Relationships: An Interview With Betsy Hoover & Jeremy Bird
“It was the first time that I saw people who society would say were relatively powerless. They didn’t have a fancy title, they didn’t have a lot of money, they didn’t have a lot of access to power. They created their influence, their power, and their change just by bringing people together who had similar values and similar interests. Through that, there was real change.”
Professional organizers Jeremy Bird (quoted above) and Betsy Hoover both believe strongly in the power of relationships to create change. They both have learned to connect with complete strangers around common values and common goals. They both use whatever tools they have available to turn that connection into meaningful and strategic action. They both help other individuals and organizations transform their communities through organizing. They also happened to be married.
As two of the founding partners of 270 Strategies, Jeremy and Betsy lead teams that help campaigns, companies, and causes build winning campaigns and put their ideas into action. Betsy may lead the digital and tech teams while Jeremy focuses on grassroots organizing, but both see their work very similarly: helping organizations engage everyday people in their work to move them towards action.
Each answers the question, “What do you do?” with almost the exact same answer. This has less to do with the fact that they’re married, and more to do with the way they view organizing: people are people, you reach them however you can, you connect with them on a shared mission, and you move them towards action by offering them a chance to act on that shared mission.
Neither grew up in very politically active families—though their families’ involvement has changed now—so both were introduced to organizing through community organizing, not political organizing.
Betsy stumbled upon community organizing when a campus ministry group at her high school decided to start a community garden in a completely different part of her hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
After connecting with Growing Power, an urban agriculture collective based in Milwaukee, Betsy and a growing group of students from her high school would come to a vacant lot on 27th Street & Locust Street every Thursday afternoon to work on 16 plots. At first, Betsy and her friends were doing all of the gardening, but they started to notice that each week, more and more kids from the community showed up to help, learning how to take care of the land.
Eventually, Betsy would come to the garden and discover it hadn’t been a full week since the garden had been touched—the local kids were spending time during the week on their plots. Soon, instead of Betsy and her fellow students telling the local community members what needed to be done in the garden, the community members were telling them. In the second year of the garden—a garden that’s still there to this day—families on the block actually became responsible for different plots. Betsy and her friends went from being the leaders to merely supporting those in the community who now had taken ownership of their garden.
It was in watching her transformation—from being a leader to a being a follower, from being an instructor to being someone who learned from those in the neighborhood—that Betsy realized she wanted to find ways to build bridges across communities, creating steps of change on all different levels.
Jeremy discovered organizing in a more purposeful way, but noticed and was drawn to it for the same reasons Betsy was. In graduate school, Jeremy took a class on organizing where part of the class was to work in his community on a community organizing project. He luckily chose the Boston Youth Organizing Project, a project to get more funding for public schools in Boston inner-city.
Drawn to a cause he cared about—providing quality education to all students despite their neighborhood—he was amazed to watch a team of young people organize an entire community to get behind their efforts. In seeing these organizers, “people who society would say were relatively powerless,” create their own change by bringing people together who had similar values, Jeremy fell in love with organizing.
Jeremy and Betsy, whose organizing and professional accolades are far too numerous to list, originally met while working on then-Senator Obama’s primary campaign in South Carolina, he as the field director, she as a field organizer. After their historic win there and in many other states that would follow, they both joined Organizing for America, the grassroots organization born out of the 2008 election dedicated to supporting the President’s policy initiatives.
It was there in 2010 that Betsy began to transition over to the digital team after recognizing that the principles behind each team’s work were the exact same. It was also while working there that they got married.
Next, they went on to serve in leadership positions in President Obama’s successful 2012 election. Following their victory, they knew they wanted to take the lessons they had learned to help other causes and campaigns make a similar impact in their community.
To them, organizing is all about relationship building, whether online or offline. They also believe in the importance of building authentic connections, not just goal-oriented transactional relationships. Behind that connection, an organizer should fundamentally believe they are offering a volunteer an amazing opportunity by bringing them into their cause or campaign.
