Building a Grassroots Movement


June 21, 2009
Robyn Shepherd, RESULTS Communications Officer

President Barack Obama’s campaign was a breakthrough on several fronts, but one of the most powerful was the way in which a large network of community organizers were able to deliver such astounding results. One of the campiagn’s major successes was the ability to win the state of Nevada, which previously voted Republican in other presidential elections.

John Gilbert, deputy field director for the Obama Nevada campaign, addressed the International Conference by talking about the fundamentals of building a grassroots movement. “There’s both a science and an art to good organizing,” he said. Being able to connect and empathize with people is an art, but much of the Obama campaign’s success came down to simple metrics. “You need to keep in mind your ultimate goal,” he said. “It has to be quantifiable. Set a timetable for how long you have to achieve that goal, and work backwards from there.”

For example, he said, the Obama campaign estimated how many voters were likely to turn out for election day. They knew they needed at least 51 percent of those to vote for their candidate. They knew they had until November 4, 2008 (general election day). From there, they were able to figure out how many phone calls needed to be made per day, and per hour. “Without that numerical guidance,” he said. “We’d never be able to get where we did.”

Beyond the science of metrics, Mr. Gilbert also talked about the importance of training volunteers and investing in building familiarity. He warned about getting so caught up in the urgency of your cause that you just rush in. While working for the Obama campaign, he learned that going slow in the beginning and holding house parties and social events to recruit new volunteers, rather than jumping right into metrics, was a worthwhile strategy. The campaign was able to establish a presence in the community, so they had a much larger pool of volunteers to work with later in the process. “Investing in volunteers in the front end makes the difference in getting a return on the back end,” he said.

He also warned advocacy veterans against taking too much on themselves, and not being open to new ideas. A great organizer doesn’t try to do everything, but trusts people to carry out their tasks, “like an ethically-sound pyramid scheme,” he joked.

Ultimately, he said, the key to good organizing can be traced back to the Obama campaign’s overall strategy of Respect, Empower, and Include. This not only applies to your fellow volunteers, but to critics. “You will never win trying to convince someone that they are wrong,” he said, and offered encouragement for when the task at hand seems arduous.

“It is difficult work,” he said. “It is laborious work. But it is the Lord’s work, and I’m so honored to be among you today.”

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