NextGen Distributed Organizing — Creating Millions of Dials with our Call Team

By Sofia Garduno and Shasun Sulur

Historically, distributed phonebanking programs aren’t considered as scalable as texting programs. However, our NextGen Distributed Organizing team found a way to successfully integrate a calling program into our distributed strategy. Organizing remotely during a pandemic is hard not just for organizing staff, but for volunteers too. Here is what we learned from our calling program that can and should be replicated in future voter contact programs — pandemic or not.

With the help of five paid fellows and 32 volunteer leaders, we executed a program that made over two million voter contact calls in NextGen America’s frontline states during the November 2020 general election. We also trained and managed over 3,000 volunteers to complete over 5,000 volunteer shifts over three months. We created an effective and energized distributed call team by replicating key parts of an in-person organizing program, such as individual support for volunteers, an emphasis on training, and creating a positive and uplifting community environment for volunteers to interact with each other and our team.

We built procedures with our exemplary team of paid fellows and volunteer leaders that allowed us to scale our program for a successful GOTV operation. We found that the keys to scaling our program were centering the volunteer experience and providing 1:1 attention and support to volunteers.

Below is a detailed review of how we set up our program — we hope this guide can help future progressive teams in setting up supportive, caring, and ambitious distributed voter contact programs.

Our Setup

Our setup was one of the most important ways we structured our program for success. To make calls, volunteers signed up on our Mobilize page or by signing up on nextgenamerica.org/volunteer. We mainly used one evergreen Mobilize event throughout the cycle with daily shifts. To develop urgency, we made our dry runs, weekends of action, and GOTV special by making separate Mobilize events with their own branding, but with the same shift times as our main event to ensure maximum visibility and optimize for quantity of volunteer shifts.

After a volunteer signed up, we immediately communicated with them through several automated flows. This created an easy transition for prospective volunteers to join our “Virtual Field Office” Slack workspace right away, preparing them for their shift. For example, if they signed up on nextgenamerica.org/volunteer, they received an auto-confirmation email inviting them to our Slack. They would also get a “welcome” email the following morning with links to Mobilize events and a bump email two days later with a reminder to join us on our Slack. For Mobilize signups, volunteers received an auto-confirmation email with the following:

  • a Slack invitation link — to join our virtual field office
  • Our written training guide — an overview on calling program with volunteer FAQs
  • ThruTalk dialer link — we used ThruTalk as our predictive dialer program to contact voters via landlines and cell phones. Many remote phone banks use predictive dialers to scale the amount of calls volunteers can make in a given shift.
  • an interactive script preview link — so volunteers can become familiar on what types of calls they’re making
  • and organizing.nextgenamerica.org — an overview of our distributed program, including the calling program and why we were pushing folks to join us on Slack.

Though we used Slack as a virtual field office, we knew that it would be a barrier to entry for some volunteers. Rather than constantly updating event details with new links to join Slack, we used short links that remained the same throughout the cycle and updated them on our end as necessary. Our Slack invite link was always nxtgn.us/Slack. Once people joined Slack, they were automatically added to a variety of channels, including the #calling channel, where they could find resources and updates from us ahead of their calling shift.

In order to scale up the program, we automated processes when possible while prioritizing volunteer contact and feedback. We used Mobilize features to send custom confirm emails the day before an event with a reminder to join our Slack workspace and custom post-shift emails with our debrief form to collect feedback from our volunteers and re-shift them after they were done calling.

Our program was only able to scale up because of our amazing volunteer leaders. Nearly all aspects of our program were owned and executed by volunteer leaders. We prioritized volunteer experience for our program, and our leaders went above and beyond to answer everyone’s questions diligently while creating a fun community with ~good vibes~ in our virtual field office.

Individual attention

With a large volunteer capacity scattered around different time zones, standardization and automation of onboarding is often necessary to run a distributed program, and that was true for us as well. We used automatic email confirmations from Mobilize, Slackbot responses, and written resources (including written phonebank training guides) so we could focus staff time on creating bonds with our volunteers.

