Ask a Field Director – with Meagan Gardner
This issue’s “Ask a Field Director” is with Meagan Gardner! Meagan is currently the organizing director for the 2016 New Hampshire Primary for Hillary for America.
Meagan first began organizing for Hillary Clinton in 2007. After working all over the country in various roles throughout the 2008 primary, she moved to Ohio to become a regional field director for then-Senator Obama’s general election campaign. After their victory, Meagan continued to work for President Obama for many years—at Organizing for America as the midwest regional Director, on his 2012 reelection campaign as the Iowa field director, and then for his administration in the White House. Now, organizing for Hillary Clinton eight years after she started as a field organizer, the Granite State is certainly lucky to have Meagan.
Like so many other successful organizers, Meagan is inspired to keep working every day by the people she has met along the way.
The vast community of organizers, volunteers, and voters working all over the country to change the world bit by bit make her want to work even harder for the common values they all share.
Though she singles out watching victorious election night returns for Iowa and the nation in 2012 as one of her happiest organizing memories, she genuinely finds joy in the little wins of organizing; the quiet moments you may not be able to articulate at the moment, like watching someone you’re training have a light-bulb moment, having a phenomenal conversation with a voter, or empowering someone to go outside their comfort zone.
That’s exactly why she’s such a perfect choice to feature in 63 Magazine’s first “Ask a Field Director” column. Read below for her answers to some of your toughest questions—I dare you not to be blown away (and really grateful!).
I’m sure you’ve been influenced by the many awesome people you’ve worked with – would you say that you try to replicate their style, have your own management style, or have figured out some hybrid that has made it your own, but includes the best stuff from mentors, colleagues, etc.? If so, how did you get there?
MG: What a great question! I think if you’re working as an open-minded, open-hearted organizer, everything you do is a hybrid of what you can do and from observing those who came before. While I definitely steal best practices from those I respect around management, training, operational style and working smarter every day, I definitely would recommend you find your own voice too. You have to know what your own strengths are and what you bring to the table and be confident about that.
What are your top 3 tips for a new organizer just starting out this cycle?
1) Build real relationships with volunteers and your colleagues – if you’re really lucky, they will be a part of your crew for the rest of your life.
2) Have a good attitude and ask for help – I’m incredibly impressed by people who want to get better every day and know they still have a lot to learn. Be humble, positive, and inclusive every day about how you can bring more people into your organization, and be open to new ideas that are better than your own. Be the type of organizer and person others want to be around and follow. Remember – people so often will mirror your actions and attitude. So be the thermostat and not the thermometer in the room.
3) Be intentional and smart about time management. Figure out immediately where your time slips are and know what your time weaknesses are. We can never get any time back in campaigns, and you need to make each moment count. Ask for help and work on tricks to increase productivity, lower procrastination and get more time out of your day.”
Any advice on balancing a career in politics/field with a somewhat regular life? How do I give so much of myself to something, while still being “me?”
MG: Ah, the question so many professionals struggle with and so few of us figure out. One thing I’ll say is right off the bat, you have to really think about if this work is right for you. It’s hard and at so many moments, time- and emotionally-consuming. But for me, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.
You have to think about what makes you “normal” – are you someone who gets hangry (you know who you are!) if you don’t eat on time? Are you cranky if you don’t go for a run? For me, I always feel better when I have theater in my life, so I make sure to find time every month for a play (or more likely, a movie). It makes me feel like more of a complete person when I have art in my life, even if I usually have to settle for a few minutes of Netflix as election days get closer!
You have to know though – you’re an adult and you run your life and your calendar. Field organizing can be all-consuming if you let it, so:
- Carve out time for what you need, whether it’s a walk around the block, or time to get a healthy lunch, or little bits of time throughout the day to step back for a second and be you. Also, a good old stereotypical West Wing walk-and-talk meeting can be the perfect thing to jump-start your heart and your afternoon.
- Avoid time creep – it’s easy for one thing to bleed into the next thing and all of a sudden it’s midnight and you’re still entering data and all you’ve eaten is a handful of peanut M&Ms. Yikes. Put together a schedule and keep it. And when you’re done with your work at the end of the night, go home. Martyrs help no one in campaign life.
- Finally – call your mom. Or text a high school friend. Or FaceTime for 10 minutes with someone you love. Most people I know simply feel better and frankly, are better organizers when they touch base with their normal life (parents, partners, friends) and reset back to 0. Then they can go back and put their whole heart into their work.
Can you name your top tips for experienced organizers who are managing Deputy Field Organizers for the first time this cycle?
1) Set clear expectations and help them understand what success is. This means that as a manager, you need to know exactly what their goals are, have a vision about how exactly they can meet those goals and be two steps ahead of them by knowing how they’re doing in meeting those goals day by day and week by week.
2) You don’t have to be best friends with them. Good management relationships should be based on trust, accountability, respect and knowing you have each other’s back. Help them understand where they’re succeeding but also know that hard conversations about how they can and need to get better are necessary to help not only them succeed as professionals, but to make the campaign successful.
3) Ask intentional questions in your check-ins that help you get at the root of any issues and use that space to acknowledge the work done thus far and identify places for growth.
I have a volunteer that was really involved and always meeting her goals, but she’s started to come in less and do less work. What can I do to push her without pushing her so hard that it backfires and I lose a great volunteer?
MG: One thing I would start thinking about is changing even how you’re framing the question. You want to avoid “pushing volunteers.” Volunteers want and deserve to feel empowered and that they fully understand their role and its importance since they’re giving the campaign/the candidate/you their most precious resource: their time.
I would have a meeting with her to check in. Ask her about how her life is going and how she is doing. Then have a real conversation. Treat her like a member of your team and say that you’ve noticed that she hasn’t been coming in as much, or that when she does, it is less than the amazing amount of work she’s done thus far. I would talk with her about the urgency of the moment and how what she was doing in the past really mattered. Make a plan about how she can get re-engaged.
What is the most important thing to do when you first meet with a new volunteer?
MG: THANK THEM! Whether this is someone who has volunteered for a campaign in the past or someone who is coming in for the first time, a volunteer simply cannot be thanked enough. Let them know you appreciate them and make them feel at ease. Help them understand you’re someone to be trusted and that you and the campaign have a plan to utilize their skills and their time wisely. Train them well on what you need them for that day and always explain the “why” and the bigger picture. Community and electoral organizing is amazing because people get to be a part of something bigger than themselves and you want them to understand their place in that and that their specific role matters.
As they do their work, check in and re-train if necessary. Thank them a few more times, and then always ask them when they can come in again because you and the campaign need them. Build a relationship based on honesty and trust and help them understand that they will be a part of this campaign in a real way, alongside you.
Any closing advice for organizers?
- Most day-to-day problems can be solved with a little more kindness and empathy.
- There are no second chances. Make every moment count.
- Meet goals and deadlines and be organized.
- Practice your hard ask every single day.
- Build your organization every single hour.
- No drama. No ego. No credit. No blame. No martyrs.
- Take time every day to step back and take it all in. You are changing lives in small ways, and when all those small ways are added together, changing the world.