Ed Markey’s Relational-First Organizing Approach

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

See also: our organizing model

Ed Markey on his phone with the caption, Hi, this is Ed Markey calling and I love you very much.

Ed Markey’s 2020 Senate re-election campaign 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 we ask volunteers 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 17,000 contacts — a massive share for an emerging approach that has proven tricky to master.

We must give credit to Campaign Director John Walsh, who set the standard of a relational-first organizing model for Team Markey, as well as Carl Nilsson and the incredible team at Field First who were there far before any organizing staff and helped us build and hone that relational model.

Creating a relational program & platform that work
Scaling volunteer engagement
To facilitate relational organizing, ask volunteers to help identify your likely voters
Relational fundraising
Resources

Creating a relational program & platform that work

After the viral success of our nomination paper request page — a Google form that garnered 21,000 signatures (and more importantly, IDs and volunteer sign ups) for Ed mostly relationally and organically — we saw an opportunity. What if we could recreate that success with a simple relational tool that had:

  1. A traditional dashboard that volunteers could use to log their outreach, and
  2. A front-facing, customizable signup form that volunteers and endorsing organizations could ask their friends and family to sign or post on social media (taking advantage of our candidate’s active online base)?

This became support.edmarkey.com, our relational organizing platform created by Joe Kent. It was inspired by our nomination paper request form, ActBlue’s personal fundraising page feature, and “I endorse” graphic generators like the one popularized by the #NotMeUs movement (and iendorseed.com, created by Amanda Westlake and Abhi Agarwal!).

Prioritize user experience and ease to minimize barrier to entry: Most relational organizing tools are optimized to work best from the perspective of data managers and the campaign — often at the expense of the user experience. When these tools are hard to use, fewer volunteers engage with them, or with relational organizing at all. Given a choice between fewer relational volunteers/IDs and perfect data, or lots of volunteers+IDs and data that was not tracked perfectly, we chose the latter. Ultimately, it paid off.

Make your tool and user experience as simple as possible:

Collect only the most necessary questions: support level, volunteer interest level, and vote plan. We also left an open-ended notes section so volunteers could add any information they wanted that would be helpful to them. Volunteers used this to mark down shifting information for their organizers, pronouns, vote plans, personal stories, reminders to follow up, information about local community involvement, and more.

Web-based, not an app. Many relational tools require volunteers to download an app — a step that causes friction and leaves out older volunteers who are not digital natives.

No requirement to upload contacts. Uploading contact information and voter file matching is a powerful feature of other relational tools, and one of the biggest instances in which these tools are optimized according to the priorities of the campaign. Relational organizing often stops when volunteers learn they have to surrender their contact’s data. Not requiring this lowered the bar, decreased friction and, we believe, got more folks involved in the program. It did, however, create some data chaos on the backend. We ended up with thousands of mismatched records that needed to be manually corrected for our voter file. To reduce this, we highly recommend prompting volunteers for the “full legal name” of the voter in question.

Scaling volunteer engagement

The surprising viral success of our nomination paper request form was intoxicating. It took off — people shared it everywhere and were invested in making sure their friends signed it and got Ed on the ballot. And since each request also gave us a new ID, we thought, wouldn’t it be great if we can keep recreating that beyond nomination papers? But recreating viral success is not easy — instead, to make our relational program work, we knew we had to invest in strategy that engaged and sustained lots of volunteers over the long term.

Make it about the strategy, not the tool. Instead of putting all our asks into getting volunteers to download a tool and reassuring them that their cousin’s data wouldn’t be sold, we could focus on getting volunteers excited about and executing into the concept. We taught volunteers that each of us is uniquely suited to turn out the people in our lives, so when we all take responsibility for talking to our people about Ed and turning them out to vote — even just 20 people each — that becomes a winning coalition of voters.

Relational is the first volunteer ask: Right up until GOTV, we asked our volunteers to exhaust their list of contacts before doing any traditional voter file phone banking.

We are all relational organizers: We intentionally strayed away from industry terms like “relational organizing” that actually convey a simple concept. We are all already talking and posting about politics and this election with people we know!

There is no one right way to do it: As the race heated up and our volunteer base grew and trended younger, we moved on to emphasizing that there is no one right way to relational organize: you can talk to anyone over any platform.

Go digital: Meeting people where they are means finding ways to engage with them on every online platform and digital community possible.

  • One highly effective tactic involves supporters posting something to the effect of “Let me know if the comments if you’re #StickingWithEd” on Twitter, Facebook, a Facebook group, Instagram, Instagram stories, etc. and then following up individually with each person who engages with it via direct message to canvass them — and entering that person into your support.edmarkey.com
  • Another involves simply looking up your candidate or similar figures on Facebook, seeing which of your friends likes them and are thus likely to be receptive, and direct messaging them (We suggested our supporters look up Ed, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren)
  • We stood up a digital canvassing program, run by Laura DeVeau, focused on teaching volunteers strategies for getting people to engage with content about Ed on Facebook and NextDoor particularly, and how to turn that engagement into IDs and volunteers.
  • The Students for Markey, an unaffiliated and powerful grassroots group, implemented and evangelized a version of “DM banking” particularly on Twitter and Instagram stories.
  • As part of the resources given to volunteers during a friend bank, we included a “graphic bank” — an idea that came to us from Annie Horowitz and the Mondaire Jones for Congress campaign — a drive folder of infographics about Ed that volunteers could post as conversation starters.
  • The brilliant Markey Map developed by our digital team was a massive resource — volunteers could post about everything Ed did for their community, inviting engagement.

