By Antje Dun
Perspectives from four Australian organisations who have used barnstorming as part of their organising and campaigning.
At FWD+Organise 2019 (organised by Australian Progress) a workshop was held with representatives from four Australian organisations who shared their experiences of using the barnstorming tool and how it has worked in Australia. The workshop was chaired by Anita Tang with presentations from Justin Whelan (ASRC), Luke Hilakari (VTHC), Joel Marlan-Tribe (ACF), and Ella Shi (GetUp).
Many organisers and campaigners first learnt about barnstorming when Becky Bond, co-author of Rules for Revolutionaries: How Big Organizing Can Change Everything, presented at FWD+Organise in 2017. The 2019 conference was a great opportunity to regroup and hear what people had done with this tactic.
Antje Dun, Commons Librarian, attended the workshop and reports on the key insights.
What is barnstorming?
In a campaign context a barnstorm is an event held by an organisation or campaign that engages and recruits new supporters and drives people from events to action. It is a way to find and activate volunteer leaders to lead groups to undertake actions such as door knocking or phone banking to achieve a ‘win’ whether that be to win an election campaign, change a law, or other social change aims. The ‘barnstorm’ was created and implemented in the Bernie Sanders 2016 presidential campaign.
Prior to the barnstorm innovation it was common for campaigns to hold an event that gathered a large crowd, gather contact details at that event, and then later follow up attendees with requests to volunteer on the campaign. The barnstorm cuts out the middle step and utilises the emotion and momentum of a large campaign gathering to move people to action. People are asked on the night to volunteer to host a campaign activity (typically a phone bank ie volunteer calling party), and others are invited to commit to attend those events. The ‘conversion rate’ tends to be higher both in terms of the number of people who step up to lead events and the number of people who attend those events. Barnstorms build momentum and buy-in.
Find out more about barnstorming:
- Barnstorming to take Australia by storm – Anita Tang provides a clear outline of how to run a barnstorm, the strengths of the approach, and suggested modifications for the Australian context
- Summary highlights from Rules for Revolutionaries: How Big Organizing Can Change Everything, by Becky Bond and Zack Exley (Article)
- Becky Bond and Zack Exley discuss barnstorming (Video)
Lessons learned from Australian barnstorm experiences
This is a summary of key take-aways shared by the presenters:
- Barnstorming is a great tool for building community and social connection. It facilitates a connection between people in a community that might not otherwise come together.
- Many people are happy to have something to do. This model works for people who want to be told what to do.
- Barnstorms can ignite new community groups to develop.
- It’s a useful way to recruit new supporters and identify new leaders, especially in areas organisations have limited capacity to engage.
- It gives the opportunity for people to come together initially and start conversations.
- It gets those who are ready to work a chance to get to work.
- It is more of a mobilisation and action commitment tool, not a space to discuss strategy.
- It’s social, it’s social, it’s social – it’s better than cold calling people.
- Good for mobilising people to take specific actions you need done at scale. If you need lots of people to do the same thing, over and over, this is a great way to scale things up. It’s not suited to getting community members to come up with their own localised actions or take on strategic leadership roles. It is about following instructions and making pre-determined actions happen at scale.
- It gets people to commit to a specific event/action.
- The script from Becky Bond needs adjustment for Australian audiences as it has a very ‘gung ho’ American approach.
- Barnstorms flip the Ladder of engagement model on its head. Some people were ready to jump into big actions straight away – they were just waiting for the right timing, place and people… and to be asked.
- Just because you can scale up don’t forget the great people already in your movement.
- Sit with the awkwardness if people don’t step up initially into the lead roles. Eventually, people will.
Things to think about when planning barnstorms
Why are you holding a barnstorm?
- Be specific about what you actually want out of the barnstorm.
- What are you trying to do?
- Are you trying to identify specific activists?
Timing and planning
- Find the right moments to hold the barnstorm.
- Keep the momentum going by organising tactics people can do quite quickly after the barnstorm such as giving them the time and location of phone banks.
- Sweat the small stuff – Make time to think about all the small details as they greatly influence the culture of the event, such as logistics and accessibility e.g. how many chairs do you need, it is held in a pub or the town hall, etc.
- Keep engagement going such as getting hosts to follow up with confirmation calls to make it more personal and increase the rate of people engaging in the action and/or turning up at an event. Send friendly text reminders before the event.
- Give support such as phonebank training, information sheets on How to doorknock, online training, etc.
Future directions in barnstorming
- Trust volunteers more. Hand over the reins, let go of control and let the volunteers lead! It was recognised a high degree of trust is needed and it’s a great way to build groups and actions in areas previously untapped and unreachable. For example, The Nurses Union in the US follow up barnstorms with volunteer-led Zoom calls and webinars.
