It’s a Win-Win: Bring Students Onto Your Campaign Team
In my first year of college in Claremont, CA, I wanted to find a way to be politically active and get involved in my new community. Through a campus organizing group, I connected with a young, progressive immigration attorney running for City Council. I signed up to canvass and immediately found exactly what I was looking for; the candidate took the time to speak to all of the volunteers about the issues facing the community and the policies he was proposing in response. When I knocked on doors, I learned so much from the community members while connecting with my new classmates who were canvassing with me. Each day we canvassed, he gave the student volunteers rides to and from campus and bought us a delicious lunch when we finished. Through this experience, I gained a deep appreciation for local politics and learned what it was like to work with a candidate who really, truly cares about everyone they represent.
As a candidate, you may be wondering how you can engage students and get them excited about politics. Not only is it essential to get out the student vote, but students can offer fresh perspectives on how to address our most pressing issues. While our democracy continues to be attacked, it’s clear that the younger generations will be taking it upon themselves to right this country’s wrongs and build a better future. In your campaign, you have a unique opportunity to increase access to politics for young people, people of color, the disabled, LGBTQ+ communities, and everyone who has been systematically marginalized from political power. Bringing these communities to the forefront has the potential to transform the political landscape for the better.
Now, you’re probably wondering how? In this guide, we will outline:
- how to recruit student volunteers;
- what motivates student volunteers;
- what kinds of projects student volunteers can help out with;
- how to develop a volunteer or internship program; and
- the ideal outcomes of including students in your campaign.
How do I recruit student volunteers?
There are plenty of high school and college students who are excited about politics and ready to get involved in campaigns; you just have to know where to look!
- Consider your existing networks: Chances are, you’ve already worked with some passionate students in community organizing spaces, whether at a local council meeting or a rally. Reach out to the students you know, and find common ground on the issues you care about. Some students may be interested in solving homelessness in your community, others in creating affordable housing options or increasing access to mental health care. Whatever their passion may be, let them know how you plan to address it and how working on your campaign can help you get there. Once you have some students on board, invite them to bring their friends and classmates too!
- Recruiting through schools: Another way to recruit students is through high schools and universities. For example, you can reach out to the Political Science or Policy department and professors of a local college or university, College Democrats, or local Young Democrat chapters and ask them to send out an open call for volunteers to their students. When RFS endorsed candidate Nida Allam was running for Durham County Commissioner, her field director sent a recruitment message to the University of North Carolina Political Science listserv and was able to reach an estimated 1,000 students. You can also try speaking to high school Government and Civics teachers about incorporating volunteer campaign work into their curriculums, or reach out to high school clubs that have a community organizing focus. Through these channels, you can reach many students who already have an interest in politics.
When inviting students to join your campaign team, make sure to establish what are the most effective communication methods with this young audience. First, have the students fill out a Google Form with their name, pronouns, school, phone number, and email. Then, consider what communication platforms will be most useful for your campaign, and get insight from the students on what platforms work best for them. Text and email are always reliable, but you can also utilize group messaging apps like Slack and GroupMe. Student volunteer Nina Atrokhov has found that Slack works well as a communication method and for spreading the word about opportunities and events, but says, “the best way to get student attendance is to text them directly.” Test these different methods out and see what works, and just make sure you’re clear with your team about your communication style and accessibility.
As you recruit volunteers, be mindful of the racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, and ability diversity of the students. Some may be working multiple jobs, have significant family or school responsibilities, or may not have a reliable form of transportation, so be considerate of their time and offer transportation options to in-person meetings. If possible, you can schedule virtual meetings to make working on your campaign more accessible, especially during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, consider whether you can offer some financial compensation to students or help them receive academic credit or volunteer hours.
What motivates student volunteers?
Students are motivated to join campaigns for a wide variety of reasons. They may want to build their leadership and networking skills, add experience to their resume, try something new, or spend time with peers who have shared interests. Campaigns are a great place to learn and hone a wide variety of skills, especially communication and connecting with others. They may also want to gain hard skills, such as learning VoteBuilder and other software, budgeting, event planning, social media, and candidate management, that they can take with them to future political work.
The main motivation for students, however, is that they want to make a difference. Students are concerned with what’s happening in their communities and in the world, and see campaigns as a way to take action. As student intern Sarah Zhang says, “a lot of young people are excited by campaigns because a lot of us are angry at the system, at the politicians who are currently in office that just aren’t representing us.” Zhang also notes that young people are ready to turn that frustration into action, and ready to get inspired by new candidates. Students like college student and career campaign organizer (and former RFS intern) Eli Stone recognize that our institutions and our safety are fragile; with the overturning of Roe v. Wade, rise in gun violence, and the worsening climate crisis, Stone finds that students are turning to grassroots organizing and local candidates to enact the changes they want to see and create a better future.
