Don’t Agonize, Organize: The Ed Markey Organizing Model

Lessons Learned on Embracing the Chaos, Organizing to Win, and Building a Movement in this New Era

by Rory Clark, Statewide Organizing Director; Joe Thibodeau; Deputy Organizing Director; and Emma Friend, Director of Distributed Campaigning; with Joe Kent

See also: our relational organizing deep dive

On Tuesday, September 1, Ed Markey won the Democratic Primary for the United States Senate in Massachusetts and came back from a 17 point deficit in the polls, by building a progressive, youth-led coalition that embraced a relational-first, digitally-infused organizing model that centered on innovation in place of traditional organizing. As Massachusetts and the country grappled with the evolving realities and restrictions of COVID-19, our campaign developed scrappy, creative solutions that met the moment to mobilize 8,000 volunteers, build community, and grew a dynamic movement.

We didn’t try to simply run a normal field program online — and in the interest of public health, we abandoned many traditional field methods. Our team never knocked a single door, never opened or worked out of remote field offices, never did a single lit-drop or used a door-hanger, and never organized visibilities. We integrated input from our organizers and on-the-ground volunteers, and built systems that embraced our supporters’ new reality instead of sidelining it. We constantly asked ourselves, is this our instinct because it’s what campaigns always do, or is it actually helpful here?

If we’re going to take back the White House, flip the Senate, pass the Green New Deal, and usher in a new era of progressive change, we need to pool resources and all work together. In that spirit, we offer this love letter to our fellow organizers fighting the good fight across the country. Be bold, trust your gut, trust your team, and embrace your creativity.

We relied frequently on knowledge and resources from other organizers, and we hope we can similarly make your path easier in these final weeks, and in future fights. Below, you will find our lessons learned and best practices, as well as links to tools we built, training slides, and other practical resources for recreating our successes and learning from our failures.

Sections:

Put relational first
Don’t be afraid to do GOTV differently
Running a (huge) phone bank on Zoom
Build out distributed teams to scale your programs
Democratize tools and resources
Embrace and empower grassroots and youth-led organizing
Hiring
Tech Stack — Our Digital Organizing Tools
Trainings, Guides, and Resources

Put relational first

Team Markey leaned into relational organizing from the start and found success under one key principle: Keep it simple, silly.

Supporters can take responsibility for organizing, persuading, and turning out the people in their own lives — if you don’t weigh them down. Too often, the promise of relational organizing stumbles when volunteers are asked to move beyond their tech skills, download an app, or surrender their contacts’ data. We prioritized volunteer experience and built a web-based relational organizing platform so that anyone could organize the people they knew, no matter their tech skills, and with no need to download an app or hand over all of their contacts’ data, as is common with other relational organizing platforms. This approach garnered us over 18,000 contacts — a massive ID share for an emerging approach that’s proven tricky to master.

We believe in relational so much that we wrote a full piece about our program — best practices, successes, and what didn’t work. Click here to read the deep dive.

Don’t be afraid to do GOTV differently

Like many states this year, Massachusetts implemented universal vote-by-mail for the very first time. That meant adapting quickly! We became comfortable with the pivot, sought out other campaigns who had been through a remote GOTV, and through a lot of trial-and-error, discovered what worked for our supporters within the framework of our state’s voting laws. Your approach may be different! We hope, however, that our speed bumps and successes will help you find your own best system much faster.

Who ya gonna call?

