Sunday, October 12, 2008

My Day as a Volunteer

Yesterday I spent the afternoon door-to-door canvassing for Barack Obama in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. If you're not an Obama supporter, don't worry--you can keep reading too. I chose to volunteer because I believe it's important, but today's post is about volunteering--about the lessons and reminders I took away from my participation. So, here's my top ten of things to remember as you work with volunteers based on my experience with the Obama campaign.

1. Make it easy. I signed up online and then got, via email, a useful, printable pdf file that contained all the information I needed: when to go, where to go, what to wear, what I might be doing, what I could bring (cell phone). When I got there, they had everything we needed to go out--clipboards, flyers, print out maps locating each house, lists of people to contact.

2. Be welcoming. That useful pdf suggested that you arrive before 10 AM. I couldn't, and appeared in the office around noon. No one said, "oh, I'm sorry, you should have been here at 10; we already trained people." Instead, I was enthusiastically welcomed, signed in, and given a task. (and, offered food and drink as well).

3. Make a personal connection. Around the room were construction paper squares with individuals sharing about why they supported Obama. In the training, the volunteer talked about her own beliefs and connections. It all connected me, the volunteer, with bigger issues--and then, to connected me to the people whose doors I was going to knock on.

4. Make it clear. The Obama campaign operates at a high level of detail (supporting Obama, leaning towards Obama, undecided, leaning towards McCain, other--loads of check boxes on forms). For all of us who learn in different ways, the information was provided verbally, and then also in a useful, easy to read cheat sheet as we went out into the field.

5. Train. A very different approach than many of us use. As each group of canvassers came in, another volunteer would sit and do a small group training. So just as we finished, a pair of fathers, with kids in tow, came in and were getting trained. And importantly, the trainer directed her comments both to the dads and to the kids, who were very excited about helping. Which leads me to:

6. Involve families. These were young kids, but I've found that, almost without fail, those who are active volunteers in any organization were introduced to it by their parents. As a kid, I spent my time at church rummage sales, fundraisers and other activities; my own daughter did the same at many PTA and historical society events. We might want to find more ways to involve parents and kids together as volunteers.

7. Trust. It's amazing if you think about it. This is a group that's never met me before, gives me 15 minutes of training, and then sends me out to convey their message to the community. And, I think my volunteer partner (who'd I'd never met before and was a first time canvasser as well) and I did a pretty good job. That's because they trusted us to do so.

8. Make people feel they're part of an important, collective effort. Obviously, the presidential campaign is important. Perhaps it's a bit harder to talk about the importance of cataloging a photograph collection or giving a tour to school kids. But let's face it, if we can't figure out ways to convey passion, to convey the importance of what we're doing, then we can't find volunteers and we can't keep them.

9. Give up those preconceptions. Every door you knock on is different. People have different life stories, different beliefs, and different histories. You never know who will surprise you.

10. Listen! I think this might be the most important. Recently, I've worked with a couple organizations who struggled to recruit audiences for focus groups and perhaps, haven't quite seen the value of seeking out community input. As we went door-to-door, I learned alot about what this particular community thinks. I learned the not-so-serious--that people really like Halloween decorations--and the serious--that veterans really are concerned about veterans' issues, that the economy trumps almost all concerns, that not all middle-class women think Sarah Palin is a good idea. Imagine if we all, at museums and historical organizations, spent more time listening to our communities hopes and concerns. What kind of exhibits, programs and historic houses could we do then?

And a day later, one more thing.

Follow-Up I received a phone call from a real person on Monday night asking how I liked canvassing, did I want to come back, and could I interest others in coming.

Top to bottom:
My Obama sticker after a day's work
I like Barack Obama because wall at Wilkes-Barre office
Campaign posters in garage window, just before the primary. Waco, Texas, 1938
Dorothea Lange, photographer, FSA/OWI collection, Library of Congress

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