Ask a Field Director – With Joel Wanger
This issue’s “Ask a Field Director” is with Joel Wanger! Joel is currently the organizing director for the Nevada State Party’s Coordinated Campaign.
In his role as organizing director, Joel oversees the field operations working to elect Democrats up and down the ticket. This includes the former secretary of state , the former attorney general of Nevada Cathy Cortez Masto who’s running to be the first Latina in the United States Senate, Ruben Kihuen in the fourth congressional district, Jacky Rosen in the third, Chip Evans in the second, and Dina Titus in the first. In addition to organizing on behalf of all of these amazing candidates, Nevada is also one of the few states in the country that has the opportunity to flip both houses in their state legislature.
That’s a lot of organizing going on in Nevada.
Joel, who began working on campaigns while still in college at Northeastern University, began his organizing career in Nevada in 2012. It was in Nevada that he would learn the true meaning behind the phrase, “people come for the candidate but they stay for the people.” It was in Nevada that he saw the work he was doing have implications going well beyond election day. And it’s in Nevada that he leads an impressive organizing team working to build lasting relationships and communities that will advocate for their ideals for years to come.
We talk with Joel to ask him some of your toughest questions— I know you’ll be able to apply his wisdom to your work right now!
I’m lucky to have a lot of great volunteer leaders who have already given so much time and heart to our campaign. Looking ahead, I know I have to ask so much more of them. How can I continue to push them and motivate them to take on even more leadership?
JW: I have a couple things that I think of when I think of how we escalate the involvement of our volunteers and volunteer leaders.
One really simple tactic for phone banking volunteers is literally just adding another page to their call packet. That’s the very basic level—every single time they come in, just add in another page.
Another way of escalating that has really been effective for a lot of organizers is being very clear about sharing your goals with your teams and sharing what you need to accomplish. When you’re talking to folks, tell them, “Our goal for this week for calls is X. I know personally that I can make Y. That means that as a team, we need to make Z. How many of these calls can you commit to making this week? How many people can you commit to bringing with you to make 60 calls with you?” That’s one way to escalate volunteers—talking about sharing the goals.
There are also reluctant leaders—those that you see in them the potential to be a volunteer leader. There are ways that you can subtly show people that they know they have the skills to do it. One week, say, “Hey I know that you’ve been coming to this phone bank for the past three weeks and I know you’re coming again on Thursday. I’ve actually got a conference call that I’ve got to be on at the beginning of this phone bank. Would you mind training the phone bankers at the start of the phone bank? I know you can do it. We can walk through it again if you want, but I’m really confident that you know how to train phone bankers well.”
And then they train the phone bankers that next Thursday. Then you ask, “Hey, I’ve got another phone bank scheduled with some people that live on the other side of my turf. They want to have a phone bank at the same time as this one. If I give you the call sheets and everything, do you think that you can train everyone here and teach them how to tally afterward and kind of just run this phone bank for me while I go across town?”
You’re increasing their confidence to show them that they have all the skills they need to accomplish the leadership role that if you were to just ask them bluntly, “Will you be my phone bank captain?” they might be more reluctant to accept. When you slowly work them into the different parts of the role, that’s when the testing process makes so much sense. Because the testing process doesn’t have to be as straightforward as sitting down and saying, “Hey, we’re going to do a test this week. I want you to do this.”
It’s more so showing the volunteer that this is something that you need them to do because your ability to hit your goals and your campaign’s ability to win is dependent on them being able to step up and do this piece.
I’m coming in later to an election, taking some turf from an organizer. There are a lot of volunteers identified, but they really love the organizer they were working with. I want to connect with and have strong relationships with them! Do you have any advice on making the transition in that turf smoother?
JW: One thing to do is to make sure that the Turf Transition Document (that the former organizer writes) goes into as much detail as possible on the core people in the turf in terms of what is their story, what are their motivations, what are the personal things that this person knows about them.
