By Anita Tang
There is a new excitement sweeping progressive campaigning circles following Becky Bond’s visit to Australia in November 2017. Becky led the distributed organising on the Bernie Sanders campaign, and is the co-author of Rules for Revolutionaries: How Big Organizing Can Change Everything.
How many of us have had campaign plans that rely on activating many volunteers, but with very little time to find, recruit, train and support the volunteers, and feeling as if we don’t have enough staff to do all these things?
Imagine if you could move people from being passive supporters on your email list to active volunteers, leading on key actions? Or had a method that generated numbers of leaders and volunteers in less than 2 hours? Or a process that meant that at the end of one evening, you had the names and contact details of people who had committed to taking action on specific dates and times?
In the book Becky Bond and Zack Exley share a process they developed to do all this.
After trying different things, the effective format developed by the Sanders campaign involved a scripted 90 minute in-person gathering, called barnstorms, where supporters are invited to learn about the campaign strategy and find out how they can be involved. There is a single minded purpose to these gatherings – to recruit people to lead or participate in designated actions.
The measure of success was not about the number of people who attend, but the number who sign up to running an action and the number of sign up for specific shifts.
The design of the barnstorm struck me as incredibly deliberative and efficient. Every single step has a purpose and was engineered to move people from being supporters to activists and leaders in the shortest time possible.
The Barnstorm Program
Barnstorms follow a particular structure and process:
- Welcoming people and laying out what’s on the agenda and what is going to happen.
- Get people fired up – “Who here is planning to ….Win the campaign?!”
- Icebreaker – share their story in small groups about why they came – 2 mins only.
- Ask people to raise their hands if they are new to political campaigning eg “who hasn’t done this before?” Call on 1-2 of these people to say why they have decided to step up / get involved. Focus particularly on young people, people of color or women.
- Campaign update – where things are up to in the campaign, context for why we need to take this action (eg calling). And why we need you to do it. This is about explaining the plan to win and where volunteers and this action fit in. Cover prepared FAQs – don’t take questions from the floor but provide answers to the most commonly asked questions.
- Get people on the same page of what they actually need to do – phone banking or door knocking. – role play of the action eg phone call.
- Hard ask – Who is going to volunteer to lead an action (eg host a phone banking event)? Who is going to stand up?. Ask people to stand, then go to designated corner of the room to sign up using prepared sheets that capture the details of the date, time and location of the hosted event. Build excitement – give a hand to our heroes. Meanwhile hosts have to keep the rest occupied. Who is ready to attend an event if there is one near you? What’s making you to do something and why are you excited?
- Altar call of hosts – all standing at the front of the room and take turns in announcing their event: time place and one thing about it. We get to know a bit about people.
- Ask everyone else in the room to choose which event(s) they will go to and sign up (by physically moving towards that hose and signing up.
- Hosts then give sheets to team to take pictures of the sheets for data entry and for the events listing on the website. Host keeps their original.
- End with reminder that enthuses people about the fact that they will be doing the work that will help us win.
- Finish with a group photo.
The goal of these events was to put to work people who are already inspired to take action, into teams where they could do something meaningful to help win the campaign.
Strengths of barnstorming
Things I love about the barnstorming concept:
- The tight focus and purpose: doesn’t spend time on persuasion or policy details – just on getting to work
- The efficient use of time: the Sanders campaign barnstorms were 90 minutes, with every component serving a specific purpose
- The way it builds on what we know works in organising – sense of shared story, shared strategy, clear structure, shared measurable action, and a relational component – but in a compressed timeline and larger scale
- That it allows leaders to self-identify on the spot: those who are willing to step up (literally) and accept responsibility for getting something done
- That it creates a norm and an expectation that if you turn up, you are here to do something – if you don’t lead, you will participate
- That everyone leaves with a date and time commitment for action
- That everyone has connected at some level with at least 2 other people who are part of the broader effort – creating a sense of community, connection and something bigger than themselves, and adding to their accountability
- The design and script means it can repeated in different venues with different people leading (whether staff or volunteers) to create the same experience and outcomes
I also love that the barnstorm design totally slays many of the sacred cows of campaign gatherings. Not about training and not about the policies. Welcome to anyone who wants to turn up and participate – no screening, no jumping through hoops to be accepted. No questions from the floor. And asking not for people who are experienced in campaigning but those who are new to it, and giving those people the chance to say why they are involved.
Interestingly, while the specific barnstorming model has emerged from the Bernie Sanders campaign, it is quite reminiscent of core practices used by Sydney Alliance:
- “Assemblies” which are gatherings of supporters and those who care about the issue as a way of visibly normalising civic engagement and to remind people that they are part of something bigger
- Relational component that connects people with each other
- Call to action and seeking visible indication of commitment (eg raised hands, standing up), as a way of moving people from anger and hope, to action
Variations for the Australian context
I’m curious as to how the concept might work for issues based campaigning in Australia. There are differences in electoral and issues based campaigning that need to be taken into account, as well as cultural and population size differences.
- Language: “barnstorming” is particularly American. What would be the equivalent term here in Australia? Probably roadshow but that implies people as audience rather than participants?
- In an electoral context, the drawcard to the events was having a senior staff from the Bernie campaign coming to town. People signing up to meet and hear from that person. The #StopAdani roadshows suggest that this enthusiasm can be easily transferred to issues based campaigning
- Australians tend to be more reserved than our US cousins. Does this mean that the various set pieces of barnstorming wouldn’t take here eg the acclamation, the encouragement for high energy, rising to commit to action?
- One of the time efficiencies is not taking questions from the floor, but having the meeting facilitator read through prepared answers to the most common questions. I wonder how people would react to that. We are so accustomed to taking questions from the floor as part of every event, from author talks to conferences
- Type of roles and tactics where barnstorming would work. In the Sanders model, was about phone banking and canvassing (ie “rinse and repeat” type actions). It does seem particularly suited actions that can be done in lots of different places, at many different times. For some issues based campaigns, actions may focus on meeting with or calling MPs or a single public action.
When barnstorming is the right tool
I’m interested to see it adapted and adopted, particularly in the following contexts:
- Where there is a clear campaign strategy that relies on high levels of distributed and decentralised work
- Where the decentralised work is within the experience of many people (eg making phone calls, texting)
- Where mass participation density is so deep that you need local meetings to recruit enough hosts for the actions
It strikes me as a great concept particularly if your campaign
- Needs lots of people doing the key actions in order to win
- Relies on key actions are reasonably standardised and can be run in a similar manner in lots of different locations (eg calling, door knocking, collecting petition signatures)
- Doesn’t have enough staff in any one location to run actions everywhere, but does have a core team who could travel from city to city to lead these gatherings
To get a sense of how Australian organisations put this approach into action read Barnstorming in the Australian Context, a report of the FWD+Organise 2019 conference workshop. For more on the ‘big organising’ approach listen to Becky Bond here and here.