How we built a massive distributed GOTV team and the friendliest corner of the internet
By The NextGen Distributed Team — Lillie Catlin, Marlou Taenzer, Sofia Garduno, Shasun Sulur, Lindsey Rayner, Eric Babb, and Autumn Frlekin
In 2020, NextGen America’s Distributed Organizing team of 75 volunteer leaders, over 5,000 volunteers, seven staff, and 13 fellows made 2,161,820 calls and sent 11,405,115 texts to young voters in priority battleground states. We accomplished this voter engagement while also creating and maintaining a positive community experience for our volunteers. We didn’t invent distributed organizing, but we’re proud of the program we created and are excited to share the lessons we learned along the way for others to consider adapting to their programs.
In order to turn out the youth vote, we needed to reach young voters traditional campaigns skip over, and our Distributed Organizing program allowed us to achieve this scope. To us, distributed organizing means inviting everyone to participate, ensuring the program is accessible to as many as possible, creating non-traditional roles for volunteer leaders, providing a consistent, reliable level of support to our volunteers, automating when possible, and guaranteeing that the program remains nimble throughout the election cycle.
The way we organized was just as important to us as our voter contact metrics. Cultivating and nurturing a positive volunteer experience was one of our most important goals, and we worked to create a warm, welcoming, and fun culture. We did this because it’s the right, and smart, thing to do. Even when we lose elections, fostering community and empowering volunteers to lead will allow us to win long-term.
Volunteers today are tomorrow’s leaders, and it’s on us to support their development in the political arena. We empowered our volunteer leaders, invested in their growth, and trusted them to lead our program. We also created a culture of respect for voters. We spent significant time educating our volunteers on the importance of the youth vote and set clear expectations that reaching out to young people is hard work.
This Medium post will discuss how we built, scaled, and maintained our program to contact millions of voters. To learn more about our texting and calling program check out:
Early on, our staff sat down as a team and defined key components of our program that we believed were necessary to succeed. Particularly when building a team quickly, it’s important to be explicit about the type of culture you want to create and your action plan for implementation.
We hosted a virtual team retreat to respond to the prompts listed below and wrote a memo memorializing our discussion. The exercise served not only as a staff bonding opportunity but also created buy-in from one another to hold ourselves accountable to the culture to which we committed. When new staff joined our team, we shared the memo right away. Reflecting on the process today, we wish we had created a process to regroup as a team to discuss adherence to our values and areas for improvement.
- What do we want our team to feel like?
- What are NextGen’s key cultural attributes?
- What are our thoughts on these attributes?
- How do these attributes change or how do we apply them with a smaller team?
- What other values are very important to you?
- Based on our team values, how do we work together? What do we do to live out our values?
- What expectations do you have of your colleagues?
- What can you individually do to ensure we live our values?
- What are your expectations of your colleagues in how we communicate with each other?
- What are your preferences on how we communicate with each other?
- What type of regular communication do you expect from your direct supervisor? What information do you need from them, how often, and what would the best method be?
- What type of regular communication do you expect from your senior leadership/other lead management? What information do you need from them, how often, and what would the best method be?
- What type of regular communication do you expect from your colleagues? What information do you need from them, how often, and what would the best method be?
- How can we use communication modes to match our values?
- What types of conversations should be over Slack, email, meeting, phone call, Zoom, text?
In order to scale our program quickly, we needed to ensure a clear programmatic identity that valued the flexibility of volunteers to seamlessly blend between teams. All staff were thoroughly trained on both the call and text programs. Volunteers were added to both the call and text team Slack channels and, whenever possible, volunteers were encouraged to support the call team if additional capacity was needed. If a volunteer joined our virtual field office and lived in one of our 11 targeted battleground states, we encouraged them to join their state’s Slack workspace.
Creating Community in Slack
Slack functioned as our virtual field office. When volunteers first joined the Slack workspace, they were added to our #announcements, #community, #help, #calling, and #texting-onboarding channels. They also received a message from Greetbot explaining our program, links to resources to learn more about Slack, and a brief overview of each channel.
To scale the program, we centralized programmatic information through Slack. We engaged thoughtfully with our volunteers in our virtual field office, prioritizing responsiveness. Our responsiveness demonstrated that we respected our volunteers’ time and their questions. We’re proud that we never left a single volunteer question unanswered and averaged a response time of less than two minutes. We constantly encouraged our volunteers to ask questions, explaining that there are no silly questions. We engaged with empathy, always practicing patience.