It’s sometimes challenging to step into a turf and ask someone who’s been volunteering for months on end to have an introductory one-on-one with you. Sometimes they’re put off by it because they think, “Don’t you know who I am? I’ve been doing this for so long.”
Focus on how you phrase the ask for a one-on-one. Make sure the ask is to get to know them: “As you know, I’m taking over this turf from Susie. Susie’s spoken really highly of you and how well you know the community. I would love it if we could grab a cup of coffee and talk about your experience organizing here. What do you think are the things that I should know coming into this on my first week?”
Most of the volunteers see a one-on-one as benefitting them and it’s something that they see as beneath them if they’ve been doing this for awhile. But by framing it around you wanting to sit down with them to sponge off their knowledge, you reframe the ask and will get a better success rate.
Another tactic (which time sometimes does not allow) is just to simply hold a team meeting with the volunteers with the former organizer and the current organizer to hand off the reigns. Think of some way for the former organizer to validate the new organizer to the group. The new organizer should feel confident asking the person who’s been covering the turf to do this. Make sure to do this in a way that’s respectful of everybody’s time.
Maybe it’s that the other organizer stops by the beginning of the first phone bank that the new organizer’s doing with the team to say something to validate the new organizer and to really show to the group that this person is somebody that they can rely on and trust.
I’m struggling with how to be competitive as an organizer while also remembering how important it is that we all succeed and wanting to help and empower my coworkers. Do you have any advice for how to approach this?
JW: If you’re not motivated by competition, don’t feel that you have to be motivated by competition. Know what motivates you.
If it does happen to be competition and you want to be competitive without being cutthroat, one of the things that I had to learn when I was an organizer was that there comes a point where everybody knows you’re the best and you don’t need to talk about it anymore. You need to lead from within.
The way to do this is to be a manager. You can be a leader while still being a coworker.
Most organizers get a report each day of where everybody in their region is at with their metrics. Identify places where you can share knowledge with other members of the team.
If you are particularly strong at one specific organizing task, don’t be afraid to share those best practices. Obviously, there’s the challenge of doing it in a way that it doesn’t come off that you think you’re better than them because that’s what you’re already trying not to do. Come at it from a place of, “I noticed X. Something that’s really working for me is Y.”
Frame it around what you’re seeing working for you so that it’s not coming off as, “I know better than you,” but as, “I’m here to help.”
Your numbers are going to speak for themselves. You don’t necessarily need to speak for your numbers. You can speak for how well you’re doing through helping to coach other people on your team as opposed to telling them what your numbers are.
I feel like I meet all my goals but house party goals and it gets really frustrating. Can you explain why house parties are important?
JW: We think of some goals as hard metrics—things that help us win. And then there are these intermediary goals—these goals that help us get to those hard metrics.
While recruitment phone calls don’t necessarily directly help us win, they do help us get the shifts scheduled that we need to get the shifts completed that we need to knock doors and get the VR forms etc. Similarly, house parties are another one of these intermediary processes.
House parties are a really great opportunity to test and confirm volunteer leadership. They’re also a really good opportunity to plan future events with your teams—to get events on the calendar so you’re not having to come up with everything from scratch hoping it will work for everyone.
They’re also helpful in terms of scheduling shifts. You can do call time one night and only get six people to answer the phone over the course of the four hours.
Even if you only get four to five people at your house party, that’s still an opportunity to get multiple shifts out of each one of those individuals because sitting down and making that in-person ask is much more effective. Meeting in person with your volunteers at these house parties is going to be much more effective for you in terms of being able to make that pointed ask.
Silence is important for making the hard ask. It’s also important when you’re making a hard ask at the house party. One of the things that I’ve seen really strong organizers do is instead of having people fill out their own sheet with the shifts they want to do in the future, doing it as a group. Going around person by person and asking each person what it is they’ll commit to and the organizer just being silent until each person commits to what they’re willing to do.