Target unengaged volunteers and make it feel easy and important:

  • We found great success when we asked volunteer “maybes” and “laters” without an upcoming shift to friend bank.
  • Many volunteers who feel intimidated by calling, texting, and other forms of direct voter contact with strangers found it easy and comfortable to do relational outreach. You’re talking with people you already know, not strangers!
  • We were careful with our language to make the tactic feel accessible to these volunteers.

Friend Bank:

  • We held multiple “Friend Banks” on Zoom each week that were fairly short, 1.5 hours (decreasing the barrier to entry) for volunteers to do relational outreach, just like a regular phone bank.
  • Friend Banks were structured to first get volunteers excited about the concept, quickly trained on our tool, and then spend time together doing outreach and banking contacts. Volunteers were given a goal of 7 contacts during that session, and 20 by the end of that week.
  • We used a modified version of our goal thermometer for Friend Banks, as an option so that volunteers could observe their individual and collective impact. “Look at all of these voters we were able to identify and talk to just with this group in one hour!”
  • Slide deck

Dedicated systems of follow-up and accountability:

  • We set up a team of “relational chasers” whose job it was to follow up with all of our relational volunteers. Chasers coached and engaged with volunteers about their outreach — how it was going, if they had any questions or technical issues — and encouraged them to keep going (and eventually, to follow back up with everyone and remind them to vote).
  • These peer-to-peer conversations were far more effective than a bump over SMS or email.
  • Relational chasers guide

Go wide and deep: We made it clear to volunteers that relational organizing isn’t just about your mom, your friend, and your roommate. It’s anyone you’re connected to: Facebook friends, friends of friends, random acquaintances, former colleagues, all of it are easy targets. We used prompts like “Who would you invite to your wedding? Who do you send holiday cards to? Who would you invite over for a barbecue? This also meant emphasis on using online platforms to relationally organize.

  • Our volunteers took this to heart: blasting email lists, social media platforms, scouring their contact lists, and turning any conversation, particularly online ones, into an opportunity to relational organize.
  • A few great examples of this digital relational approach:
  • Aidan Kohn-Murphy, whose viral TikTok garnered thousands of contacts and took advantage of the front-facing signup feature
  • Emma Guyette, who organized dozens of matches on Hinge (a popular dating app) and developed an entire strategy for it
  • Students for Markey, who taught a strategy for canvassing using Instagram story polls, and implemented it everywhere they could (ex, 20 minutes at the beginning of a debate watch party).

Make it fun: Competitions, leaderboards, prizes!

Make it necessary: We often stressed the idea that this only works if everyone does their part. On Zoom calls with elected officials, Democratic Town Committees, or volunteers, Ed would ask everyone to get close, closer, closer to their cameras so he could reveal our secret strategy: relational organizing (or “OAHH-ga-ni-zing” if you’re a Markey from Malden).

  • Supporters took that to heart. Everyone participated, nobody was above it: staff members like Jim Cantwell and elected officials like Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier were among the top relational organizers on our leaderboards.
  • Not only that, but the culture of our campaign meant that volunteers followed through. When Aidan Kohn-Murphy’s viral TikTok garnered thousands of contacts, he asked how we could help him set up a phone bank and have all of them make calls with him. Emma Guyette made sure all the Hinge matches she had organized also had plans to vote, and was fearless in reaching back out to all of them.

To facilitate relational organizing, ask volunteers to help identify your likely voters

As we continued to lean into relational organizing, it became clear that many volunteers were hitting roadblocks and would benefit from a more facilitated structure that provided lists and names of people in their community for them to contact. Kate Donaghue, one of our volunteer leaders, helped lead the development of an approach that involved pulling lists of voters in a volunteer’s area into a PDF or Google sheet which volunteers combed through and used to ID voters.

  • We included voter targets from our universe as well as Markey IDs so that people could both recruit volunteer shifts from the supporters they knew, and engage in personalized persuasion conversations with undecided voters they knew.
  • We sent many of these sheets to local endorsers who were able to have impactful and targeted conversations with voters they knew in their districts.
  • All of our Google sheets were formatted with drop down columns that matched responses for relevant survey questions in VAN (i.e. ID questions, volunteer questions, and vote by mail questions). Volunteers were manually shared on these sheets (allowing the campaign to maintain control of access) and would use these sheets to call, text, email, Facebook message, and DM on social media the people they knew, and we would regularly upload the information into VAN as all data was clearly and neatly assigned a survey response that fit with the back end. The sheets included Voter File VAN IDs to allow for easy upload of data.

You can view and copy a template of our spreadsheet here or in the Resources section.

Relational fundraising

The heavy emphasis on relational organizing in our campaign made it easy for volunteers to make the leap to relational fundraising: we used ActBlue’s personal fundraising page feature to create edmarkey.com/raise and helped any supporters make customizable pages they could use to ask their friends, family, and social media networks to join them in pitching in for Ed.

  • Zoom house parties: We created programming around this feature by organizing two big nights of Zoom house parties. Sydney Rachael Levin-Epstein on our finance team played the central role in executing this wacky — but ultimately successful — vision: supporters were asked to host a “house party” fundraiser on Zoom and set a goal for raising money from their friends and family using their personal ActBlue page. Then, everyone who hosted or attended a party got to hear from Ed and a litany of special guests later in the night — no matter how much they chipped in. We made this fun and made it about celebrating grassroots donors, and brought in over $150,000 in grassroots donations across two rounds.
  • Fundraising competition: Our Q2 end-of-quarter staff/fellows fundraising competition netted over $21,000 in grassroots donations from personal ActBlue pages.

Resources

Relational organizing tool, built by Joe Kent
Friend Banking slide deck
Relational chasers guide
Community ID sheet template

Thank you to the Mondaire Jones for Congress crew for helping inspire some of the content in our slide deck and chasers guide! And for everything they did to share their knowledge — which helped inspire us to publish this piece.

See also: our organizing model

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.