To help replicate an in-person organizing/volunteering experience, we hosted live trainings throughout the week with a Q&A at the end, made sure to personally respond to every feedback form we received and made confirm calls to onboard volunteers. We also made sure to have the #calling channel staffed by trained volunteer moderators to respond. Most days, we had less than a two-minute response time, making it extremely easy for volunteers to get help and feel supported by our team quickly.

To keep volunteers engaged, our leaders prioritized a quick reply to their questions and needs. Sometimes volunteers asked questions while still on the phone with a voter, so we had to make sure to reply to them as soon as possible. To avoid having multiple moderators piling on to one question, we developed some Slack communication norms: for example, a star emoji react to volunteers’ questions let other moderators online know someone had claimed a question and was typing a reply. We never wanted our volunteers to hesitate to ask questions, so we emphasized to our moderators to be mindful of their tone when responding to volunteers. This included encouraging a welcoming attitude and patience while our leaders were online. To help us answer volunteers’ questions quickly, we developed Slackbot responses for short FAQs and compiled a list of responses to FAQs that our moderators could copy and paste in response to questions. This let leaders focus on volunteers who were having a harder time. Finally, we would post encouraging messages to hype up and connect with our volunteers.

Our ability to quickly respond to volunteers was critical to navigating technical difficulties or list changes. If there were any hiccups with uploading our list, we doubled down on our efforts to communicate quickly and positively with our volunteers, so they knew we would be back up and running soon. We liked to clue them into updates with the system and let them know we had a team working on improvements as they were needed.

To make it as visible as possible, we posted the debrief form 10–15 minutes before a shift ended as people were hopping off the dialer and customized the post-shift email in Mobilize to include the link to the form. We asked volunteers to post in Slack when they were hopping off the dialer, and our moderators personally replied to these messages with the link to the form and a re-shift ask. These debrief forms were a key part of our calling program. Volunteers rated their experience phone banking, gave us any feedback they thought was important, gave us any updated voter information from their conversations, and let us know if they were interested in getting more involved in volunteer leadership.

We took the time to read through these forms and email a response back to them, but we eventually started getting too many for one person to respond to in a timely manner. We created a system so trained volunteer leaders could assist in the follow-up. We used tools like a Google sheet of responses, columns to indicate what had already been responded to, and integrated our Help Scout tool. Sending responses to the feedback through Help Scout was helpful in allowing us to crowdsource and work together to keep up with any conversations. Having debrief forms gave volunteers a place to give negative feedback and vent about sometimes frustrating calls, and this helped maintain the positive vibes in Slack!

We also used confirm calls to make sure volunteers were all set to make calls before their shift started and give us a chance to listen to their individual concerns. Confirm calls were a chance for us to touch base with our volunteers and provide interpersonal support to orient them around our various digital platforms like: helping them log on to our Zoom trainings, our Slack workspace, and our ThruTalk dialer before the start of their shift. While we didn’t have the capacity to do confirm calls for every shift, we made sure to prioritize confirm calls before big weekends of action. Confirm calls were completed by staff and trained and dedicated volunteer leaders. These conversations kept volunteers coming back since they felt helped and supported and allowed us to connect with them in a way that wouldn’t happen otherwise.

Trainings

We designed our trainings to have different levels of engagement so experienced volunteers could see the first part about who we were calling and what our script was before hopping off to start making calls. Afterwards, new and potentially nervous volunteers were welcomed to stay on to have a more in-depth training and personal guidance if needed. Before honing in on our live virtual trainings, we published a written phonebanking guide that included all the information included in our trainings.

Phonebank trainings were sometimes the only “face-to-face” interaction we had with new volunteers, and we wanted to make sure that these trainings were comprehensive and set the tone for what the volunteer shift would look like.