  • Talk to the new voters: Mail-in voting expanded the electorate in Massachusetts to a degree that we did not anticipate, encouraging infrequent and first-time voters to participate in unprecedented numbers. We made the counterintuitive decision to pause calling into our target universe and instead called into a universe we built from publicly accessible town clerk data of voters who had already applied to vote by mail. This prioritized voters who typically slip through the cracks of a traditional program, and allowed us to speak to a naturally-expanding electorate as it expanded.
  • We found that in an election like this, voters who apply to vote-by-mail often have not decided who they are voting for yet. This is an incredible opportunity for persuasion: you get to figure out exactly when someone begins the voting process and find a way to have a relaxed, compelling, and persuasive conversation with that voter about your candidate while they are essentially en route to the polls.
  • Building a ballot chase list: Knowing that voter applications were tracked, were a matter of public record, and that there would be no centralized statewide list, we initiated regular communication with city and town clerks and election officials to create ever-updating lists of everyone who applied to vote-by-mail.
  • Understand how the Vote-by-Mail system works on the back end: We spoke with a number of clerks across the state and learned that “Vote-by-Mail” did not have a specific designation within their internal system and that these ballots were classified as both “Early Vote” and sometimes “Absentee Vote.” Understanding how vote-by-mail was administered, and how clerks processed each of our requests, enabled us to correctly tailor our outreach to secure the information we needed.
  • Internal Tracking of Requests to Elections Officials: Under the leadership of super volunteer Manavi Sharma, we developed a system to track each request we sent to the 351 elections officials across Massachusetts. We began sending requests ten days after voters first received their mail-in ballot applications and continued until August 31st, the day before the election. As the project went on, we began requesting ballot drop box locations and data on who had already voted from town and city clerks.
  • Some communities were highly responsive to our requests and would send information every few days. When we didn’t hear from elections officials, we frequently found success by asking volunteers from their communities who knew to follow up.
  • By the end of the project, we had an internal tracking spreadsheet that guided our outreach efforts so we could communicate on a daily basis, with a goal of updating a town’s data at least once every week.
  • Every vote-by-mail request we sent to cities and towns asked for the information to be sent to us in a manipulable format (preferably Excel) and include State Voter file ID numbers, so that our team of data volunteers could upload it into VAN.

Not your mother’s four-day GOTV:

Vote-by-mail means Election Day is not just the day to vote, it is the last day to vote. Based on the state’s plan to begin mailing vote by mail applications to voters six weeks before Election Day, we built four “mini” GOTVs:

Get out the ballot applications:

  • Timing: Two weeks, beginning when applications were mailed to votersAudience: Our IDs and targeted likely supporters
  • Ask: Apply to vote by mail by completing paper application or utilizing the VoteAmerica tool on edmarkey.com/vote

Get out the mail-in ballots

  • Timing: Two weeks long, beginning four weeks out from Election Day, when the first voters began receiving their mail-in ballots
  • Audience: Anyone who applied to vote by mail
  • We first A/B tested our target voters who applied to vote-by-mail vs. non-target voters. Even among non-target vote-by-mail applicants (people who had applied but were less likely to vote for Ed based on our modeling) we found that a persuasion conversation was so effective that over 50% of those voters supported Ed by the end of the conversation. Uncomfortable as it was, we decided to call all vote-by-mail applicants, and it paid off massively. These were not typical cold calls, these voters had already taken a step toward voting in this election, and were overall very receptive to a conversation about Ed Markey. The results were so positive that we double and triple-checked, but the numbers held. This was a huge way of expanding our supporter universe.
  • Ask: Support Ed Markey & return your ballot ASAP

Get out the early vote

  • Timing: One week out, covering Massachusetts’ early voting window
  • Audience: Vote-by-mail applicants who had not yet returned a ballot; target voters who had not yet voted or applied to vote by mail
  • Ask: For vote-by-mail applicants who had not yet voted, we had persuasive conversations when necessary, then focused on a plan to early vote in person or hand-deliver their mail-in ballot. We stressed that at this point it was too late to mail a ballot in, and prioritized voting by other means. We also called members of our target universe who had not begun vote-by-mail to help them make a plan to early vote.

Get out the Election Day vote

  • Timing: Traditional GOTV
  • Audience: Vote by mail applicants who had not yet returned a ballot; target voters who had not yet voted
  • Ask: Vote today!

Make it a party.

Six weeks of GOTV is brutal. It needs to be joyful to sustain both staff and volunteers — who may be eager on weekend one and wavering in enthusiasm by weekend five. We got through it because we talked with our teams, centered their well-being, and created opportunities for community and release. The best thing we did to make GOTV joyful was instituting nightly checkout calls/dance parties that were open to all staff, volunteers, and fellows. What began as announcing the day’s organizing numbers evolved into hour-long Zoom dance parties. Pulling our staff and 100+ volunteers and fellows together to celebrate the day’s work, build community, request songs, and get up and dance meant the world to every person on those calls. It was the time when we felt the most like we were together as an in-person campaign.

