Relational Organizing in an Electoral Context

Jun 4, 2018 · 13 min read

Synonym: “Friend to friend” outreach

Seen in tools like: VoterCircle, OutVote, Team App, MyRVP, VoteWithMe


  • What is relational organizing?
  • What are the potential benefits of this kind of technique?
  • What are the challenges with this kind of technique in an electoral organizing context?
  • How should campaign organizing programs incorporate tech/digital into this strategy?
  • How much does this cost?

First, a little about us:

What is relational organizing?

In today’s media landscape, we’re seeing that the messenger matters as much as (if not more than!) the message itself. Below, we’ll outline the potential benefits of using relational organizing programs; the challenges with incorporating relational organizing into data-driven, scaled organizing programs; and data and technology solutions for campaigns and organizations who want to run a next-level relational organizing program.

What are the potential benefits of running a relational organizing program?

But our focus on and investment in campaign organizing programs doesn’t mean we’re running the most effective or efficient organizing programs we could be. We’re facing an average of a 3 to 5 percent contact rate on the phones. Because of this, we set metrics around attempts — not around contacts. If an organizer made phone calls for four hours straight per day (which most do!), they would be lucky to talk to 15 people. And this doesn’t even start to get into the data deficiencies our campaigns face — what little data we have on people is often incomplete and out-of-date.

Relational organizing solves some of those problems — not completely, but as another means to a solution. By leveraging existing contacts, relational organizing can lead to a higher contact rate. You’re less likely to pick up the phone for an unknown number — even one with your area code — than you are to pick up a call from your parents or a friend. The ask comes from someone you trust — so instead of needing to spend time building a relationship in order to make an ask, you can take advantage of an existing relationship to get that person to register, vote, volunteer, or whatever you need them to do. We know social pressure works to get people to take action — and no one can exert more peer pressure than a friend or family member. And we can improve our data by asking friends and family to fill in someone’s information, including out-of-date home numbers, new cell phone numbers, etc.

Below, we’ll go into a deeper dive on some of the potential benefits of a relational organizing program:

Higher turnout effects.

Relational organizing is particularly effective at reaching traditionally disenfranchised voters. Data on young people has been especially difficult for campaigns to acquire — but running a relational organizing program to register and turn out voters on a college campus has more potential for success than trying to run a traditional organizing program to turn out those voters. This is also true for minority communities — getting the message (and social pressure) from a member of their community to vote will have a higher impact on turnout than having a campaign organizer try to reach and mobilize that community from outside of it.

Better contact rates.

Better conversion rates.

Better models + expanded universes.

To give an example: I might know that my mom, who has voted Republican her whole life, is planning to vote for a Democrat this year — but a model might not show that. Because she has consistently voted Republican in the past six elections, she isn’t worth the campaign’s efforts to reach and ID. If I gave the campaign ID data on my mom, that wouldn’t just improve targeting on her — it would help correct our overall model.

Less chance of mobilizing non-supportive voters.

Another benefit of relational organizing is that people can’t opt out of the method of outreach like they can with campaign communications — either refusing phone calls or opting out of being texted. In 2016, we didn’t ID most of our GOTV universe via SMS for fear of them opting out before they could receive a text asking them to vote — and we ended up texting many Trump supporters with a GOTV message. Because people can’t “opt out” of a relational organizing touch, we can ID earlier and not risk mobilizing these people during GOTV.

What are the challenges with relational organizing in an electoral organizing context?

Relationships aren’t confined within organizer turfs.

Geographic turfs aren’t a perfect way to set up organizing programs. People don’t know their neighbors as well as they used to, and relationships aren’t confined to a specific organizer turf. It’s a necessary trade-off — but it makes relational organizing difficult to integrate.

An example of this: if your volunteer works across town and has a ton of relationships in a different turf, you can ask them to get all those people to volunteer, but they might be in a different organizer turf, so they’ll contribute to another organizer’s goals. Or if your volunteer who works across town knows a ton of GOTV targets across town, they can still contact them and ask them to vote, but it won’t count toward their turf’s GOTV metrics, even though it’s an effective GOTV ask.

Data and management is hard.

Another obstacle: if two people (or 30) have a relationship with a persuasion target, it becomes difficult to not only know who should reach out to them, but also how to track contacts so that the target doesn’t get oversaturated. This gets even more difficult as you scale.

The universe is incomplete.

Channels and timeline matter.

