Quora Question: Ex-Bernie Sanders' Advisers on Motivating the Grassroots

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Answer from Becky Bond and Zack Exley, former senior advisers to Bernie Sanders; co-authors of Rules for Revolutionaries:

Insurgent presidential primary campaigns don’t come around that often, not even every four years. But outsider presidential campaigns make excellent laboratories for technology, strategies and tactics that can be applied to local campaigns as well as to social justice and public interest advocacy campaigns at any level.

Zack Exley and I wanted to share the lessons we learned on the Bernie Sanders campaign and in our careers in organizing because we believe that the potential for mass participation through volunteer-led organizing is big.

In our book, Rules for Revolutionaries: How Big Organizing Can Change Everything, we detailed these lessons as “22 rules” many of which were developed hand in hand with dedicated volunteers working on the ground in our distributed organizing program.

All of the rules are applicable in national and local campaigns alike. Here are just a few:

Rule 1: You Won’t Get a Revolution if You Don’t Ask for One

This means that you have to ask for the change you want to see, not just the change that local politicians or leaders believe is possible. In the presidential primary a good example was fracking. Bernie said he supported a ban on fracking. Clinton had a list of regulatory moves that she said would make it difficult to frack where we shouldn’t be fracking. Which position is more motivating to volunteers and gets people more fired up? The ban on fracking! This exact dynamic plays out in cities and counties around the country. Should our county ban fracking or regulate it? Our lesson was go for the change we need to win. Then develop a plan to get from the world as it is to the world where you’ve won. You’ll have a lot more volunteers to help you implement your plan if you have a big goal.

0518_bernie_sanders_supporters Supporters greet Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders at a rally in Carson, California, on May 17. Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

Rule 3: The Revolution Will Not be Staffed

On the Bernie campaign especially when we were getting started we didn’t have the money required to hire all the staff we needed to run a giant distributed voter contact operation. So we recruited volunteers working together part-time in teams to do tasks that a normal campaign would have delegated to paid staff. We learned that three or four talented and committed volunteers could often do the work of one full-time paid staffer.

From the campaign’s email help desk to our virtual call center software to our peer-to-peer texting operation our key technological infrastructure was run by thousands of volunteers working under the direction of just a few paid staff. Free or low-cost software like Slack, Google Apps and Trello make this easier than it ever has been before.

This approach can be incredibly powerful when applied to often underfunded local campaigning or national advocacy campaigns that are led outside of big, well-funded nonprofit organizations. Some of the tactics we developed on the Bernie campaign make it easy to get started with a volunteer-led campaign at any level. We’re excited to see what happens when local campaigns adopt some of our rules and help us learn more about what big organizing looks like in a community context.

Rule 8: Barnstorm!

On the Bernie campaign, the distributed organizing campaign developed a powerful model for an in-person mass meeting that helps an organizer get supporters to work in just 90 minutes. We called these meetings “barnstorms.” These meetings were designed to be replicated and iterated. The format was so powerful in putting people to valuable, measurable work, both leading events and completing voter contact volunteer shifts, that we couldn’t keep up with demand. That’s when we started training volunteers to lead them instead of staff. Volunteers leading barnstorm meetings generated just as many volunteer shifts as staff, so we know it’s a format that can be adapted and used by volunteers in any campaign where there are supporters who are motivated by your message and tasks to get to work.

By the end of the campaign, we held over 1,000 barnstorm meetings, 650 of which were led by volunteers with virtually no involvement by paid staff.

These are just a few of our 22 rules. There are others that are indispensable to local organizing like “Fight the Tyranny of the Annoying,” “Don’t Let the Perfect be the Enemy of the Big” and “Get on the Phone.” We believe that when you have a big, inspiring goal that will make real change in people’s lives you can use big organizing at any level. People are just waiting to be asked to do something big to win something big. The most important thing is for you to begin and make that first ask.

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