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Relational Organizing – How to Use It Right and Win the Race!

Published: Jul 30, 2020

In June 2018, the Democratic party saw relational organizing play a pivotal role in the House primaries. A 28 yr old political newcomer (a social democrat to boot), up seated a 10-year incumbent. 

I am, of course, talking about how AOC defeated Mr. Crowley with more than 57% of the votes!

Even though her campaign was underfunded, AOC brought a personal touch to her canvassing that resulted in her eventually winning the race. 

That is what relational organizing aims to do! When political campaigning is vastly becoming digital, relational organizing puts the focus back on personal connections to increase impact (or bring better results). 

In this article, we will look at what relational organizing is, and how exactly you can use it for your campaign.

What is relational organizing?

Relational organizing refers to harnessing personal relationships during voter contact (even outside the election cycle) to get better engagement and higher conversions. It involves a volunteer influencing someone in their network (someone they already know), and encouraging them to participate in the election. 

They can encourage their ‘friend’ to:

  • Join an event
  • Make a donation
  • Sign up to be a volunteer
  • Sign a petition
  • Cast a vote

The actual interaction between the volunteer and their ‘friend’ can happen either online or offline, depending on the channel that is most suited for them.

S.No.Online Relational OrganizingOffline Relational Organizing
1.Social media posts (Update of status message/post sharing on personal handle across Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest)Bundling, house 
2.Direct messaging on social mediaEvents
3.Contact via phone-calls or textsDoor to door canvassing

It has to be understood that the concept behind relational organizing is nothing new. Door to door canvassing and personal voter outreach has always been the key elements in any campaign. 

What is new is the use of data and technology to improve and scale the contact!

Relational organizing allows campaign data teams to focus on two very important pieces of data that were too hard to track before: namely for every voter who’s the best person in their network to contact, and what’s the best way to do so.” – David Leichtman, Campaigns and Elections.

While a campaign manager could track the number of doors knocked, or the number of calls made by a volunteer, it was previously used to keep count of the impact relational organizing brought to campaigns.

However, with digital tools that are now solely focused on personal interactions, campaign managers can track which volunteer is the best suited to contact which voter and so on. 

Why is relational organizing powerful?

83% of Americans say that a word of mouth recommendation from a friend or family makes them more likely to purchase a product. 

This consumer behavior, seen in mainstream market places, reflects in political campaigns as well. 

Recommendation from a peer (or a friend) adds peer pressure to the voter and influences their voting behavior. 

That means, if a friend is openly supporting a candidate, the voter would be more open to supporting the same candidate.

Similarly, if the GOTV call comes from a friend, the voter would be more likely to turn up at the polls. 

Quite apart from the impact of social norms, relational organizing also works because:

‘Warm contact’ is better than ‘Cold contact’

People are more likely to act on information when it comes from someone they trust. The existing relationship between the volunteer and the voter will make the latter more receptive to what the volunteer has to say. 

Adds credibility to the candidate

An open recommendation of a candidate from a friend is effectively an endorsement – or a testimonial that shapes the voter’s perception of the candidate (for the better).

Passionate supporters are highly invested in the candidate

The volunteers who agree to participate in relational organizing do so because they genuinely believe in the cause and want their party to succeed. That means they are the best advocates for the candidate!

Not only can they articulate why the candidate needs a voter’s support, they can also handle questions from non-supporters better. As a result, they require lesser training, and also have higher chances of convincing swing voters!

Highly personalized messaging

The volunteers already know the voters they are talking to. They know the voter’s motivations and primary reservations for voting for a candidate, or even going to vote. This helps the volunteer modulate the tone and messaging in each outreach, and increase the chances of positive response.

Community building adds momentum

Some relational organizing tools (like OutreachCircle) encourage community building within supporters. That is, the supporters (whom the volunteers reach out to), can interact with each other

So a supporter has multiple points of contact within a campaign (and not just a single volunteer). This, in turn, encourages them to come together and take action on issues pertaining to the party even after the race is done.

What are the advantages of relational organizing 

It is always tricky to pin down an election victory to one particular reason. For instance, AOC’s win against Mr. Crowley was also because she was a candidate whom the voters identified themselves with (and not just due to relational organizing).

So while it is difficult to guarantee a win because you use relational organizing, there are certain clear advantages that it can bring to your campaign. 