Running (huge) phone banks on Zoom

Through trial-and-error, we found that large-format, statewide Zoom GOTV phone banks were the best way to keep volunteers engaged with making calls. It also streamlined our work by increasing staff efficiency, combining in-state and distributed efforts, and making it easier for volunteers to get involved. Here we must also credit Maya Handa and Team Mondaire Jones, who were kind enough to share what they’d learned.

Staffing roles: Our regional team led shifts on a rotating basis with the following roles, each of which could be filled by staff, fellows, or volunteers. This freed up our organizers to focus on recruitment and relational organizing. Here’s what we recommend:

  • Organizer: Staff member to act as floater/flex support
  • Trainer #1 — Main Leader: Screen share and lead phone bank training
  • Chat Moderator — Main Room (Zoom host): Respond to questions in the chat, assign volunteers to breakout rooms, post helpful links in the chat (ThruTalk, script, edmarkey.com/vote, dropbox.edmarkey.com) every few minutes
  • Trainer #2 — Breakout Room for Experienced Callers: Get volunteers on ThruTalk as they are added to the room
  • Chat Moderator — Breakout Room: Respond to questions in the chat
  • Shift Closer / Flake Chaser: Screenshot the participants list to help with closing out shifts, close shifts, chase no-shows
  • Flake Chaser #2: Help with closing shifts and chasing/reshifting no-shows
  • Tech Support #1: Staff a breakout room as needed for anyone experiencing tech issues. Chaos is a virus — any volunteer expressing absolutely any tech issues, even “What is a tab?” should be moved immediately into a dedicated space to get help.
  • Optional: Tech Support #2
  • Optional: Flake Chaser #3
  • Extra Fellows and staff to support as needed

Prioritize getting volunteers on the phones:

We’ve been taught to structure a phone bank by teaching volunteers first why we are here/about the candidate, then about the call tool, then the script. That means experienced volunteers have to sit through beginner information to get to the details that are unique to that day’s calls. Instead, we structured phone banks so that the updates of the day came first, and volunteers could exit the training to start making calls once they reached a section they already knew. First, any recent returning volunteers could get straight to work, then we trained everyone else on scripts, and then on how to use ThruTalk.

We started our phone banks by inviting anyone who had made calls that week to add a * to the beginning of their name and be moved into a breakout room to start making calls. This is an essential timesaver for the person assigning volunteers to breakout rooms.

Then we trained on the script, pausing afterwards to invite anyone who was already comfortable with ThruTalk be moved into the breakout room to start making calls

Lastly, we trained new phone bankers on ThruTalk

We initially included a “Get to Know Ed” and “Building your Personal Story” section, but our organizers told us that this wasted time, was rarely used, and only confused or delayed practiced volunteers. So we scrapped it.

Structure:

Our phone banks rarely topped 200 volunteers, and our team got better and better at executing them as they grew, but we would not recommend more than 200 volunteers per Zoom (not registrants, as flake rates remain high).

Build out distributed teams to scale your programs

We empowered volunteers to take on organizing leadership roles, often layered to scale, that expanded our operational and voter contact capacity. Distributed and field programs often bump into each other — we navigated this challenge by having our distributed program function as our out-of-state program. Of course, the lines still blurred in some places and silos were created in others.