At the start of the program, we had trainings twice a week in addition to our written training guide. For weekends of action, dry runs, and GOTV, we had trainings at the start of every shift to help onboard the influx of new volunteers that joined us for our big days of voter contact. This is what our training agenda looked like and how we structured our trainings:

  • Talking about the importance of making calls in this election
  • Learning what phone banking is
  • Walking through the script to learn what each response means and how to have an effective conversation
  • Going over best practices [Last Agenda Item for those who know ThruTalk and Slack. Experienced phonebankers are welcome to hop off!]
  • Overview of our two platforms: ThruTalk and Slack
  • Answering all questions and transitioning trainees over to Slack workspace

Our trainings were effective and efficient whether we had 20 volunteers or 200, whether they were battle-tested phone bankers or brand new to volunteering. For larger trainings, we sent volunteers with any specific technical issues to breakout rooms where training leaders or fellows could give dedicated support. Before we left the Zoom training, we made sure that all the volunteers were on Slack. Ensuring that volunteers made it on Slack meant that we were able to stay connected with them, answer their questions, and make sure they had a fun experience instead of feeling frustrated and alone while making calls from their home.

Community

Doing this work remotely was challenging for volunteers who have been doing this work for decades and for new volunteers who wanted to make an impact and were just trying to get their bearings. We understood that volunteering would no longer mean big phonebank parties where we all called together, but we wanted to make sure people knew they were part of something bigger. In order to make phone banking with our call team as positive of an experience as possible, we strove to create a strong sense of community, celebrated our work together, and hyped up discouraged volunteers.

As mentioned before, we used our trainings to guide volunteers towards our Slack workspace. During those trainings, we encouraged volunteers to use Slack to let us know how their conversations were going, ask any questions they had, or share how they were feeling with calls. At the end of our trainings, we prompted them to let us know “one reason you are fired up” to make calls today. This helped build community and support our volunteers as they dealt with a frustrating call or technical difficulties. We also had folks announce if they are new to our Slack workspace to give them extra attention as they acclimated to our virtual office set up and make sure they knew where to go after the training.

In order to support our community, our top priority for staffing was moderating our main call team Slack channel. On our busiest days, moderators worked in shifts to answer volunteer questions and provide support and encouragement within two minutes of the questions being posted. When Slack was quiet, moderators worked to keep the conversations going, with questions about how the shift was going and asks for vols to share their experiences on the phone! While these prompts may seem like an obvious detail, being intentional with moderating led to volunteers giving honest feedback in real-time. They shared their triumphs and even encouraged other nervous phone bankers with their own anecdotes. Our moderators were relentlessly positive and uplifting, and during big days of action, we saw other volunteers mirror that attitude to encourage other volunteers and even copy moderators’ answers to frequently asked questions in the channel.

A major key to creating a strong sense of community with our Call Team volunteers was being transparent and sharing the strategy of our program. In our training and Slack workspace, we told volunteers the list of voters we were calling and why it was important to have these conversations. We reached out to folks 18–35 who were less likely to vote or be contacted due to their lower turnout scores. We also let them know that while certain lists would be more frustrating to call through with hang-ups, wrong numbers, etc. these were the voters that needed to be engaged with the most and needed assistance to vote the most. No matter their age, our volunteers had a good understanding if the importance of the #youthvote and a respect to the youth voters themselves that we were targeting.

Volunteer Leadership

When we first launched our distributed calling program, we were averaging about five volunteer shifts and 3,000 calls per day. We wanted to make sure that all the personal touches with our volunteers and feedback could continue even as we started growing and bringing on 30 or 300 volunteers a day.

We decided to keep the barrier of entry low and to make our volunteer leadership program as accessible as possible. We included an option on our debrief form for volunteers to indicate interest in our Call Team Leadership program. We hosted bi-weekly “Call Team Leader Interest Meetings” and recruited volunteers from the debrief forms, posts on our Slack workspace, and volunteers that had completed multiple shifts over email and through phone calls. We also personally reached out to recruit volunteers who were active in posting on Slack and reflected the energy we wanted to see from volunteer leaders.

Our interest meetings were a chance to talk about the purpose of our call team, share the values that we tried to reflect, set expectations about what call team leaders would be doing, and emphasize the importance of call team leaders in creating a good environment for phonebankers. Since we made our leadership program open to anyone who was enthusiastic and wanted to make the time commitment, we had many leaders who had never volunteered before this election cycle and some who even hated making calls themselves. All of them, however, were dedicated to our volunteers and the success of our program.