1. Better contact rates

Average voter contact rates for CallHub customers via phone banks have been 15%. Some clients have even seen contact rates as high as 30%. 

In general, the contact rate depends upon the voter list – how ‘clean’ the list is, and how engaged the voters in the list are (with your campaign).

This holds true not just for phone banks, but for other channels of outreach as well (e.g. emails and texts).

With relational organizing, the voter contact rates can further improve because of two reasons:

  • The volunteer already has the contact details of the voter he is assigned to (better data)
  • The voter is more likely to pick up the call (it comes from a known number)

For instance, using Outreach circle campaigns have recorded 40 – 60% email open rates. In contrast, the average open rates across industries is only 20%.

2. Higher conversions

As we already saw, the messenger matters!

Voters are more likely to act on information that comes from people they trust. Similarly, volunteers have a better chance at converting people whom they know!

So your campaign can record a higher conversion rate with relational organizing than compared to regular campaigns.

3. Lesser time to make conversions

In a typical canvassing campaign, a volunteer spends considerable time trying to establish a relationship with the voter. Getting to know the voter and their motivations better can in turn improve the quality of conversations and increase conversions.

In relational organizing, the first step of ‘getting to know the voter’ can be skipped entirely. Volunteers already have a relationship with the voter and can directly jump into a conversation. 

This means the volunteers will take less time to get a yes from their target list (when compared to other methods).

4. Lesser chance of mobilizing non-supporters

A crucial aspect of all-partisan GOTV efforts is accurate voter ID. On the day of the polls, only supporters (and extremely loyal supporters at that) are contacted – and asked to turn out to vote.

Unfortunately, the data that makes voter ID possible is not always accurate. There would be instances where non-supporters have been contacted and reminded to vote as well.

This obvious pitfall in mobilizing voters can be overcome with relational organizing. The volunteer uses campaign data to map contacts on their network.

From this list, they reach out only to those voters whom they know are supporters, thus reducing non-supporter mobilization.

It should be noted that relational organizing is not a substitute for traditional GOTV efforts. Instead, it can be used to augment it by giving volunteers a better idea of supporter levels.

5. Gathering insights outside of campaign data

Thanks to their close association with the voter, volunteers would be privy to critical information that is outside of campaign data

For e.g campaign data could show that Jane Doe at 221 B has voted for a Republican all her life and so mark her a strong supporter.

However, people in her circle (and the campaign volunteer within her network ) may know that Jane Doe supports healthcare reform and so might swing in favor of Democrats!

Insights like this can impact your campaign in two ways:

  1. It can augment your campaign data and make it more accurate
  2. It opens up new voter universes for your campaign to convert

Clearly, these benefits can prove to be game-changers in your race. It can help you boost voter turnout by making your arguments more persuasive, and identifying new supporters to reach out to. 

How does relational organizing work?

Fundamentally, relational organizing can be broken down into 3 steps:

  1. Identify the messenger – i.e who is the best person to contact a voter?
  2. Determine the mode – i.e. What is the best channel (text/call) to reach the said voter?
  3. Modulate the message – i.e. Use past data to tailor the conversation better

Depending upon the tools available at your disposal, and of course, the objective of the outreach, each of these steps can vary.

Step 1 – Identify the messenger

The first step in relational organizing is identifying which volunteers can have the maximum impact with your supporter list. 

a) Using super-volunteers for relational organizing

Usually, campaigns map out the electorate and look at critical groups that have the potential to influence a large number of voters. This could involve:

  • Community organizations
  • Local church groups
  • Senior citizen groups
  • Local youth volunteers
  • Schools
  • Resistance groups

The groups could also involve non-profit organizations or communities whose work could be positively influenced by your candidate’s stance. This means that they would be more interested in seeing your candidate win. 

Typically your campaign will look to recruit at least a few volunteers from each group. These volunteers would be called ‘super-volunteers’. It is not necessary that the super-volunteer personally knows every voter they reach out to. Because they are from the same community, the voter would be more interested in listening to (and acting on) information provided by the super-volunteer

Keep in mind that the super-volunteers can also include micro-influencers across the community and on social media. The objective is to reach as many voters as possible and make a higher impact via every volunteer. 

b) Matching voter’s data with volunteer’s contact lists

With technology, this process can be further simplified. Tools like OutreachCircle, Teams (by Tuesday Company) match the voter data with a volunteer’s contact list (available on their phone). 

