How the Sunrise Movement (USA) created the volunteer team structure that powered 6.2 million phone calls for electoral impact.
In the spring of 2020, the Sunrise Movement had a goal of making 300,000 dials on six congressional primary races. They had only one problem: there was only one field organizer on the coordinated side, and Sunrise had never run a phone bank program like this before.
Sunrise decided to create volunteer teams to manage other volunteers, liaise with campaigns, set goals, develop strategy and hold other responsibilities that are often held only by staff. By the end of the election season they had created eight teams of more than 50 volunteers aged 12 to 25.
Sunrise staff and volunteers attribute the choice to build a volunteer team of teams instead of simply relying on staff as the best decision they made in building out their phone bank program. Putting the time and investment into managing volunteer leaders and equipping them with the tools to build out their own teams and co-manage one another increased the strategic and management capacity of our movement, as well as the investment team members that felt in reaching movement goals, and contributed to building the leader-full movement we need to win.
Watch the webinar or read the article below to learn how they structured those teams to make them more likely to produce excellent results and contribute to the growth and learning of the team members.
Watch the Webinar
Watch the webinar: Behind the scenes of Sunrise’s volunteer-led phone bank program. The webinar includes Ed Brown, Violet Massie-Vereker and Sophia Zaia of Sunrise and Randall Smith of PowerLabs. (1:23:37 mins)
Sunrise is a movement of young people working to fight the climate crisis and create millions of good jobs and justice in the process. The Sunrise Movement launched in 2017 with a four-year plan to build people power and political power, working to elect endorsed climate champions like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jamaal Bowman, and Cori Bush to Congress and pushing Democrats to implement a Green New Deal.
The Green New Deal is a plan to mobilize every aspect of American society to 100% clean and renewable energy, guarantee living-wage jobs for anyone who needs one, and a just transition for both workers and frontline communities—all in the next ten years.
We have a three-part theory of change.
- People Power: We develop an active base of public support by having person-to-person conversations with our family, friends, neighbors, and communities and drawing people into meaningful moments of action through escalated moral protest.
- Political Power: We help catalyze a critical mass of enthusiastically supportive public officials who will fight for our shared vision of a just future. We vote out corrupt officials and vote in real leaders who side with us.
- The People’s Alignment: We help to build an extensive network of movements and groups united by the shared vision of a government that fights for dignity and justice for all.
Sunrise is a decentralized movement—volunteers anywhere in the country can form or join one of the 400 local Sunrise groups. We call them “hubs”. Volunteers who live too far away to plug into a hub (and aren’t ready to start one) can join remote volunteer teams such as the texting team, the “Force To Be Reckoned With” phone bank team that is the focus of this case study, our disability and accessibility team, and many others.
There is also an overlap between people who are a member of a hub and volunteer on a remote team. Sunrise staff support the movement with resources and training and work alongside volunteer leaders to create and implement our strategy.
In the spring of 2020, Sunrise Movement had a goal of making 300,000 phone calls on six congressional primary races to tell voters about the upcoming election, persuade them to vote for a Green New Deal champion, and answer questions they have about how, when and where to vote.
We had a problem though: only one organizer was dedicated to the program, and Sunrise had never run a phone bank program like this before.
By the end of the election season 11 months later, we had eight teams composed of around 50 volunteers aged 12 to 25. Those volunteer teams ran a phone bank program with thousands of volunteers who made 6.2 million dials to register and turn out voters to elect Green New Deal champions.
In this case study, we’ll share the key factors that helped us increase our strategic capacity for the election and beyond and smash our goals.
- The evidence-based team structure that makes it more likely that teams perform excellent work get stronger over time and contribute to the team members’ growth and learning.
- The processes the team members used to increase their ability to reflect and learn at the individual, team, and team of teams level and make better decisions.
- The process the teams used to increase alignment, focus, and commitment to stretch goals.
The evidence-based team structure that makes it more likely a team will achieve greatness
When we decided to run a large scale voter contact program we had a choice to make. We could hire a dozen staff people to run a program that had thousands of volunteers making calls. That may be more efficient, but it doesn’t build the long-term capacity of the movement.
Instead of hiring staff, we built volunteer teams that would have the level of responsibility and autonomy that most electoral campaigns reserve for staff. The volunteer teams were responsible for setting goals, creating strategy and tactics, liaising with campaigns and managing other volunteers.
The team of teams that ran the phone bank program is called the Force To Be Reckoned With. It consisted of about 50 members organized into 6-8 sub teams or “pods” that held down specific buckets of work (which pods existed shifted a bit over time as made sense). Each pod had 1-3 pod leads, and the Sunrise staff person who managed the team had 1:1 management check-ins with the pod leads, as well as weekly or biweekly calls with all the pod leads together.
