers. Before this became too much of an issue, we created the #volunteer-support channel, a wing of the Discord community for anyone phone banking, text banking, or organizing an event. For volunteers outside of the Discord, messages to volunteeering@marchforourlives.com were mirrored into the Discord using a bot, and anyone could reply using a ticket system. 

Our small team was worried that we couldn’t handle the number of volunteers who needed support for things like onboarding, but we found very quickly that we didn’t have to worry at all. Whenever someone asked a question in the #volunteer-support chat, another volunteer would jump in to answer! Most of the time, people had small questions like, “Hey, this person didn’t get the Zoom invite to tonight’s phone bank. How can I send it to them?” or, “This is my first time text banking; do people see my actual phone number?” For the handful of questions volunteers couldn’t answer, other volunteers would get our attention by tagging our account in the chat. We put special badges on the profiles of those who consistently helped out and, eventually, gave them the passwords to our admin accounts so they could handle medium-level things like creating new text banking accounts for new text-team members. 

We had established a good team of volunteers ready for the last few weeks of Get Out the Vote. Previous chapter members were working alongside state directors and brand new volunteers alike. We mapped out our capacity to see how many texts we could send out, and how many volunteers we thought we could sign up for shifts.

To get there, we established a morning check-in and evening check-out with the core team but opened it up to any of the advanced volunteers. During those calls, the two other Distributed Volunteer leads and I read out our top-line tasks. The meetings never lasted more than 15 minutes. It was election season, time was precious, and everyone already hated Zoom. 

Things ramped up quickly during election week. On day one, we learned that 43 stipended state directors would be helping us, meaning we had to scale up our operation from a few hundred volunteers who would come and go to a fully-staffed army working most of the day across the country. Sign-ups on our volunteer landing page, which categorizes people based on their desired volunteer activity (training lead, phone banking, text banking) grew to a pace of five new signups every minute. 

We struggled to keep up with our “volunteer map” — a collaborative spreadsheet created by the gamer caucus, some other heavy-lifting volunteers, and the Distributed staff. We didn't have the time to teach everyone how VAN worked or set up an account for Hustle (the platform we used to send text messages to potential volunteers), so we made a Google Sheet. It was complex under the hood but extremely simple for any volunteer who wanted to help us shift newcomers into training, phonebanks, or textbanks. All they had to do was write their name next to a person and click a checkbox if they signed up for a shift. 

By the end of the week, distributed volunteers sent 800,000 text messages. We shifted over 1,000 people into phone banks and digital events. Our focus is not electoral organizing, but by keeping our attention on the one-on-one conversations, we built a platform we can activate in the future, after the frenzy of GOTV. When we spoke on the phone with new volunteers, we didn’t just ask people which phone banking shift worked best for them and hang up. Instead, we asked them how they heard of MFOL. Most of the time, they brought up stories from high school walkouts or first protests. But we also spoke to nurses who couldn't make the next phone bank because COVID ICU capacity was dwindling or overworked teachers who were struggling with distance learning. We heard their stories, and even though we knew that a conversation might not result in a traditional “volunteer conversion,” we were doing something more important: making a connection with the people we were fighting with. Where we could, we offered support with mental health resources and local mutual aid funds.  

***

Before we took a Distributed approach to the Our Power campaign, March For Our Lives had chapters across the country running siloed operations inside their own zip codes. This election, we set out to bring everyone together under one national initiative — to break records in youth turnout for the 2020 election. Many of our GOTV volunteers have since become state board members for the March For Our Lives chapters in their states; some have even begun the process of starting their own chapters. Though we aren’t pushing voter registration or turnout campaigns right now, chapters are hosting their own “deep canvassing” phone banks around policy. Right now, March For Our Lives Florida is activating the national volunteer base around House Bill One, an attack on their right to protest. They’ve already reached volunteer capacity and engaged in conversations with 60,000 Floridians about the bill.

We found out that our chapter model was holding back so many potential leaders who just weren't ready to take up the responsibility of finances, policy, and everything else that chapter leads have to do. We created a space for them to grow outside of the traditional local chapter system — but many found their way back with the organizing experience and connections they needed to start chapters. 

 

Read the issue: Debriefing the Resistance  

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