This means that every campaign quickly gets a targeted set of voters in their volunteer’s personal network to reach out to. 

c) Making relational organizing a part of phone banking campaign

Some campaigns make relational organizing a part of their regular phone-banking efforts. Here is an example of how the conversation can go:

*Supporter agrees to become a volunteer*

Volunteer – Can you commit to getting 5 friends to vote next week?

Supporter – Absolutely! 

Volunteer – Great! Can you go through your contact list and tell me the five names now?

IF yes, update the notes section with the names

IF no, offer to remind them via text

“That’s ok. I can check back with you tomorrow and get those names”

It goes without saying that the supporter would look to bring in only fellow supporters to the poll (and not mobilize a non-supporter).

Obviously, such a request may not work with every supporter. Only ‘strong’ supporters who are highly invested in the candidate, or are favorably influenced by the volunteer are pitched this ask. 

Step – 2 Determine the mode

Knowing how to reach every voter on the list is also important intel that can influence the campaign outcome. 

Typically, every volunteer can choose how they want to engage with the voters on their list. Here are a few options:

  1. A generic social media post – The volunteer can publish a social media post about their activities in supporting the campaign and make a call for supporters via that post. All the people in their network who liked the post or responded positively can be reached out separately for a personal conversation
  2. A direct message on social media channels – the volunteer can engage with friends and peer groups from their social media handle if they believe that this channel could have more impact.
  3. Texting/phone calls – this is the most personal (and practical) form of communication. A volunteer would reach out to supporters on their list via a text or phone only if they already have a good relationship with them. The voter could be a relative, or a good friend, with whom the volunteer is already in touch with on these channels. 

Giving the volunteer the freedom to choose the mode of communication that they deem fit allows them to use channels that are the most persuasive.

Step 3 – Modulate the message

Some digital tools (like Team), offer additional information on the voter’s behavior that the volunteer would not usually be privy to. 

For instance, the volunteer would know that Aunt Karen is a staunch supporter of Medicare for all. But they wouldn’t know that she contributed $50 for the last race.

So this time, the volunteer would approach Karen for at least $50, if not more!

These insights can help the volunteer tailor the right message for each supporter on their list. 

What are the challenges with relational organizing?

Despite the many advantages relational organizing can bring to a campaign, it is not without drawbacks. 

1. Making the wrong ask

A volunteer could inadvertently pitch a ‘wrong ask’ that the voter automatically turns down. It could be an ask for a monetary contribution that is too high for the voter. It could also be a request to host a community chat in their homes for the candidate. Either way, the volunteer doesn’t clearly understand ‘how much is too much’ and misses the opportunity.

Solution: Educate your volunteers to study their networks better to tailor the perfect ask for each voter. There is no magic, silver bullet pitch. The type of ask, the amount of money requested differs from each community to community, and even within the cause. 

2. Expectation of hearing from the candidate 

This is specifically true for local races and down-ballot elections where the community knows the candidate and wants a closer interaction with them. Talking to the candidate directly would be the personal touch these voters would want from their representative.

Solution: Often, the need to hear from the candidate stems from wanting to understand the candidate’s story. Questions like: ‘why does the candidate so strongly vouch for this policy? Or what is the candidate’s take on a specific issue?’ are what the voters would be trying to understand. In those cases, if the volunteer who is reaching out to them can share their story (and why they support the party), then the need for a personal story is met!

3. Organizational challenge

Turf war. Sometimes, the target voter for a volunteer will not fall under a campaign manager’s turf. For instance, if your volunteer has a lot of influence in a different turf (and has a higher chance of influencing voters there ) in that geographic area, they would be contributing to a different organizer’s effort.

Solution: Come up with ways to manage and track cross turf voter contact. Traditional segmentation of geographic turfs may no longer be the best way to organize your campaign. You can also focus on mapping out the super-volunteers, and potential influencers in your geographic area based on their sphere of influence.

These challenges do not mean relational organizing won’t work for your campaign. It merely means that you should watch out for (and plan) for the above scenario so that your campaign runs smoother.

5 best practices for relational organizing

Academic research shows that relational organizing is the most effective form of outreach. That does not mean that your relational organizing strategy can succeed no matter how you execute it. 

For a campaign to genuinely benefit from relational organizing, here are 5 best practices to keep in mind.