- Build better support. Offer more support after barnstorming and have a pathway for people to follow e.g Training and/or resources – How to host a barnstorm, How to run a phonebank.
- Use technology be used in innovative ways. For example, Victorian Trades Hall Council used mobile tech for live voting on actions which made the process much easier and efficient.
Case studies – 4 examples of Australian barnstorms
GetUp undertook their first trial in Dickson, Queensland in 2018. It was successful and ramped up volunteer efforts for the 2019 election. 20 barnstorms were held in 3 ‘tranches’ with approximately 7 brainstorms in each tranche. Two of the tranches were major cities, one tranche ‘toured’ regional areas.
The barnstorms had approx. 200 – 250 attendees with 20-25 people stepping up to host events (a 10% conversion rate for hosts). The actions they asked supporters to undertake were to host phone banking events and door knocking.
GetUp followed the format of Becky Bond model closely and found some lessons were:
- the script was too much of a ‘gung ho’ American style.
- a lot of time was taken up with the Story of Self part.
- they had a low retention rate.
- hard to figure out how to lock people in for certain times. (GetUp experimented with sign up sheets e.g. which dates you can’t go.)
- don’t forget about the dedicated, great people already in your movement.
Australian Conservation Foundation ACF
ACF held over 15 barnstorm events to mobilise for their 2018-19 federal election campaign, after trialling the model in the 2018 South Australia state election. Asks included:
- scorecard handouts in the lead up to polling day
- community surveying
- petition signature gathering
- calling parties
ACF thoughts on barnstorming –
- Great for leadership identification and for identifying local groups already active.
- Great opportunity for people to meet like-minded people.
- It was necessary to plan and have the infrastructure ready to build on the energy and momentum.
- They needed to edit script so as not to shutdown dialogue.
- People were more motivated if the actions were local and involved their local communities, e.g. survey to take to local MP.
- They needed to adjust the tone of the US-style energy for an Australian context as the hype and momentum could be exclusionary if not done well.
- Lots of new people came that hadn’t been involved in campaigning before.
- For the community surveying tactic, 33% of people who attended barnstorms took up the leadership roles. It grew so quickly they lost track of all the events people were leading – a great problem to have!
- Geared more towards extroverts – a handful of people expressed feeling excluded for simply not wanting to participate in the prescribed action. This lead to other actions being developed such data entry roles – but it was a challenge to position this in a way that wouldn’t send too many people away from the core ask for the event
- They would like to think about how to make it more accessible – particularly for people for whom taking action in a campaign is a new or challenging personal boundary to push through – before doing it again.
- The flake rate was always dependent on if there was good follow up by the host to see if the person would be coming to the event. It’s important to support the host of the event to do the follow-up phone calls.
- They are now looking at how the action-oriented part of the barnstorm can be integrated into other offerings such as organising trainings that include narrative workshops, doing power mapping exercises etc.
- They had a good retention rate with asking supporters to undertake a climate survey in their local communities – 80%.
Asylum Seeker Resource Centre ASRC
ASRC held their first barnstorming event in 2018 and asked people to go visit their Members of Parliament in delegations which had a great uptake rate of 70%. They also ran barnstorms for the 2018 Wentworth by-election and 2019 federal election, recruiting people to join street canvassing actions, with over 70% uptake.
The barnstorms they held were short, sharp and high energy but not as high energy as the American ones. ASRC found the script didn’t feel very suitable for the Australian context and amended the language to suit their needs. One complication was the people coming to the barnstorms had been involved in the movement for a long time, but the barnstorm script is based on the expectation of welcoming and recruiting new people. But the focus on signing people up to specific actions with concrete dates, times and locations was extremely successful, and also led to high conversion rates (from commitment to action).
They learned the hard way about the importance of having absolutely all resources ready and planned for the hosts in advance, due to the often short turnaround times from barnstormers to actions!
Victorian Trades Hall Council VTHC
The Victorian Trades Hall Council held a big barnstorming event with approximately 1100 people. People were paired up with others from different unions and shared real stories of struggle. People could pick from three actions, such as phone banking, door knocking and petitioning at train stations. Due to the challenges of running the event at such a large scale, the actions were displayed on a screen at the front and people could vote on their mobile phone for the action they wanted to join. It had an auction/sales pitch vibe with people pitching their action. People could see in real-time the numbers of each action going up as people committed to an action which built the numbers very quickly. Although this use of technology was a great tool for managing a large group it may have reduced the level of follow through on action, due to the lack of personal commitment to an action host.
Keen to host a barnstorm and looking for a clear outline and more tips? Check out Barnstorming to take Australia by storm by Anita Tang.
- FWD + Organise 2019 (Conference)
- Scaling up
- Volunteers - Management