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Thursday, June 14, 2007

Party Building Basics: Part 1

I see way too often DECs and progressive organizations going out to do party building/membership/volunteer recruitment without the basics to do it with. I also rarely see it all fitting into a larger plan - which means any results gained could possibly be short-lived. I'd like to open up the discussion today to focus around the basics of party building. By the way, the same tactics go for campaigns. Here are my ideas:

Good Party Leadership: This is often the hardest commodity to have, I know. I used to believe that even with poor leadership at the top, a dedicated activist can still get things done. This is only partially true: a dedicated activist can move the ball, but in terms of accomplishing things for the long-term, the possibilities of success are very limited. You have to have a party chairperson, vice-chairperson, secretary, treasurer, state committee people, and committee chairpersons who can work together effectively. They can (and probably will) have differences on a number of topics. This, by the way, is normal. If there aren't any differences between your leadership members - that's probably a sign that something is seriously wrong. At the end of the day, however, everyone needs to realize the larger goal of building the Democratic Party and electing progressive politicians. The DEC leadership also needs to be able to adapt. Plans should be built to be adaptable - because conditions can change instantly. The DEC leadership also needs to have some vision (a long term focus) and realize that just because you have a setback, doesn't mean you halt the program you're working on and start from scratch. Wrapping all of this up, DEC leadership needs to be able to work together, and create long term focused plans which can roll with the punches.

A Committee Dedicated to Party Building: In the Marion DEC, this entity is known as the Grassroots Development Committee (or GRD, pronounced "Gird".) I know other DECs have different entities dealing with this, but for the sake of brevity, I'll use GRD to describe the party building committee that your DEC has or should have. A good GRD chairperson is someone who has been a successful precinct captain or club leader. They need to know and understand the volatile nature and structure of the grassroots. They need to be able to figure out and juggle personalities - the Democratic Party is full of varying and...shall we say interesting personalities and psyches. Knowing how each person ticks can yield better results in volunteer recruitment and task allotment. When I talk to New Yorkers, the accent that my grandmother and mother has comes out slightly. When I talk to my friends in the peace community, I take some time to talk about the War and the peace movement before I ask them for help. You get the picture. This isn't sinister in my view, its being courteous of the people you're trying to recruit and get more involved. I view the Democratic Party as a community of individuals from diverse backgrounds and spectrums. Party builders should be very conscious of this.

A Volunteer Coordinator and System: When you find people who might be interested in getting involved, or you have them in your database, how do you manage them? You don't want them sitting on the database forever - those individuals might think you don't value them over time. You also want to be able to track how well they do with certain activities. A volunteer may say they like to phone bank, but if they have a voice that shatters glass - you're going to want so find another activity for them to do! Its also a good idea to track how long it takes volunteers to complete a certain list of calls, and how effective they are at getting information from the voters. Effective volunteers can make effective trainers as your operation grows.

To do all of these things, you need a volunteer coordinator who has the same abilities as your GRD chairperson: someone who knows the lay of the land, who can be patient, can juggle personalities, and in general get the job done. Your volunteer coordinator also needs to learn how to use the FDP's voter database, the Voter Activation Network (called "VAN".) The new version of VAN will contain volunteer database options. In the meantime, a simple access database (for a volunteer system over 100) or excel spreadsheet (for a volunteer system under 100) will do.

People Willing to Do the Work: We have way too many people in DECs who love to talk - but clearly don't want to lift a finger. They have golf games, haircuts, and the like. For the first stage of real party building (which I will start discussing tommorrow), you need a group of people who will be willing to do the phone call work to start getting in touch with your base. Don't bother with the dead weight of the DEC - they're not going to help you. Get the activists together and get going. More tommorrow...


Curt said...

Thanks for the write up Ray, could you expand on the functions of the Marion GRD? In Hillsborough, we have a Campaign and Caucuses Committee, which seems to map to Marion's GRD. My questions regarding how Marion built their membership is what kind of events and targeting which demographics brought the most new people into the party?

Did you have better luck with neighborhood coffee meets or events like wine tastings? Did you depend on purely political events to rally people or were social events more successful? Who organized these things for you, did the GRD leadership take that on or did they train people? Did you guys produce any documentation about how to get new members started volunteering or organizing their own events?

Ray Seaman said...

I'll be talking more about implementation tommorrow, so stick around for that.

The Marion GRD has done a few things, but much is in the planning stages. I'll talk tommorrow about some of the things we have done, are doing, and would like to do in a broad sense.

Scott Michael said...

Ray I am looking forward to next months DEC meeting I would like to get more involved in the process. By the way nice logo it catches your eye.

Ray Seaman said...

Look forward to seeing you. I hope our DEC doesn't underwhelm you too much :)

William said...

I'm looking forward to this dialog.

I joined my DEC (Broward) earlier this year because I realized I was going to also have to play at this level if I was to make any serious impact upon the Democratic Party.

So far, "underwhelm" best describes my experience.

The best thing I've seen so far has been the former and new area leader for Fort Lauderdale. If we had people like this in every area, Broward would be returned to its position of providing the solid Democratic vote needed to affect statewide elections.

The worst thing, by far, has been the monthly meetings. They really seem to serve no useful purpose, other than to provide a forum for people to listen to themselves speak and to announce upcoming events. The meeting could be replaced by a good calendar!

Susan S said...

I also love this dialogue. I printed some good stuff from philinmaine's "Nuts and Bolts" diaries at Daily Kos that can also serve as a guideline for party-building. (Phil is presenting the Rural Progressives breakout at YearlyKos in August.) Curt, I'll give you one of my copies next time I see you.

As the leader in House District 47, I decided back in the winter that we needed to have a different type of meeting in order to attract more people. Since February, I've been holding issues discussions each month. I'm trying to draw people in by appealing to their interests, and also trying to make them feel productive by taking the outcomes of those meetings to our elected representatives in some type of written format (letters with specific recommendations or resolutions). We haven't paid nearly enough attention to citizen lobbying at the local and state level, and it can be a great way to give voice to our concerns. I don't think many of us realize how much impact we can have by simply attending county commission meetings. At a DFA Trust gathering in Burlington last summer, I heard citizen lobbying, particularly at the state level, referred to as "low hanging fruit." Apparently, many of our elected representatives aren't always as well educated on issues as we are. We can do them a great service by doing research and presenting them with our findings, ideas, etc. This type of activism can make our Democrats feel that they are really making a difference in politics. I think one reason there is so little participation in the political process these days is that people feel that money is the only thing that talks. By showing them another way to be productive, we can win more of them over.

As I become more involved in the grassroots in my county, I'm seeing three distinct types of activists. I'm sure this is nothing new to people who have been around awhile, but I'm relatively new to the local stuff. Anyway, there seem to be voters who are candidate-focused, voters who are issues-focused, and those who are party-focused. Our challenge is to bridge those three groups together. We need to find an effective way of educating them on the fact that building a strong local network is the best way to see their own goals realized.

Sorry to go on for so long, but as you can see, this is my passion!

Ray Seaman said...

Susan, loved your comment! You really should be a front pager here! Shoot me an email at uffuture (at) (gmail) dot com so I can send you an invite to post here. We would love for you to share your ideas!