“If an individual who’s engaging with a campaign or an organization wakes up in the morning and thinks about the world that they want to see and it’s similar to the view that you have as an organizer, that’s what you want to touch on because you’re adding value. You’re helping them create the world that they want to see.”
Jeremy and Betsy (quoted above) have dedicated their lives to organizing because they see its tremendous influence: organizing is about bringing people from different backgrounds to work together to create their own power, their own influence, and their own change. With Jeremy and Betsy on their side, progressive organizers around the world are making a lot of power.
AM: Why are the relationships organizers build on campaigns important?
JB: Organizing is all about relationship building and when I think back to those kids in Boston [where I was introduced to organizing], that’s what they were doing. They were building relationships and connecting with people on shared values and shared interests. Really, that’s what organizing is, that’s what bringing people together is—a bunch of relationships that if you scale them, become more powerful.
That’s the difference between mobilization and organizing. Mobilization is about getting a bunch of people to do something, maybe one-off or maybe even multiple times, but real organizing is about creating those real relationships that are two-way, that are life-giving and that create a strong organization.
Creating an organization where you can scale relationships in a meaningful way is hard to do.
When I was in South Carolina, we went out to do an audit of what our neighborhood team model was really like. We knew what it was on paper, but I took our advisor Craig Schirmer out to a bunch of different regions. On the way out, I said to him, “Here’s how you’ll tell if the organizer’s neighborhood team program is strong. First, we’ll get the number. We’ll ask an organizer if they have seven teams, five teams, whatever. Then ask them who their leader is and then ask them what that person does, who they are. When the organizer doesn’t skip a beat with the name and can tell you multiple things about that person, like how many kids they have, what they are interested in, what church they go to, things about them that you would know about somebody that you have a real relationship with, then the team is solid. If they can’t tell you that, the team is BS and that’s where we’re going to have issues.”
That is a good way to judge whether or not someone is building a real organization: if they can tell you about their leadership and they really know them and they have that connection. They don’t have to be friends. It’s not about being friends; it’s about developing relationships.
That’s when it’s strong and you could say the same thing for a regional to their organizers and a field director to their regionals. Do they know them? Have they taken time to understand who they are, what makes them tick, how they’re motivated, do they listen to them? If they’re doing those things and they can tell you about them, then that’s real organizing.
BH: I think a lot about the phrase, “Volunteers walk in the door for the candidate but they stay for the organizer.” We’ve seen data cycle after cycle after cycle, both online and offline, about how when you invest in relationships with your volunteers and your supporters, it is better for the campaign and better for the individuals. We see data that shows that if a volunteer has a relationship with an organizer or spends time in an office, then the number of hours they’re willing to give to the campaign goes up. We see stats about lifetime donors online and how they give more over time in a program like the Obama or Hillary program as opposed to a program that has a churn and burn model for how they talk to their list.
That authenticity, that sense of shared motivation, that sense of mutual accountability, both what you bring to the table, that people can count on you but also that you can count on other people—those are the things that make the difference between a transaction and a commitment over time.
If you’re serious about building any program, whether that’s electoral or advocacy based or any other type of organizing model, then investing in those relationships in a way that’s true and authentic to you and your mission and your candidate and who you are, is really important.
Because when you lack that authenticity, when you lack that commitment to people, people see right through it and it’s not a place where they want to be or a place where they want to spend time.
AM: Speaking of that authenticity that’s required—how can organizers ensure the relationships they build are authentic and help the volunteers and not just themselves?
BH: There are three pillars here that I think apply both online or offline, no matter where you’re organizing or what tools you’re using to organize. They are shared motivation, shared values, and shared goals. That is both about the organizer digging into themselves to say, “Why am I here, what do I believe in, what am I working for, why do I think this work creates the change I want in the world,” but also really believing that it is true for and adds value to the volunteer.
If an individual who’s engaging with a campaign or an organization wakes up in the morning and thinks about the world they want to see and it’s similar to the view that you have as an organizer, that’s what you want to touch on because you’re adding value. You’re helping them create the world that they want to see.