The pods included: a “Vibes” pod that checked in on the vibes of our phone banks and on our team; the “Level Up” pod which made sure our volunteers were presented with opportunities to up their leadership and responsibility, while being sure to invest in diverse leaders; the “Facilitation” pod which organized phonebank facilitation and pre brief calls to new phone bankers who had signed up for the first time; the “Debrief” pod which organized debrief and retention calls to past phone bankers, the “Host Recruitment” pod which coached and recruited volunteers to host their own phone banks, the “Data” pod which organized our data and made recommendations for how we could make our work more effective, and an “Onboarding” pod which oversaw onboarding new team members onto pods in line with our justice, equity and anti-oppression goals. A “Tech” pod and “Creative Content” pod ended up being dissolved because they didn’t have quite enough work to do.
We used an evidence-based framework—the Six Conditions for Team Effectiveness—as a guide for our team structure.
This framework has three components of team effectiveness.
- Quality of group process: Does the team get stronger over time
- Task performance: Does the team produce high quality work for its stakeholders?
- Member satisfaction: Do team members grow and learn through their participation in the team?
It’s easy for a team to do any one of these well. It’s more challenging for a team to balance the three. Many electoral campaigns focus only on task performance—getting a lot of high quality work done—without considering people’s long term leadership development or attempting to prevent burnout.
Decades of research by Richard Hackman, Ruth Wageman, and others identified the six conditions that can be deliberately designed into a team and that together create an environment where great teamwork will emerge. Those six conditions are:
- Real team
- Compelling purpose
- Right people
- Sound structure
- Supportive context
- Expert coaching
A real team is bounded, stable and interdependent.
- Bounded: Everyone knows who is on the team and who is not on the team. It’s not different people showing up each time. The teams had a process of recruiting and accepting new members, the names of each team member was on a roster, and we made sure everyone knew who their teammates were and who was a guest at a meeting.
- Stable: Membership is stable enough for people to accomplish significant work together. Our teams were continually growing and shifting as the program grew so we created processes to recognize and adapt when people were leaving or joining a team.
- Interdependent: The team is interdependent for common purpose and people need to work closely together to accomplish it. We created interdependence by setting clear roles within and across teams. For example, hosts who welcomed people into the zoom calls and served as the face of the movement, trainers who made sure first time phone bankers felt prepared, Zoom-techs who shared slides and made breakout rooms, and participant support who made people feel heard and answered questions in the chat. The outcomes of any individual phone bank rested on every member of this interdependent team. Because of this structure, team members benefit from their fellow team members succeeding and performing their tasks well.
The team purpose has to be clear with everyone knowing what success would look like. The team’s purpose also has to be consequential for the lives and work of others and they team members know it. The team purpose also has to be challenging but attainable.
We found that it worked best for the team sponsor or leaders to define the purpose of the team and use it to recruit people to the team, rather than bringing people together and having them figure out the purpose together.
Teams benefit from a purpose that is crystal clear about ends—what the team exists to accomplish—and leaves plenty of room for the team to decide means to reach those ends. This gives the team members the autonomy to strategize together, try a tactic, evaluate how it worked, learn and revise their approach as needed.
The right people
The team has a good mix of perspectives and abilities with people being neither too alike or too different. Right people also means that all team members possess the necessary skills—including teamwork skills—to achieve its purposes. Team members trained and coached each other, developed skills on the job, participated in staff-led trainings and received support from an outside coach.
Sound structure has three elements—task design, team size and team norms.
Task design: The team performs work that makes sense to be done by a team and that allows members to use their judgment and experience to complete it.
Managing the phone bank program is a good job for a team because it requires people to work together in ways that produce a more effective strategy than any individual could create alone. But the actual task of phone banking doesn’t require a team. Thousands of people can make calls to voters without needing to collaborate with others or develop strategy.
Team size: The team is neither too big to coordinate nor too small to have the resources they need to do the work.
As a team grows, the number of connections between people grows at an accelerating, almost exponential rate. A team of six people has 15 relationships to hold. A team of nine people has 36 connections. A team of 12 has 66. And a team of 15 has 105! Our goal was to keep teams in the single digits (nine or fewer people) to minimize the unavoidable process losses (miscommunication, scheduling challenges, etc) that come about in large teams.
Putting a cap on team size created a decision point for us. When a team size was nearing our self-imposed limit it was time to identify if there was the need for an additional team to take on another area of work.
Team Norms: The team has clear ground rules for how members are expected to work together. Each team created their own explicit norms for how they would work together. Team norms included topics such as how often the team met, how decisions were made, and expectations for taking time off.