What kinds of projects can students help with on a campaign?
Once you have recruited students to help your team, you may be wondering what kinds of roles and projects they should take on beyond canvassing and phone banking. The good news — there’s no wrong answer! As with any volunteer role, ask each person about their skills and interests, and see what roles will fit best. Here are some examples of projects that RFS-affiliated students have taken on:
- Social Media: In the digital age, social media is a key way to attract voters and donations. As a candidate, it’s important for you to have an online presence, especially to connect with young people. The student volunteers on your campaign likely have a lot of personal experience with social media, and this is a great way for them to put those skills to use. They can run your Instagram and Facebook accounts, create graphics, or come up with Twitter hashtags or a TikTok trend for your campaign. This is also a great way for students to spread the word to other students and recruit more volunteers and supporters to your campaign.
- Graphic Design and Website Building: Along with a social media presence, you will need a website for your campaign. It is likely that some of your student volunteers have experience with web design or can quickly learn how to use website building software. Utilize their expertise to ensure your website is visually appealing, well organized, and informative. They can also help with graphic design or taking photos for your website.
- Community Building: As Eli Stone says, one of the best parts about working on campaigns is the relationships you build. While working on a gubernatorial campaign, Eli met RFS Programs Associate Flonja Hoxha, and their manager Allie McRaith later was the campaign manager for RFS alum Bob Morgan. In 2019, Eli worked as the campaign manager for RFS candidate Marianne Lalonde and later joined RFS as an intern, and Allie now works at the National Democratic Training Committee, a RFS partner organization. This goes to show that campaigns lead to long lasting personal and professional ties, and these connections in the political world lead to more progressive infrastructure. Campaigns are hard work, and you’ll be spending a lot of time with your team, so you want to create a positive work environment. Students can be an essential part of team building by facilitating exercises, planning social events, creating a team group chat, or designing friendly competitions.
- Policy Analysis: Many student volunteers may be studying policy or they will want to help out as you decide on your own policy platform. As members of your community, they will likely have a personal stake in your policy decisions as well. Give students the opportunity to read agenda packets, learn the material, and make voting recommendations so they can gain valuable political experience and you can have a student’s perspective. This is especially important when it comes to policies that directly impact students in ways that may be different from how other constituents experience them. On issues like school budgets and curriculum, abortion access, student loan repayment, health care access, and climate change, it will be essential to gain insight from young voters as you develop your platform.
- Fundraising: Whether through event planning, phone banking, or email writing, students can be a big help to your campaign fundraising. They may have new and creative ideas on how to fundraise and can also share with donors why it’s so important to get you elected.
- Recruitment: Student volunteers can also play a key role in recruiting other volunteers. Some students, like Sarah Zhang, have even gone on to run their own student intern programs on campaigns and have done a successful job guiding and managing their peers. Students can tap into their academic, organizing, friend, and family networks to find new people who will be enthusiastic to join your campaign and support your election.
How do I develop a volunteer or internship program?
Depending on the capacity of your campaign, you may consider developing an entire program for your student volunteers. In this section, we will go over a successful virtual summer internship program created by Broward County Supervisor of Elections Candidate Chad Klitzman, and a volunteer program created by Montgomery County Council Candidate Kristin Mink.
First, here’s what Klitzman did, and how you can take inspiration no matter the size of your campaign:
- Interns met three times weekly at a set time. There was a clear expectation of when they had to be available and the number of hours they had to commit to, so no one was left surprised. Whether you need to meet with your interns several times a week or only once, communicate that in advance so they can have as consistent a schedule as possible.
- In addition to helping the campaign, Klitzman included an educational aspect to the program. Interns were recommended films, TV shows, and books about campaigns and elections in advance of the program. Klitzman then facilitated a discussion about what they watched and read so the interns could learn more about campaigns and voter turnout. He also invited guest speakers, including current and former elected officials, to share their perspectives. If you have the capacity to do so, offering educational experiences to students on your campaign can really heighten their experience and better prepare them for the work ahead.
- Interns were expected to make a certain number of calls per week to substitute for in-person canvassing during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in summer 2020, whether on their own schedule or on Zoom with other interns. Since this was a virtual campaign and knocking on doors was not an option, making phone calls was especially important and Klitzman made sure that the calls were as organized as possible. Be clear in your expectations for your students when they are making calls or sending texts so they know how much time they need to set aside.