One of the most difficult places an organizer can get into is when they feel like asking someone to donate or asking someone to volunteer is that person doing the organizer a favor. It’s got to be bigger than that. It’s got to be about, “You and I have a shared set of values and a shared set of motivations and here’s how we can get at those together.”
JB: This is one of the most important organizing points and people don’t talk about it enough. When people first get into organizing, they do have that sense of, “I’m asking you to do me a favor.” Once you have that tone in your voice, it’s harder to organize.
When you actually think about it from the perspective of, “I’m giving the volunteer an opportunity to act upon their values and if I actually believe that the work they’re going to do will actually make a difference and be meaningful to them, well shit, that’s a great thing to invite them to do.” Most things you’re getting invited to do in your life are not about that! You almost never get invited to act on your values, make a difference, and be a part of something really meaningful with a group of people that share those values.
Once organizers start thinking about the asks they’re making of people as about that, an invitation to something that’s really meaningful to people, the way you ask the question stops being defensive. It stops being, “Hey, I thought maybe you could come in for this, you know” and it starts being, “Yeah, this is a great thing to come to.” Especially if you know what drives that person, you can ask from the sense of, “You care about immigration, you want to fight for it so why should you come in to work for this group? Because we’re fighting for immigration reform and you can have a meaningful impact.”
You also have to actually believe that they’re going to have a meaningful impact, which is what the Obama campaign believed that other campaigns didn’t before. Other campaigns before believed that volunteers were icing on the cake; the Obama campaign believed that volunteers were part of the cake. They were a critical ingredient. They were not the sprinkles on top that made it better, they were part of making the whole thing. That was a belief that started at the top from the candidate and campaign manager all the way down.
BH: There are some similarities to a coach on an athletic team here. When you’re on a team and your coach is barking orders at you and you feel like you’re doing the drills to make the coach happy, people are almost always having a bad experience and they almost always hate practice and they almost always are afraid of losing and shrink from that team.
But when you have a coach that believes that your shared goal and your shared mission is to win and be the best team and believes that the best way to get there is by building shared identity to build you up through that process, that team is more often successful and the players enjoy themselves.
The things that you’re asking people to do as an organizer are things that are contributing to a goal that your volunteer also wants to see, a shared goal. If you miss that—if you miss talking about that goal and miss establishing what that goal is—then it does become transactional. Then they are doing you a favor and then that good will is going to wear out because they’re going to get tired and have other things going on.
A good organizer is going to tap into that, both online and offline.
AM: What’s your advice for trying to get a volunteer who also has other goals they care about to focus on the goals that are most important for moving your work forward?
JB: It’s all an art. The most important thing is, if you build real leadership and the leaders are moving in the direction of achieving the right goals, others are going to come with them and those that are doing things that might be interesting for them personally or not necessarily that useful to the overall goal will just either do their own thing or they won’t be leaders.
It’s important for organizers to do a couple of things. One is to develop real leadership from the community so it becomes those people that are leading. Two is to give real visibility into the strategy and the goals of what you’re trying to achieve. Once people know those, they tend to come around towards really creative solutions to them.
In the 2008 Pennsylvania primary, the most important thing that we could do in terms of campaign staffers was to tell people what their overall voter registration goal was in their turf and to let them go do it. As long as we were focused on a goal, people who were doing things that were unhelpful towards reaching that goal, their ideas were not taken up by the group because it wasn’t leading towards the ultimate goal.
People who wanted to go to crazy places that didn’t have any potential registrants weren’t reaching those goals. When we focused on a goal that was connected to an overall strategy and people bought into it, they led people towards activities that were productive towards that mission overall. There is a boundedness to your organization around what you’re trying to achieve that some people just won’t be a part of it, to the extremes, but mostly what you’ll find is if there are real clear goals, people will tend towards those activities that achieve them.
BH: Articulating clear goals is really, really important. Also, a big part of building an organization is building trust. An organizer has to trust their volunteers a lot to let go of the control enough for people to self-select a little bit, and for those ulterior motives to fall away or for those alternative goals to not take over the group.