1. Make storytelling a key part of relational organizing

The personal touch that makes relational organizing so compelling is not just the messenger. It is also how personal the message is. For a voter to be truly inspired to act, they need to hear the volunteer’s own story on why they support the candidate/cause.

So, encourage/train your volunteers to share their experiences and stories while reaching out to supporters. Train them to ask the voter questions leading like “has that happened to you?” “what is your experience?” to get the voter more involved in your campaign.

2. Integrate relational organizing across all campaigning efforts

Keep in mind that relational organizing is just one aspect of an integrated strategy. It spans fieldwork, peer to peer texting, phonebanking, and GOTV efforts. That means a relational organizing campaign is not something you have to set up independently.

Volunteers knocking on doors can start with voters they know personally; phone-banking volunteers can reach out to 5 contacts from their phone list during every campaign and so on.

So fine-tune campaign goals and best practices to include relational organizing in every aspect.

3. Empower your supporters

Relational organizing can be quite tough without adopting political technology or having the right training. Make it a key part of volunteer training programs to get your volunteers to implement it better. Also, ensure that the digital tools you use sync with each other to give your volunteers seamless access to data across campaigns.

4. Encourage volunteers to take ownership of their target lists

A regular phone-banking campaign will have targets of ‘the number of calls made.’ This means that the volunteer’s responsibility is to simply initiate the outreach and follow-through with a script.

In the context of relational organizing, this will clearly not work. 

Instead, you can encourage the volunteers to own their target lists and focus on results. That is, every volunteer has to raise $300 from their target list. Or, every volunteer has to bring 5 voters to the polls. 

This will mean that the volunteer has the freedom to choose how they want to make the outreach. In a software like CallHub, they can reach out using either peer to peer texting, or a phone call. To make follow up easier, they can also send text directly from call center, to get conversion. 

5. Build a community around your cause

The personal aspect of relational organizing makes every supporter more interested in the cause. That is, voters would be more inspired to participate and engage in the campaign simply because they now share a personal reason to support it.

It could involve interaction with fellow supporters/voters, rather than interactions only with one volunteer.

So form a community around the cause and campaign to build a community of core supporters whom you can tap into for support beyond just one election campaign.

How can you get started with relational organizing?

Start with supporters who are already involved in your cause. E.g., candidates in down-ballot races can reach out to their primary investors and ask them to bring in more supporters from their network. In this case, the initial set of donors become advocates for the cause and inspire people from their circles to contribute. 

Keep in mind that the activation of these supporters is not easy (and not done overnight). Asking a supporter to advocate on your campaign’s behalf is a BIG ask. If this is pitched to the volunteer at the first interaction (e.g., when they sign up to be volunteers), the chances are that they would drop-off. 

Instead, move them up the ladder of engagement, with small asks that are tough to say no to. The idea is to reduce the friction of each ask (so that the volunteer has less inclination to say no) and thus get them more involved in the campaign.

For instance, the MJ Hegar Senate campaign followed a ladder of engagement that looked like this:

StepsHow it happenedHow it could be done with relational organizing
1Supporter signs up for volunteering via social media/websiteSuper-volunteer shares a post on social media and encourages their network to participate
2Volunteers from campaign reach out to registrants to join a training callAssign a super-volunteer to each registrant, so that they are asked to join a training call by someone they know (or identify with).
3Attendees of the training are asked to join a phone banking shiftThe attendees are encouraged by the super-volunteers to join a phone banking shift
4Volunteers who attend a shift are asked to commit to a regular weekly phone banking shift
5After every shift, the super-volunteer requests the attendees to contact 5 (or more) people within their network
6Regular volunteers are asked to help train new volunteersSuper-volunteers are asked to lead training of volunteers in their circle

You can follow a similar approach for your campaign, for both online and offline volunteering requests to activate volunteers to super-volunteers. 

Relational organizing is still a new tactic that campaigns are experimenting with. What that means is that there is tremendous scope for your campaign to see how it can work. 

Since voters are not immune to this strategy, it can easily cut through the noise and set your campaign (and candidate) apart from the rest. 

So all the best for your campaign efforts! Let us know in comments how relational organizing works out for you. If you think there are some tips and insights we have missed and should add to this doc, go ahead, drop a note below!

Feature Image Credits: Liberal Democrats


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