  • Start here: online community monitor/greeters, run by our Slack moderator Sam Delgado. Volunteers come for the cause, but stay for the people, so it’s imperative to create a strong sense of community online — especially in the isolation of a pandemic. It’s in your best interest to make your Slack an effective, joyful space that volunteers want to keep coming back to again and again. Under Sam’s leadership, our Slack grew to an active community of over 2,500 volunteers!
  • Please see Slack as an organizing tool slides for more info
  • Text team, set up by Ahmad Ali, Caleb Brock, and Sam Bird, and run principally by Sam Bird and Katie Hayden. Running a text team on Slack is the industry standard, for a variety of reasons, but mainly because it works! For efficiency, we do not recommend holding text banks. Instead, volunteers could sign up for training to join the team, and from there, go on Slack to engage in the day’s text campaign.
  • Text leaders, managed by Katie Hayden and Sam Bird.
  • Call leaders, run by Ahmad Ali. Responsible for shifting and re-shifting our national volunteer base. These are the most fun kinds of calls you can make.
  • National phone bank trainers, who ran phone banks every week for Ed’s national volunteer base, including confirming, training, running the Zoom, and leading debriefs.
  • Friend bank trainers, who ran weekly statewide relational organizing events.
  • Relational chasers, established by Annie Horowitz and run by Katie Hayden. Responsible for following up with all the active users of our relational tool, and coaching them through continuing their outreach to their networks or following up with their networks to turn them out to vote. We recommend this tactic, and found much better engagement and conversion from this personal touch than from an email or text message reminder. You can read more about this here and find our guide here.
  • Green New Dialers, run by Sam Delgado and Lily Talerman. An opportunity for high school- and college-aged volunteers to grow their organizing skills. Each volunteer made 8+ hours of calls per week, but also learned new skills and got professional development opportunities. Among the team of 50+ volunteers, Sam and Lily’s brilliant tiered structure empowered leaders to be responsible for smaller teams.
  • One team we did not have: a distributed call crew. We found that investing in a strong structure for Zoom phone banks was effective for engaging and retaining volunteers, and getting volunteers to complete their shifts. Everyone who made calls came to a Zoom phone bank — even if it meant heading straight into a breakout room to get started. This kept things streamlined, kept volunteers engaged, and made the shift data easy to manage.

Democratize tools and resources

Building a movement means treating each member as a full stakeholder. It is tempting, easier, and less chaotic to restrict access to digital organizing tools and campaign resources. We found it was worth it to open the barn doors wide.

Give organizers access:

We gave our organizers and many fellows far more access to digital organizing tools than is common — trusting them to use these resources as they saw fit. They were trained on MobilizeAmerica and Spoke, and given full access so that they could catalyze their volunteer recruitment and create community-based events, phone banks, and programming.

Empower supporters to be organizers

Just like with organizers and many fellows, giving the keys to certain super volunteers and grassroots groups became a piece of our success.

  • This shows these volunteers that you trust them and that they are accountable for our shared success
  • The best example of this is the Students for Markey, a powerful, unaffiliated grassroots organization. We communicated closely with them about goals and priorities, and then gave them resources to help build a massive youth organizing organization, including access to MobilizeAmerica, our link shortener, and even Spoke.

Every single volunteer had access to a suite of organizing tools and was actively encouraged to use them and be organizers, including:

  • Our relational platform
  • VoteAmerica (a simple web form that makes it possible and easy for voters to request their ballots online and without a printer)
  • The ability to raise grassroots donations with a customizable ActBlue page
  • A mail-in dropbox locator, dropbox.edmarkey.com, that was the most comprehensive in the state
  • A form that made it easy for voters to request nomination papers and share with friends
  • Please see the tools section below for complete information.

Embrace and empower grassroots and youth-led organizing

Anyone can be an organizer, and campaigns should invest real resources in their people. To build a movement, we need to train lots and lots of new organizers.

Infuse skill-building and professional development wherever possible. Volunteers and fellows are not direct voter contact robots.

  • Our massive fellowship program, scaled by Fellowship Coordinator Lily Talerman to 400 people from an original goal of 100, focused on investing in these up-and-coming activists, organizers, and political operatives.
  • Fellows were given positions of leadership to exponentially increase their impact. They were given actual organizing turf and leadership roles, not just made to make calls and knock on doors all day.

Localize leadership: For us, this meant community and precinct captains who were trained in distributed models and tools, statewide volunteer-led teams, and distributed teams.

Give them access to resources, and work with them to get to a place of trust to organize effectively!

Hiring

Hire field organizers who are of their community: While campaigns often rely on hiring city- or capitol-centric staff who are sent to turf they may not be familiar with, we prioritized and recommend hiring people committed to relational organizing who live and work in the regions they organize.

Hire people from diverse and nontraditional backgrounds: Our staff of local organizers has vastly varied life experience that enriches our team, including single moms, a Broadway actor, a farmer, and a recent college freshman, to name a few.

A turf map that makes sense: As we drew our geographic organizing map, we abandoned state legislative and congressional districts to focus on local organizing culture: where people shop, send their kids to school, and regionally identify. This approach allowed us to build and strengthen local coalitions led and supported by members of our team who held long-standing community relationships.

Tech Stack — Our Digital Organizing Tools

Built In-House:

FriendBank, also known as the supporter page tool — our relational organizing platform, built by Joe Kent. (Here’s what it looks like on our site).