That goes back to relationships. That goes back to making sure you have a core group of leaders that share your motivation, share your values, share your goal. If you have that, then you can relinquish some of that control and it takes the pressure off the organizer and puts it on the community in a way that’s actually more authentic anyway.
AM: Did you have an Ah-Ha moment with organizing where something really clicked for you to make you a better organizer?
BH: I think I have two—one that’s kind of a fun story but the other speaks to how to use digital tools to be organizing tools.
The first was in South Carolina. I moved down to South Carolina and I was clearly a white girl from the north who had literally never set foot in the state of South Carolina. Why the Obama campaign decided to hire me to organize Lexington County, I have no idea, but I had a really amazing experience there.
JB: Lexington county is one of the whitest counties in South Carolina.
BH: Well, yeah, but at the time, that didn’t make sense to me.
There was a Sunday that I was invited to come speak at a church in Lexington County and this was a big, black, Baptist church and I was going to be the only white person in the congregation. That’s a pretty intimidating thing, right?
I do think one of the keys to being an organizer is to be a listener as much as you’re a leader and an empowerer as much as you’re a spokesperson, and this was the moment that I was trying to figure out the balance between those two things. I remember planning out how I was going to approach that service—thinking through who are the volunteers I want to meet up with beforehand, what is my approach going to be for my participation in the service itself, and how I was going to speak when given the opportunity.
I decided to put myself in the place of asking a lot of questions and talking more about what I was learning from the community, than from the position of talking about what I could offer it. And I remember, by the end of that service, the congregation was calling me Sister Betsy and I felt like I had conquered because I had been accepted into those doors in a way that I wasn’t sure that I would be. I really do think that mostly came from listening first and asking questions first instead of leading first and telling everyone what I could do for them first. Walking away from that was a really important moment for me to reinforce that lesson that I did learn first in high school [with the community garden] and have applied throughout my time as an organizer.
My second moment was in 2010 when I was working at Organizing for America (OFA) at the Democratic National Committee (DNC). I was on the states team which at that point was very separate from the digital team. Our friend Natalie Foster was running the digital team and we decided together that there needed to be a liaison between the two departments. I remember sitting in digital team meetings and hearing them talk about the work they were doing to engage people and the language they were using to motivate people, to pull people into the process. The language they were using was not that different from the language that we were using to train organizers on how to do their job well.
It was an important ah-ha moment for me. It was the moment when digital switched from being a totally separate program to being a different way to reach the same people. I remember coming out of that meeting wanting a ton of data, like how many of our volunteers in VAN were also on the email list? We didn’t know that at that point. I asked that question and began figuring out how many of donors online were also our volunteers and started to see that overlap.
That for me was the ah-ha moment of, “People are people and we’re talking to them in a bunch of different ways online and offline; but if we’re running different programs, it’s just confusing to them.”
As an organizer, it’s important to think about what your communication style is and how you use each tool while remembering that all tools do the same thing—engage people in causes they care about.
JB: I’ve been trying to think about the exact moment and for me; it’s more like a period of time, particularly as it relates to political campaigns. Basically, all of the 2004 election was a real education in organizing and I would say two examples specifically.
One moment was when I ended up on Howard Dean’s Campaign in the New Hampshire primary in 2003/2004; I had been a community organizer and hadn’t really worked on a ton of political campaigns before then. Our program was sort of the first iteration that I saw of what became the neighborhood team program for the Obama campaign. We called our volunteer leaders Dean Leaders and even though we lost the election, we found some fascinating things out when we went back and did a study afterward.
We went back to these people who had all run these house meetings as our leaders. On election day, I think we ended up getting around 53,000 votes and we had identified 51,000 supporters. With everything that had happened in Iowa the week before, we did not do well with persuadables. But when we studied who was with us and who voted for us, we saw that the support of almost everyone who had attended one of our house meetings stuck with us.
It was this amazing moment where I was realizing that the depth of organizing really did create real, sticky, very long-term supporters and leaders.
