Putting relationships at the heart of traditional field operations

As organizers, we know that the most effective way to engage people in a cause, issue or community concern is to connect them with people that they know and trust who share their concerns and passions. In the last five years, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms have been increasingly integrated into grassroots organizing and community engagement efforts as a matter of course, and have supercharged relationship-based organizing.

However, one important grassroots organizing strategy has been slower to adapt to this relationship-based organizing approach: traditional field organizing, especially direct voter contact programs. Here at Grassroots Solutions, we’ve been working with some new tools and innovative targeting approaches that put personal relationships at the heart of traditional field operations, and we’re getting some amazing results.

Traditional field organizing is great, but has its limitations

If you’ve ever done direct voter contact in an election year, you know the drill… You’re given a list of voters and then you’re asked to go try to persuade people – who you’ve never met–to support a candidate or issue. You get on the phone, you go door-to-door. And you get results. But could you be more effective? Over many years of running hundreds of direct voter contact programs and other field operations, we’ve logged many victories. But we’ve also been pondering the limitations of traditional field organizing strategies.

  1. Even with a well-targeted list, it’s hard to have good accountability. Did your contacts take the action you wanted? Did they actually vote for your candidate?
  2. You rely on the ability—or sheer luck—of being able to convince a total stranger to take the action you want without really knowing their preferences, motivations or background.  Micro-targeting can help, but it’s not the magic bullet.
  3. The reporting is cumbersome and problematic. Conversations held with voters are cataloged anecdotally at best and you rely on manual recording to tally how many people you reached.

Friend-and family-focused field organizing

Recently, we’ve seen a breakthrough in applying relationship-based organizing to traditional field operations, driven in part by a new tool developed by NGP-VAN called Social Organizing. The Grassroots Solutions team beta-tested this tool in Ohio last fall, one of the tactics in the powerful toolbox of the groundbreaking We Are Ohio campaign as they successfully fought to protect collective bargaining rights. Right now, we’re using the tool to propel the Minnesotans United For All Families campaign, organizing networks of friends, neighbors, and families against a constitutional amendment limiting freedom to marry – both online and in the field.

Both the Ohio and Minnesota campaigns center on issues that are highly charged and very personal to the voters in each state (and are in the spotlight of national attention, too). The emotional and social characteristics of these campaigns in particular make them really effective platforms for relationship-based organizing — everyone in the state is talking about the issues and everyone is touching base with their friends and family to shape their own perspectives and opinions going into the voting booth.

Everyone is an influencer now

Statistically, we know that people are more likely to vote on an issue or for a candidate if they have a personal tie or relationship with the campaign. We have seen our field programs have even greater impact when we mobilize organizers and volunteers to tell their cousins or friends about how they personally might be affected by an issue.

With new tools like NGP-VAN’s Social Organizing come extraordinary new opportunities to increase the influence of volunteers and measure their results. We can instantly match his/her social network against the VAN voter files, and set them up with a list of voters to persuade who they actually know or are acquainted with. Results are easily track-able, and our preliminary data show that this approach is an extremely effective complement to cold-calling and door knocking a list of strangers.

Traditional field organizing gives you wide-spread scale, but, depending on your targeting strategy, there can be a lot of throw-aways for every good contact. Relationship-based organizing gives you depth and quality because you’re approaching voters through networks that they trust.

Watch this space for more stories about how we’re using one-on-one relationships, networks, and personal stories to propel the Minnesotans United For All Families campaign in the run up to November!