In the weeks since Hillary Clinton conceded the presidency to Donald Trump, people in every state of the Union have rapidly progressed from asking themselves, “How could it happen here?” to “What do we do now?”
One of the greatest lessons from the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign was that a relatively tiny number of staff using fairly basic technology can unleash hundreds of thousands of volunteers to do serious work to advance a nationwide movement. There is no reason this energy shouldn’t continue to grow. Passionate, moral, and urgent opposition to Trumpism could represent the greatest opportunity for mass participation in politics since the antiwar movement of a half-century ago.
But in order to turn the widespread grassroots readiness for action into a mass power movement, progressives will have to overturn the orthodoxy that limits the size of our campaigns to numbers that can be supervised by paid staff. Instead, we must embrace one of the new rules of organizing that was crucial to scaling volunteer leadership in the Sanders campaign: The revolution will not be staffed.
It’s clear that the more paid staff that progressive organizations and campaigns have hired over the last few decades, the fewer volunteers have been engaged, and the more power we’ve lost. Yet progressives continue to equate staff headcount with power. These days, our challenges are so big that really making change will require a movement so massive we could never afford to pay all the leaders needed for it to succeed.
While working on the Sanders campaign, we experienced firsthand how much volunteer leaders are capable of when the right people are given the right tools, responsibility, authority, and accountability—and when they have a major, meaningful mission like helping to elect a progressive to the presidency (or, more immediately, leading the opposition to Trumpism).
We were part of the Sanders campaign’s “distributed organizing” team, the group responsible for organizing supporters in the states and regions where no paid staff were present on the ground. In the early months of the primary while the campaign focused nearly all of its paid staff in the first four caucuses and primaries, our small team of go-for-broke irregulars were tasked with organizing hundreds of thousands of supporters in the states that wouldn’t have field offices for months to come, if ever.
Immediately, we began putting volunteer leaders into positions of power over fairly large chunks of the work our team was tasked with. What we learned over the course of the primary was that people are just waiting to be asked to do something big to win something big. Three or four part-time, passionate, and committed volunteers can in many cases do the work of one full-time staff member. Moreover, volunteers bring unique talents, life experiences, and connections to their communities that are usually unmatched by a field organizer or nonprofit manager.