When you lose, people always say everything was wrong, but I actually think the organizing we did in New Hampshire was really good.
When I got there, I didn’t know much about political campaigns. They had been doing this kind of canvassing program and it was when we switched to a volunteer leader program that things really started to change and we saw our impact grow over time.
I kind of had that at the back of my mind when I went to the DNC for the Kerry campaign. I was on the national team and so I got to see the different states but I wasn’t really senior enough to be that engaged in how they were running their program. The way the DNC ran it in 2004, basically every state had their own model and most of them were kind of traditional voter contact-based. But Wisconsin ran a precinct leader program that was very different and a couple of other states did too, where they actually spent time really motivating leaders at the grassroots level.
It was in watching the numbers over time, where in a place like Wisconsin where they were running real leadership at the local level, you started to see their numbers rise in ways that none of the other states were because we weren’t adding more staff.
I think that whole cycle taught me that if you run a real volunteer program and really invest in leaders early on, you will see higher production, more actual work, and I think a much deeper and higher quality contact and supporter rate down the road.
When I look back on the lessons learned in the 2004 election, despite losing both the primary and the general election, it was when I saw that if you do real leadership development and real organizing, you can go to scale more and you can have a deeper level of support.
AM: Do you have any advice on how organizers should approach their relationships with their fellow organizers?
BH: One of the things that clicked for me the first time I actually learned about the snowflake model is that there wasn’t a clear line between when staff ended and volunteers started. When an organizing team was rolled out to me—an RFD was just an organizer of organizers. A team of organizers related to each other the way that a group of volunteer leaders related to each other and they needed each other in the same way.
It’s funny, when I think about my managerial roles now, I still think it’s the place I get to play the hands-on organizer most actively and it’s why I love it. It’s one of the things I love the most.
I don’t think the principles are that different. You’re building relationships, you’re establishing shared motivations, you’re having a shared experience and finding space to share what makes you better and makes them better and ultimately moves you down the path towards your goal better.
That’s on the organizer to think about in terms of how you organize your own time. It’s also on their manager to create that space and prioritize that bonding and figure out how to use that team meeting time and how to be numbers-driven but also be relationships-driven. To me, it’s just a way to build another team.
AM: As you’ve continued to advance in your career, your work is deeply rooted in organizing. What priorities/skills/goals have been most crucial in helping you continue to expand the scope of your work?
JB: Betsy just said it but I do think the same approach you take to organizing should be the same approach you take to management in general. I’ve had the fortune of going from organizer-of-organizers to organizer-of-organizers-of-organizers-of-organizers, so all of the things, if you really think about it, are still true.
Structurally, the way that we set up this company and the way that we set up the campaign infrastructure for every state was based on the same organizing principles. No manager should have more than 10 reports because, with more, she can’t build real relationships with them. That’s an incredibly successful principle that came from organizing that if you actually read a bunch of books on business is really similar to what a lot of managers will tell you or CEOs will tell you about the businesses they’ve put together. There’s some structural and some general principles about how organizing works that are very similar to how general management and the overall running of a successful organization work.
On a personal level, I think of what Barack Obama always said when I’d go to behind the scenes at events that he would do with volunteers. Whether it was on a video chat or in-person, almost every time one of the volunteers would ask, “Hey, you were an organizer, tell me how to do my job better.” He would always say, “Listen. Number one thing, you have to listen.” It’s something that we all need to do more of in life generally but the key to organizing is listening and understanding who people are and what drives them and what motivates them, what they care about, and how they like to work.
I think if you do that as a manager you can be incredibly successful—just simply, actually, really listening to people and figuring out what motivates them. There are a ton of other skills from organizing that are useful. To me, listening is one. And hustle is another.
For every deficit you have as an organizer, you can make up for it in hustle.
You have to be willing to not take no as a ding on your character. People say you’re a really good baseball player if you get three hits out of 10. Well, you’re a really good organizer if you get three hits out of 100.