Supportive context means the organization’s structures and systems promote rather than prevent teamwork. We focused on three aspects of supportive context — access to information and data (such as the campaign’s voter contact goals), material resources (like access to Slack, the phone bank software and other tools) and education/consultation (for example, training and coaching on how to manage other volunteers).
Team coaching means someone is available to the team—a leader, a member, an external consultant—who pays attention to the team’s process and intervenes at helpful moments. There’s a risk that bad coaching—like trying to solve a team’s problems for them—can make a poorly structured team even less effective.
We created a culture of coaching within the teams by training team members on coaching. We also worked with an external coach and advisor who supported our teams.
Reflection and Learnings
The processes we used to increase our ability to reflect and learn at the individual, team and team of teams level and make better decisions
Teams and organizations need formal processes for evaluation and deliberations that lead to new learning.
We used a practice called After Action Review and Before Action Reviews, debrief and pre-brief conversations we used to apply past learnings to our next endeavors. The After Action and Before Action Reviews helped us build a “debrief muscle” and a practice of learning together. The team could rest assured that after every major action such as a primary race we had thrown down for we would have a team debrief and a Before Action Review to apply any learnings to whatever we were planning next.
Using these tools enabled us to develop a culture of strong communication, a culture of debrief and feedback, and an orientation to constant improvement.
The process the teams used to increase alignment, focus and commitment to stretch goals
Objectives and Key Results (OKR) is a goal-setting tool we used to get a collective commitment to stretch goals, get alignment on a strategy, and help people decide what to do and what not to do each day.
The objective is the purpose of the team—why the team exists. The key results are the measurable goals we could use as benchmarks to track whether or not we were making adequate progress towards our purpose.
We set one overarching compelling purpose for the Force to Be Reckoned With team of teams and nine key results we would use to measure our progress, three each under the categories “breadth, depth and justice, equity and anti-oppression (JEAO)”. We also aligned on five overarching JEAO principles that guided our OKR process and our work more broadly.
We used the OKR framework to guide a team process of reaching alignment across the pods. The OKRs helped us to make sure we were all on the same page about our major focus and that everyone on the team had buy-in to the goals they were responsible for, such as dials made per candidate or demographic breakdown of our leadership team.
Going through an OKR process with the FTBRW team helped us to develop a culture of autonomy on the team, where team members were given the information and tools to participate in the goal-setting process. Going through the OKR process was also a tool for the team manager to invest in the leadership development of team members as they chewed on hard questions about what to prioritize, and for the team manager to be able to bring clarity on the outcomes the team was working towards, while maximizing the team’s autonomy over the means of getting there.
The impacts included:
- Team members took increased ownership over figuring out how we could achieve our goals, whether making sure our leadership team growth was diverse and equitable, or making sure we hosted enough phone banks and supported enough phone bank hosts to host their own in order to reach our dial goals for a given candidate.
- Team members were able to use the OKR process on the sub teams or “pods” they were leading.They took ownership of key results and created additional key results that were specific to their pods.
- The JEAO principles that Sunrise’s national field director had set for our field team were adapted and expanded to fit FTBRW’s work, and the team felt ownership over making sure our work upheld the spirit of those JEAO principles.
We recommend keeping your key results to maximum three categories and three to five key results per category. Honestly, nine key results is a lot to track—if you can consolidate down to just two or three that people can hold in their heads as top priority, even better. Because we had so many key results it was hard to do the most effective work we could have on each of them.
And be sure to build into the process of creating key results how you are going to track your key results! Our volunteer data team had a difficult time retroactively figuring out how to track the metrics in our key results. We would have benefited from a deep dive meeting with them at the start to make our results easier to track.
The volunteer leaders of the Force to Be Reckoned With teams took on a level of responsibility and autonomy typically reserved for staff. The team members took responsibility for setting goals, creating strategy and tactics, liaising with campaigns and managing the work of thousands of other volunteers.
The choice to invest in volunteer teams instead of staff results in increased strategic capacity, increased investment in outcomes, and builds the power of our movement long term.
The practices above and the success of the team were supported by a team culture of autonomy and experimentation, consistent and clear communication, celebration of each other’s contributions, and a commitment to making time to have fun together.
Written by Sophia Zaia, Sunrise Movement and Randall Smith, PowerLabs and based on the work of the FTBRW learnings consolidation squad – Ed Brown, Yara Changyit-Levin, Grace Cuddihy, Sourish Dey, Sophie Fenimore, Maya Quetzali Gonzalez, Yashvi Gosalia, Anagha Khandelwal, Zachary Lee, Zahra Lohoue, Violet Massie-Vereker, Andrew Overy, Evan Schwartz, Indigo Sharp, and Terra Workman.
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