In the #announcements channel, a volunteer leader or staff member would post daily announcements. This channel was locked for non-admins.
In the Community Channel, volunteers posted fun welcome messages and positive updates from calls and texts.
Given the technological nature of our distributed program, volunteers were at times discouraged if they didn’t know how to navigate Slack. However, with our encouragement and support, most volunteers mastered the virtual workspace, and once they did, remained with us through the cycle. Even those volunteers who weren’t able to overcome technological challenges left with a positive impression of the supportive nature of our program.
Support for Slack mostly came through our Help Desk team, who responded to emails volunteers sent (often in reply the confirmation emails for their shift). In each training session for text and call team shifts we reviewed both Slack’s features, and how we use it to communicate.
As our volunteer team grew, we realized that we needed to automate some of our Slack processes to meet the demands of our program. Slack features supported our efforts. The Slack features that we utilized the most included Slackbots, Pinned Posts, Hover Here, and the Announcements Channels.
We set up automated Slackbot responses so that when a keyword appeared an automated response from Slackbot would guide volunteers and support in answering their question.
Example of a pinned post:
Onboarding New Volunteers in a Virtual Field Office
Onboarding volunteers in a virtual environment required unique volunteer leadership structures. In our program, volunteer leaders thoughtfully and patiently guided new volunteers who were joining the Slack workspace for the first time, welcoming them to the program. Volunteers were guided from the Community channel to the Calling and Texting Onboarding channels, where they were provided with next steps. In the texting channel, volunteers were guided through training documents and then prompted to complete a quiz. Upon successful completion, they were able to begin texting. For calling, they participated in a training over zoom before their shift. We prioritized training and ensured that they were consistent throughout our program. Throughout the onboarding process, volunteer leaders were present to support volunteers and answer questions. To learn more about how the text and call team onboarded volunteers, check out
Trusting Volunteers and Building Leadership
We quickly promoted volunteer leadership to scale our program and to ensure our volunteers knew that we trusted them. We created space for volunteers to escalate themselves right away, allowing them to choose the team they would join — invitations to our leadership trainings were posted in the daily channel announcements. Volunteers and volunteer leaders provided us with thoughtful feedback that we often adopted. Our program improved as a result of this valuable feedback. volunteers’ sense of ownership over our program created a better experience for all. During our weekly volunteer leader calls, we would always leave time to get feedback from our leaders about what was and wasn’t working with the program. After big days of action, we would make sure to debrief with them and see how we could improve their experience in the future.
Valuing Volunteer Leadership
Our smart, thoughtful, and talented volunteer leaders ran our Distributed Organizing program. Each leadership role was designed with a specific goal in mind and had a unique structure. We recruited specific volunteers who stood out to us as interested in taking on a leadership position; however, we also ensured that anyone who was interested could participate. Too often in organizing we don’t say why we are setting up and executing our program a certain way, and fail to share the goal of the program. We made sure to communicate clearly and transparently with our leaders and volunteers and developed communication structures with their input. You can learn more about the volunteer leadership structures for texting (LINK) and (LINK) calling.
- Invest in a positive, patient, empathetic team culture with staff, volunteer leaders, and volunteers.
- Non-traditional volunteer leadership roles are needed to successfully implement a distributed program.
- Provide a consistent level of comprehensive support not only for voter contact but also for navigating a virtual field office. This is a new space for folks and they need a little patience and guidance!
- Invest in volunteer leadership development and do so in a thoughtful, honest, and transparent manner.
- Automate whenever possible! Slack has creative features — use them!
- Program cohesion allows for flexibility later on.
- Volunteers will join your program because of an issue, candidate, or election, they’ll stay based on how you treat them. Respect their questions and time.
A special thank you to our fellowship team: Alana Husari, Claire Wieble, Ellen Parkhurst, Emily Dodge, Emma Kilroy, Olivia Ghiz, Jonah Sorscher, Kharis Murphy, Liam Davidson, Mari Volante, Zoe Brownwood, Tamiel Bey, and Josh Gilstien.
And to our volunteer leaders: too many to name ❤
And our volunteers: way too many to name. Thank you for all that you do!