I know that in terms of the goals that you have, a house party isn’t helpful for you to get voter registration forms. But there’s no reason that a house party can’t include an action component. There’s no reason that a house party can’t launch a VR shift for a weekend morning house party or that a weeknight evening house party can’t turn into an hour or two of phone banking.
The house party concept is a lower level ask to get people in the door. Once they’re in the door, there is no limit to what you can get them to commit to and what you can get out of them.
We all know that’s the hardest part.
My volunteer prospect list feels a little dry. (I recognize all the names!) What can I do to find more prospects?
1) Ask for referrals. Whenever you have a 1:1 with a volunteer or with a potential volunteer, ask them to give you the names and phone numbers of three to five people that they know who might be interested in getting involved. Do the same thing with your current volunteers. That’s the number one thing to do with the current people you have.
2) If your campaign is using commit to vote cards or pledge cards, ensure these cards feed directly into your volunteer prospecting tiers. We often talk about campaigns as a list-building exercise and these commit cards help to build your list of prospective volunteers because they include supporters who have already taken some action.
3) If it’s something where you’re trying to find a balance between your different goals, you might look to the way your commit card goal is directly connected to your ability to make better recruitment calls.
4) You can always speak to your manager about expanding your prospect universe. Some campaigns will have what’s called a volunteer propensity model which basically scores all the registered voters in the state on a scale of 0 to 100 on how likely they are to volunteer. Data teams and field leadership can use those models to help increase the number of prospects on an organizer’s list.
5) Make sure that you’re in tune to events going on in the community. Community events—whether it’s an outdoor movie at the local mall or a farmer’s market—are great opportunities to collect commit to vote cards and also to identify potential new people who you can build into your volunteer recruitment tiers.
I’ve been organizing for my candidate for quite awhile and though I love the job, I also want to be promoted heading into the last few months of the campaign. What should I do now to keep doing my current job well but to also prepare myself for the next step?
JW: This ties into one of the previous questions asking about how do we balance being competitive with being a team player. When I’m looking at our team in terms of who are the people to promote within our organizing team, I look for people who are looking for opportunities to lead within their current position.
I’m looking for those folks who are coaching their team members who are struggling. If you’re looking to move upwards within your organizing structure, we look for those folks who are already showing us the ability to be managers and be leaders within their current role.
In terms of your interest in trying to move upwards outside of the organizing field team, I think that is something you can have a conversation about with your regional, but I would frame it in more of a long-term view. If what you’ve learned in working for this candidate for all this time is that potentially there might be another department in which you’re interested in working with, you can talk to your manager.
But before you go to your regional, think about, “What are the opportunities that I would like to be given over the next three and half months that will position myself on November 9th to move over into this other department that I have a lot of interest in?” There’s definitely something to be said for advocating for yourself and making clear what it is that you would like to be doing.
It’s important for you to come into that conversation not just with, “This is what I want,” but with, “These are the opportunities I’d like to be given to gain the skills that I think I need or to use the skills that I have but I feel are currently being underutilized.”
But it’s important to remember that you have your responsibilities for your current job as well. We have all of our staff write professional development plans after their first week. Basically, it’s, “Where do I want to be on November 9th?” That professional development plan is directly tied to an organizer’s ability to make sure they’re already on top of all the things they’re responsible for within their current role and the opportunities they’re given in instances where it doesn’t detract from the organizer’s responsibility to reach their goals.
It’s also important (for when you’re thinking through this conversation about the steps and opportunities you’d like to have) to think about the things you can do potentially outside of voter contact hours to gain some skills or knowledge that you think would be beneficial to you and your longer-term ambitions.
Closing advice for organizers?
JW: Politics is a tight-knit community, but I’ve found that if you work hard and are generally nice to people, opportunities will continue to present themselves to you.
There are certain things that are daggers to your future career ambitions. Within politics, those things are very limited. If you work hard and are nice to people that you work with, they’re going to want to work with you again.