Stone Soup Initiative

Ingredient 1: Volunteer Tithing  Good Values, Smart Politics

“You shall know them by their fruits…”

The most successful field and communications program we have ever participated in is Volunteer Tithing, and it’s a key ingredient in the Stone Soup Initiative.  The strategic benefits of serving during a campaign should be obvious, and the principles should be clear to Democrats. Yet, we’ve seen only sporadic adoption of this ground-breaking program since it received national attention a decade ago.

Volunteer Tithing is simple and incredibly effective.  Your campaign commits to “tithe” at least 10% of all volunteer hours to community service. Find opportunities to serve, track volunteer time, and report it all back out. That’s basically all you’ve got to do. In return, state-level races will get free access to our email system and data. But the campaign will quickly realize that in giving, you get so much more.

Volunteer tithing is a great way to:

•         Build a narrative of service with a campaign focused on making a difference, rather than just getting elected;

•         Engage and energize grassroots support early, and lower the bar for peer recruitment;

•         Build relationships with grasstops community leaders who run service programs;

•         Generate positive earned media: Each volunteer effort is an opportunity for local press coverage;

•         Stand out from the pack, and create a strong contrast with Trump/GOP negativity;  

•         Make a positive difference now for constituents, instead of waiting until after the election.

Imagine an America where candidates competed to run the campaign that best served their community. Americans are tiring of politicians pandering to their respective bases with impossible promises and efforts to divide. And whereas voters have learn to question what politicians say, voters will always listen to what we do.

Perriello Case Study

Volunteer tithing was a program we first pioneered in Tom Perriello’s ‘08 campaign. Tithing became the most successful volunteer recruitment and earned media tool on the campaign, with hundreds of unique stories/blogs written about it during the election. It cemented Tom’s narrative as a different type of candidate—one focused on service and anchored in values.

By huge margins, Perriello volunteers said the tithing program was their favorite part of the campaign. And not only were we able to begin engaging volunteers and their communities months earlier than campaigns generally do, but many of our most reliable canvassing/phone volunteers first signed up for a tithing activity. It also created a natural and easy way to form initial relationships with local leaders who ran the volunteer projects. Instead of stopping by in the fall to ask them to support us, we began the relationship by showing up to support the thing they cared most about.  Finally, the earned media and interaction with the community through the service projects helped create a strong narrative of faith-in-action, with Perriello’s deeds proving his words and commitment to put the people ahead of politics. 

Making it Work

Volunteer tithing is the best volunteer recruitment (and off-cycle engagement) tool we’ve come across. It’s much easier to bring a friend to a Habitat Home for the first time than to phone bank or knock doors.  It creates meaningful work for volunteers to do now, allowing campaigns to engage volunteers much earlier than normal with work that lays a powerful messaging foundation for the future: win or lose, we’re dedicated to ensuring this campaign leaves our community a better place when it is done.

Volunteer tithing is a simple program to do.  Campaigns start by identifying local community service opportunities.  Staff can track down locations, but volunteers can also suggest locations, or a campaign can have nominations and votes on-line or through the email lists.  Once a few locations are chosen and tithing events planned, the program should be rolled out publicly.

Keep the focus on service, not photo-ops or introductions! Say, “How can we help,” rather than “we’re here with campaign x.”  No signs or handouts.  The best photos are photos of volunteers working, not the candidate smiling with the the leaders responsible for the service opportunity.  There are strategic benefits to serving and doing what is right, but when you show up, show up to serve. The rest will follow if you are authentic.

Remember that tithing is more than a field program. It’s part of your story.  Tithing is a powerful earned media hook and a great tool for building community. Ideally, a campaign should create a special place on the website to track projects, hours spent, and where volunteers can post testimonials on their experience.  As with any program, there does need to be staff oversight.  But tithing often requires less staff involvement than other programs because campaign volunteers are generally participating in activities that are organized by the group being helped.  And volunteers tend to know how to volunteer, so this comes more naturally.

Once the program is under way, the campaign just needs to track and share its total volunteer hours, ensure that volunteers are spending 10% of their time at these activities…and sit back and watch the volunteers roll in and earned media increase as the campaign becomes a force for good in each local community.