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Recruiting nonprofit volunteers for legislative campaign success

It’s the middle of the year, and although many of you still haven’t even taken summer vacation, the time has arrived to begin planning for your 2024 state legislative campaigns. Despite the fact that several states are still in session—not to mention those that work year-round—you’re going to have big hopes and legislative goals for next year, and it’s important to plant the seeds for successful campaigns now.

This is the time to answer questions like:

  • What states will we be targeting?

  • Who will be the key targets in those states?

  • Do we have the volunteer power we need in those districts to influence our targets?

After answering those questions, you’ll likely realize that you need more volunteers in certain districts or even entire states. Here are five activities you can put into action between now and the end of the year to ensure your list is ready to go as soon as the 2024 sessions convene.


Keep your volunteer list engaged all year long

Retaining the volunteers you have is almost always easier than recruiting new ones. One of the biggest mistakes that organizations make is ending their volunteer engagement soon after the state legislature declares sine die or adjourns indefinitely. As a previous boss of mine loved to say, grassroots isn’t a spigot that can be turned on and off at will. He’s right: Effective grassroots is a yearlong commitment to engaging volunteers so they are primed for action at just the right moments in your campaign.

There are several ways to keep volunteers engaged even after a state legislative session ends. If your organization conducts federal advocacy, be sure to transition volunteers into your federal campaigns. (This should be an intentional transition—a sudden or unexplained messaging switch-up could confuse your supporters, so make sure to clearly explain any pivots.) You can activate volunteers on your priority campaigns with the typical actions like sending messages to lawmakers, making phone calls, or tweeting at officials. Or, if you’re not focused on a federal campaign, you can promote non-legislative actions like quizzes, feedback surveys, and virtual town halls with an elected official or a key staff member.


Conduct a tell-a-friend campaign

Your nonprofit volunteers likely have friends or family members who share their passion for your issues. Run a membership drive or recruitment campaign asking your existing volunteers to help grow your list. Start by creating a simple sign-up form or petition (only ask for name, email, and ZIP code). Then, email your volunteers asking them to forward the message to people they know. You can also provide volunteers with easily shareable social media content that drives people to the sign-up form.


Geographically-targeted social media

In a larger organization, it can be hard for the advocacy team to secure slots on the social media calendar. After all, many communications teams focus on fundraising programs which are planned months in advance. However, there might be opportunities to share posts and engagement opportunities, like promoting a state-specific petition, that drill down and target only a handful of states or communities. And, if your organization has chapters with their own state-specific social media profiles, provide content to them as well. Those local leaders may be more eager to collaborate with your advocacy team in order to fill their editorial calendar with locally relevant content.


Leverage the fall events

Festivals, charity walks, and fairs are a regular part of fall weekends in big cities and small towns across America. These are excellent places to recruit volunteers. Create a petition and ask some local volunteers or staff to gather signatures at those events. Paper petitions are fine but a tablet-based petition—eliminating the need for hours of post-event data entry—is even better. And, if your organization conducts its own big community-based event, start talking with those colleagues now (if you haven’t already) about establishing a presence for advocacy at the event. These are great opportunities to leverage texting (using your short code and keywords) and QR codes to drive activation and demonstrate urgency and immediacy in your messages to supporters.


Paid acquisition for volunteers

When it comes to list growth, it’s tempting to default to paid acquisition. The hard work laid out above can seem especially time-consuming (and expensive when measured in dedicated staff hours) compared to just allocating some budget for Care2 or Facebook. However, the truth is that even if you do paid acquisition, you still need to create the petition, write the follow-up email series, and develop the ongoing engagement strategy. This is in addition to finding and managing a paid acquisition vendor, negotiating a contract, designing ads, and more.

Another important caveat with paid acquisition: Even with well-designed follow-up campaigns, a large percentage of your acquired list will desert you after that initial action. As a result, your acquisition goals need to be much greater than the number of active volunteers you want to have when the state session rolls around. Also, when measuring these campaigns, don’t just measure cost-per-acquisition (CPA) based on the number of people who are initially added to your list. Consider additional measures like how many of these people complete an action three or six months later. Ultimately, while paid acquisition can be a useful part of your strategy, it’s also important to understand its limitations and the time commitment it requires.


Effective grassroots and volunteer engagement is part art, part science, and a lot of hustle. It’s important that you’re anticipating future needs while simultaneously driving continued engagement with your list. Put these five nonprofit volunteer recruitment activities into action now so you can be ready to successfully influence your legislative targets next year and into the future.


Thank you to Bonterra for publishing this post on their EveryAction resources page.

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