At the start of our volunteer leadership program, we were mainly training leaders to moderate our phonebanks over Slack. As our Leadership Team and volunteer capacity grew, we stratified the program into three roles: Training Team, Moderating Team, and our Volunteer Experience Team, who all worked to support volunteers throughout their entire shifts.

The training team led our Zoom trainings and moderated questions in the Zoom chat. They made sure that every volunteer successfully joined our Slack workspace and were confident in their ability to have high quality conversations on ThruTalk.

Our moderating team answered questions about our script, provided voting information, gave general hype and encouragement, and announced the start of shift times and resources. They also acted as cheerleaders for our volunteers!

Finally, our volunteer experience team worked around the clock to confirm volunteers for their shifts and respond to debrief forms, really adding the personal touch that made our program a success.

By the Final 5 days of GOTV, our 32 Call Team Leaders worked eight hour shifts to lead seven trainings, moderate hundreds of volunteers, and respond to hundreds of volunteers’ debrief forms every day.

We made sure our Call Team Leaders were prepared for their roles by drafting resources such as role specific training guides, FAQ documents for moderating our Slack channels and Zoom trainings, and master documents that organized all our resources by roles.

Our Call Team Leader Guides included the step by step processes for each role, message templates to make announcements in Slack, and technical information such as how to claim host on Zoom, send personalized invites on Slack, and share audio so trainers could bop some tunes of their choice before the start of trainings. Having these documents meant that we could onboard many leaders at once, and when needed we could easily have volunteers fill in for other teams if needed.

We understood that volunteers might not feel comfortable taking ownership over their role solely after reading a training document. We went over the materials regularly with the team and chatted with newly onboarded leaders over Slack and in 1:1s to make sure they felt comfortable with their role. We added leaders to a dedicated Slack channel where they could check in to their shift, ask staff or crowdsource answers to questions, and where we could post any updates and programmatic goals. We also held weekly Zoom meetings with leaders to debrief the work we did the previous week, talk about big builds coming down the pipeline, get feedback from leaders about how we could improve our program, and lead more trainings to make sure leaders were adept at their roles.

Our 32 call team leaders were crucial to making our program a success and achieving our incredible voter contact numbers. We did so by allowing our leaders to have ownership over their roles and the program as a whole. While we had clear roles and responsibilities laid out for them, we encouraged them to share any feedback or offer any suggestions that would help us meet our end goal of increasing voter contact while making the phone banking experience as much as possible.

Since volunteer leaders had the most interactions with our volunteers, we made sure to open up our weekly meetings for feedback to improve our script, trainings, or volunteer onboarding process. Our volunteer and call team leader resources were living, breathing documents and we gave call team leaders the ability to make suggestions on these documents for what we could clarify or specify. Our volunteer experience team figured out a more efficient way to divvy up responsibilities than we had listed for them. Our moderators constantly updated and improved our FAQ document, and our moderators and trainers were in constant communication on what we could emphasize in our trainings to clear up any questions that they saw coming up repeatedly in our Slack! Leaders didn’t hesitate to spend an extra 10 minutes helping out volunteers, giving them encouragement or support even when it wasn’t listed explicitly in their duties!

Our program was designed to make the volunteer experience as positive as possible. We recognize that most volunteers would rather text, write postcards, do anything but phonebank. Our goal was to make sure that once they joined us, they saw that phone banking was easy, fulfilling, and effective, and they would join us again.

None of this would’ve been possible without our 32 volunteer leaders who helped maintain this level of individual attention, high quality training, and fun community as we scaled up to making 50,000+ calls per day during GOTV. We want to thank every one of our fellows and volunteer leaders who made this possible. We were motivated to show up each and every day because of your relentless commitment, optimism and passion!

For the last four years, organizers, volunteers, and communities have been fighting back against the Trump administration and Republicans. Now is the time to actively shape the future we want in this country. Can we count on you to join our team to support the #youthvote?

Sign up here: nextgenamerica.org/volunteer.

Mobilizing the #YouthVote across 11 states. Visit us at nextgenamerica.org to learn how you can join the fight.