And that’s really hard. That’s a hard thing to do. To be able to have the kind of character and kind of perseverance and hustle to say, “I really care about this, I’m going to keep going,” is an incredibly important characteristic for life. There are a ton of other principles, but I would say listening and hustling are two of the most important.
Lastly, being on the ground in New Hampshire in 2003 and going out to really small towns was the best education in who the American people are—better than I could have gotten by living in some of those communities for years.
I would often say to my organizers in Claremont, “You know this community better than somebody that’s lived here for 30 years because all you’ve done all day for the last 10 months is talk to people and listen to them and be in their community. You know what moves people here.”
Organizers who go to Iowa for the caucuses or organizers who are out right now in Chillicothe, Ohio are learning so much about who this country is and how to respect who people are—even if they have different opinions—in a way that is really real because it’s about people and not just ideals or caricatures of who people are. Organizers get that in a way that you don’t get from crunching numbers, you don’t get from doing polling. You get all those sentiments from polling but you don’t get what it means to live in a community and understand people in lots of different contexts. That’s a great thing for people to have no matter what they do in life afterward.
BH: There is one other angle I would add on to this. One thing I love about 270 Strategies is that I feel like we’re taking an organizer’s lens to solving lots of different problems that lots of different types of organizations and lots of different communities face. I love that because it’s like a thought exercise every day but the principles that we started with continue to be true. It just reinforces for me the importance of the principles that organizers live by.
Going back to the DNC in 2010 and when I decided to “make the switch”—which is a stupid line that we drew within our organization but people never really drew in their lives—that was the first time I did that. I went through that process of taking the principles I had as an organizer and applying them to what I thought was a really different context.
Now we’re applying those principles online and offline and that is awesome to me because it’s much more authentic. Our engagement is much more authentic.
When I say principles, I mean: 1) listen, being the number one online and offline no matter where people are talking and listen authentically and actively; 2) meet people where they are both online and offline—go to them in their communities, whether that’s Buzzfeed or Facebook or Twitter or the barber shop or the university campus, meet people where they are; 3) the authenticity piece that we talked about earlier but that just underscores all of this work in your tone, in your approach, in your story, in your ask; and 4) urgency and outcomes—what’s your clear path to action and why?
You can take those four things and if you’re working in a mission-driven place, it works anywhere. That’s a really powerful realization because it allows you to adapt to a lot of different contexts, and it allows us to make lots of different organizations better and to give lots of people an opportunity to engage in causes they care about in a really meaningful way.
In some ways, my time at 270 has brought me back to basics even more than it’s propelled me into a totally new phase because it’s reinforced that same couple of things that do work when applied over and over and over again.
AM: Do you have a book or podcast or website you’d recommend to organizers, what is it and why?
JB: The only book I would recommend is Groundbreakers, which is a book that is a little self-serving because I’m in it a bunch; but I do think it’s the best book about the Obama campaign from the lens of the volunteers and the organization, as opposed to the reporters around him or the candidate himself.
BH: There are two organizers who are most inspiring to me that are outside the political space. One is Óscar Romero who was a Jesuit bishop in El Salvador during the revolution in the 80s and an amazing, inspiring community organizer who took all the principles that we talk about and applied them in a totally different context.
And you should read Dreams from My Father. It is an amazing thing that the man who’s been in the White House for eight years and who is the first African-American president, started his career as an organizer.
JB: Every organizer should read that chapter where he’s basically at the event that no one comes to. He organizes an event, no one shows up and he’s staring out the window and I think he ends up throwing rocks at the building in the parking lot.
Every organizer should read it because it’s almost like how in skiing if you don’t fall down, you’re not skiing hard enough. If you don’t have an event like that, you haven’t been an organizer. And that guy’s the president so he’s clearly been successful and figured it out.
But you have that moment where you’re going to fail and no one’s going to show up or you’re going to lose an election, you’re going to be angry at people because they didn’t turn out to vote. The persistence in that scene is really important for people to think of when he was a nobody organizer at an event in the basement of a church where no one showed up. That’s where you learn a lot.