Ballot dropbox directory — built by Joe Kent. Anyone can build this: contact town clerks to ask for drop box locations in their town, then use town websites, Twitter, and word-of-mouth to aggregate more sites. With that data, Joe Kent created this simple subdomain that runs a script through our list to retrieve and surface info (allowing you to constantly update as new locations are found). (Here’s what it looks like on our site.)

Voter contact goal thermometer — created by Amanda Westlake to show volunteers that they are a part of something bigger. We shared this thermometer in many of our VPB phone banks and friend banks and encouraged volunteers to press the tempting big red button for each new conversation they had, and watch their collective progress rise!

Free:

Slack — our digital HQ

LeftApps custom link shortener — we recommend making everything as simple as could be, and that means easy-to-remember links. Pop them into graphics, phone bank Zoom chats, peer-to-peer text scripts, etc. We love the free custom one offered through LeftApps, and gave access to all organizers, as well as fellows and trusted members of the grassroots. (LeftApps also offer Spoke and other great free tools — we stan).

VoteAmerica ballot request form — embedding this on our website made something possible that otherwise didn’t exist: requesting a ballot online. Thousands of our supporters used this tool to quickly and easily get a mail-in ballot sent to them.

ActBlue personal fundraising pages — included with an ActBlue contract

Paid:

Spoke — we used MoveOn’s version of this peer-to-peer texting platform because it is so affordable. Since Spoke is an open-sourced tool and not a product or service, when you set it up, you will also need a platform to deploy the code (we used Heroku) and a Twilio account to purchase numbers and send the messages. We also had an instance of ThruText set up, and ran our lists through ThruText first to root out landlines and invalid numbers.

ThruTalk — the best predictive dialer tool for calling both cell phones and landlines. On our first night of GOTV phone banking in July, we called over 100,000 voters with a 2% contact rate. We learned we were able to regularly triple that, and experienced our highest contact rate on the morning of Election Day at nearly 13%. Key tricks we learned to optimize ThruTalk:

  • Make sure dialer lists are no larger than 15,000 phone numbers to avoid being flagged as a spam risk.
  • Upload daily, single-use lists with their own unique numbers. We used Twilio to purchase new phone numbers on a daily basis.
  • Cut dialer lists based on regional area code and assign them a relevant phone number. We maintained a frequent line of communication with ThruTalk and whenever we noticed contact rates dropping, we immediately chatted ThruTalk to identify any issues. Dramatic decreases in contact rates would cause us to switch lists and add a new caller ID for the paused list, which often helped.

Trainings, Guides, and Resources

Here are links to the slide decks, spreadsheets, and other materials we used to support these strategies and train our volunteers. They went through many iterations. If they are helpful for your program, please use them!

See also: our relational organizing deep dive

Have questions? Advice? Want to talk more? We want to talk to you! Feel free to DM us on Twitter! Our handles are up top.

Last but emphatically not least, THANK YOU to Team Markey!

Everything we discuss here would be nothing without the input and contributions of our brilliant staff, so a very special thanks to: Deputy Director of Distributed Campaigning Katie Hayden; Regional Organizing Directors Kristen Elechko, Liam Horsman, Aran Hamilton-Grenham, Jamil Siddiqui, Matt Brodeur, Shannon Morrell, and Willie Burnley Jr; Field Organizers Cam Cote, Amanda Westlake, Lisa Mosczynski, Sky Flores, Adderly Gonzalez, Jenn Meakem, Joe Chafins, Nate Roberts, Ben Rutberg, Nicolas Suarez, Jessica Laverty, Ashley Benson, Alyssa Gold, and Charlotte Ferenbach; Statewide Latinx Organizing Manager Juan Gallego; and of course, our Fellowship Coordinator Lily Talerman.

To Field First, our incredible field consultants, you were foundational in supporting and centering an effective relational model. Thank you for being a part of this team every step of the way!

To the rest of the Team Markey staff, we would ride into battle with you any day.

To the Fellows and volunteers of Team Markey, you are our *heroes!* To the Markeyverse and Students for Markey, we love you, we stan you, and everyone should hire you.

And to our Campaign Director John Walsh, thank you for believing in all of us, teaching us, and empowering us to get weird.