For example: studies have shown again and again that the best mobilization touch is an in-person GOTV conversation close to election day. What we don’t know is how a relational text message sent a month out from the election compares, if a relational touch in person is any more effective than a relational text, or what the relationship between a general relational touch and an in-person cold GOTV touch with a strict script looks like.

Volunteer demographics and target demographics often don’t intersect.

How and why campaign organizing programs should incorporate tech/digital into this strategy

There are two main reasons for looking for a tech or digital solution to help (but not completely run) a relational organizing program:

  1. Voter file matching is the piece needed to operate this strategy at scale, and it can be difficult to figure out manually. Many tools offer voter file matching so you can match your volunteers’ contacts to a specific person in your voter file. One thing we would caution is to not try to find your volunteers’ contacts only in your district or state voter file. This is how bad matches happen. For example, if a volunteer has 10 friends from District B but the campaign is in District A, looking for those friends in District A might yield false positives if they have commons names. Instead, try to look at a national voter file where you can find the actual person — not just lookalike names.
  2. Turning social networks into digestible data. A lot of the success to scaling a strategy like this relies on the ability to turn the people that a volunteer knows into an actual list that a program can track. Without using a tool, you could easily track lists such as union membership lists, church directories, bowling league rosters, and more. Many of the tools out there have functionality to download phone contact lists, email lists, or social media friends lists and match them against voter files. We would use a relational organizing strategy in addition to (not instead of!) a traditional organizing program to boost and augment existing efforts. Relational organizing is a way to get better data and increase contact and conversion rates for the type of program you’re already running. But to be clear, this should be done in addition to a scaled organizing program that reaches out to voters itself as well.

We have two ideas on incorporating relational organizing into your existing program:

  1. Volunteer “homework.” As a campaign organizer, schedule your volunteers for phone banks and canvasses as you normally would. When they come into the office, have them give you a list of their contacts or network. If you’re using a digital tool, have them download the tool and get set up at the office so you can walk them through security permissions. After they finish their regular volunteer shift (canvassing, phonebanking, etc), give them their list of targeted relational contacts to reach out to during the week (marked with what type of target each person is), and tell them to come back the next week to tell you about the results. Not only will you get additional IDs, volunteers, and persuasion contacts, but it could also reduce flake rates as the volunteer might be more likely to want to come back the next week to report their work.
  2. Reduce the size of your GOTV universe by covering a portion with relational contacts. GOTV staging locations based on organizer turfs shouldn’t go away. But the science around relational organizing touches remains consistent — it’s a more effective touch on a one to one level. If you pull your GOTV universe early, as the campaign progresses you can track what percentage of it can be contacted by volunteers who know the targets via voter file matching. You could then remove those targets from the final universe to allow more passes of GOTV targets who couldn’t be reach via relational methods.

How much does relational organizing cost?

Options include:

  • MyRVP: $500 to $3000 per month, depending on the size of the campaign.
  • OutVote: Free for up to 5k voters, $100 per month for up to 400k voters, and $250 per month for up to 500k voters.
  • VoterCircle: Monthly costs vary based on voter file size, at the free, $150, $250, and “custom” levels that may include a monthly fee as well as a 10 cent per contact fee.
  • Team App: Price plans vary depending on voter file sizes at the statewide level from $3000 to $8000 per month.
  • Google Sheets: Free to use! Taking it back to basics, using something as simple as Google Sheets to have volunteers input their contacts and track outreach can be effective if you don’t have budget for a tool.

Every tool has its upsides and downsides. You can read long form breakdown of each tool here.

Our two cents:

We know that in many instances, for Democrats to win this year, we need to expand the electorate by registering young people and people of color. We need to run strong GOTV programs to turn our supporters into voters. Democrats are less likely to vote in midterm elections than Republicans — so we’re already facing an uphill battle. We can’t leave anything on the table when it comes to running effective and efficient organizing programs.

By incorporating relational organizing into our organizing programs, we can harness the power of existing relationships as we organize. We can deliver more effective asks to more people. We can reach communities we previously couldn’t. We can gather more data that will help us build infrastructure not just this cycle but for years to come. And we can start to fight back against misinformation and the spread of fake news.

Relational organizing isn’t a silver bullet, and the tools that facilitate relational organizing programs are not winning strategies by themselves. Relational organizing is organizing. It’s empowering people to change their communities. And by investing in and running relational organizing programs this cycle, we can register more voters, persuade more undecideds, recruit more volunteers, and turn out more Democrats. That is how we win.


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