- Interns can also take on volunteer training and management. Klitzman had his interns train new volunteers on phone calls and texting, and had them act as a primary contact for volunteers. This gives interns valuable management experience and is a great way to lighten your load.
- Interns on Klitzman’s campaign were also given a research assignment for which they had to research a topic of their choosing and write a report. This helped enhance the interns’ research skills and gave them a writing sample they could use in the future. If the students on your campaign don’t have the time or capacity for a project like this, you can still encourage them to conduct research for the campaign and give them opportunities to write or create other meaningful work samples.
- Interns were given opportunities to socialize outside of regular campaign hours. They attended virtual game nights and movie nights to bond with their peers and have a fun outlet in a more casual setting. Try to set up similar activities for the students you’re working with, or encourage them to organize their own social events!
- Interns were regularly given constructive feedback on their performance. Give both constructive and positive feedback as you see fit, as it will help your students with their professional development and show them that you’re noticing their hard work.
You may be interested in creating a more casual volunteer program for your campaign. Here is how Kristin Mink has engaged student volunteers in her campaign for Montgomery County Council, as described by student volunteer Nina Atrokhov:
- Nina participated in Rep. Jamie Raskin’s Democracy Summer Fellowship and met Kristin Mink at an event. Mink took the time to approach students, ask them what they were interested in and the issues they cared about, and then invited them to volunteer for her campaign. If you are attending community or political events, try talking to the students present and give them opportunities to get involved!
- Mink has created many entry points for students in her campaign. There are students running social media, helping with events, using VAN, and moderating Slack, so don’t be afraid to include student volunteers in any aspect of your campaign.
- There are now over 50 high school student volunteers working on Mink’s campaign, and these volunteers are consistently recruiting their friends to join. Some students carpool to grab donuts and canvass together, and are excited to be doing campaign work since they have made it such a fun, community-building experience. You can also encourage volunteers on your campaign to work in groups and socialize to boost morale and prevent burnout.
- Student volunteers on Mink’s campaign are seeing how the problems they’re facing can be addressed by local government and learning how important it is to have elected officials they can count on. Make sure you are responsive and transparent with your volunteers to build enthusiasm for your campaign.
Why should your campaign include students?
By including students in your campaign, you are setting them and yourself up for success. The City Councilmember I volunteered for has since become the Mayor of Claremont, and his student interns have played an integral role in his campaigns and in his office. Sarah Zhang started working on campaigns in high school, and now as a college student has managed social media for candidates and is a full-time field director on a congressional campaign. Eli Stone, a college junior, has now worked on 15–20 campaigns, managed 3–5, and acts as a communications director, deputy manager, and general consultant for a few candidates.
When you include students in your campaign, you have the power to build a mutually beneficial relationship in which your campaign is strengthened by their help and perspectives, and they can learn from you and utilize their newfound skills in meaningful political work. There may be some trial and error in the process, but as long as you trust your gut and work with your team, you can create a really powerful experience for everyone involved. No matter the scope of your campaign or where you’re at in the campaign process, it’s always a good time to bring on students and see the amazing things that can happen!
Additional resources on organizing and recruiting volunteers:
- Ready to run for office? Sign up with Run for Something to learn more.
- Hiring for your campaign? Check out these Sample Job Descriptions and the National Democratic Training Committee mini lesson on How to Staff Up Your Campaign.
- Want more info on recruiting volunteers and expanding your networks? Take the National Democratic Training Committee’s course on Intro to Volunteer Recruitment and Management and their course on Building Your Network: Donors, Volunteers, & Validators
- Interested in more ways to engage young people? Check out this student-written guide, “Engaging Young People: A Guide for Campaigns”.
- Looking to make your campaign more inclusive to folks with disabilities? Read the National Council for Independent Living’s piece, “Including People with Disabilities in Your Political Campaign: A Guide for Campaign Staff”.
- Watch Run For Something’s Armchair Series Chat on Campaign Management.
Lily Lucas (she/her) is from Bainbridge Island, Washington and recently graduated from Scripps College in Claremont, CA where she studied Politics. She is a current Run For Something Community Intern through the Progressive Pipeline Fellowship. She has previously held internships at other progressive political organizations and been involved in campaign work and community organizing. Outside of politics, she enjoys reading LGBTQ+ fiction, listening to music, and playing pickleball.