During the 2012 election season, a New York Times article, “Academic ‘Dream Team’ Helped Obama’s Effort,” outlined several tactics that a team of social scientists used to help President Obama during his campaign. Whether or not your preferred candidate won the election, there are many techniques that we can use in organizing dialogue-to-change programs. Here are seven things we can learn from his campaign that can boost your own organizing efforts:
Lesson #1: Have a plan, even if it’s simple
It’s fairly obvious that having a plan helps people follow through. The good news is according to Dr. Todd Rogers, a psychologist at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, research has shown that even a simple plan will increase the chances that you’ll reach your goal. During the campaign, some volunteers asked people what their voting plan was to help increase voter turnout.
In a community program, take the time to outline the direction you want to go and how you plan to achieve your goals. Know who is in charge of each task and when it needs to be completed. And, be sure to let other coalition members or volunteers know what the plan is so everyone can be on the same page.
Lesson #2: Point out past involvement of potential volunteers
To encourage voting, one tactic that volunteers used during campaign was to identify a person as a voter. A volunteer could point out that someone voted in the past in a conversation, or send potential voters their public voting history. This reminds people of the commitment they’ve already made, and subtly encourages them to follow through.
In a community program, this tactic could be used when recruiting coalition members, volunteers, or participants. If you know someone has a history of participating in coalitions, volunteering, or has a public commitment to a specific issue, it could be helpful to point that out to them. Show them that participating in your program will demonstrate their continued commitment to addressing the issue.
Lesson #3: Show potential volunteers how their peers are involved
During the campaign season, some volunteers encouraged people to vote by informing them that their neighbors voted. Psychologists have said that the reason this tactic works is because people tend to follow social norms. So if their neighbor is doing something, it pressures them to follow their neighbor’s actions.
In a community program, you can step up your recruitment efforts by letting people know how their peers are involved. In this case, there are many ways you could define “peer”: if they’re from a certain neighborhood, have a similar job, are a member of a particular organization, if they live in a certain school district, etc. It’s important to show potential volunteers that they have something in common with those who have already joined the effort.
Lesson #4: Ask people to sign an informal commitment
Research has found that even a simple voluntary agreement increases the chances that the person will follow through. Volunteers took advantage of this technique during campaign season to encourage people to go to the polls by having them sign an informal commitment.
In a community program, this tactic could be used to encourage people to attend meetings or dialogue circles. Something as simple as a card stating their commitment with a signature could serve as a reminder to participate and could help increase turnout at events.
Lesson #5: Ask for something small first
The NY Times article cites a Stanford experiment showing that when asked to do something small first, people are more likely to agree to do a more involved task. In the experiment, people who agreed to post a small card in their window on the importance of safe driving were more likely to agree to putting a bigger sign in their lawn. Campaign volunteers likely used this tactic to ask people if they would vote first, before asking for a bigger committment such as driving people to the polls.
In a community program, think about some small, easy tasks you could ask volunteers to do before asking for a big commitment. If they’re not ready to join the coalition when you first approach them, they could still help by putting up flyers, suggesting venues for the kick-off event, or reviewing the discussion guide. Then, once they’ve completed a simple task, they may be more willing to join your team and contribute more time.
Lesson #6: Stay away from myth busting
In the long run, denying myths actually reinforces the statement you’re trying to refute. If a candidate consistently says, “I’m not a flip-flopper,” you will likely take away the message that the candidate changes his or her mind on certain issues.
In a community program, if you’re giving people facts about a particular issue, it’s best to abandon the “myth busting” technique we often see. This might play out in organizing materials such as flyers or brochures, but you might also have considered this tactic in other materials such as a fact sheet or discussion guide. Instead of trying to debunk rumors or false statements, focus on affirming the argument you’re trying to make.
Lesson #7: Emphasize the positive
Emphasizing positive messages during a campaign is more effective at getting people to vote than traditional messages that emphasize the negative. For example, a message such as “In the past, many neighbors did not vote and we lost an opportunity to make a difference,” could be turned into a positive message such as, “Let’s vote to make a difference.”
In a community program, be sure to focus on what can be done. It’s easy to point out negative aspects of past projects as a reason to join a new effort, but you may find instead that the positive messages attract positive responses.