If you are a sports fan or live in a town with a large sports fan base, you have probably heard whole seasons written off as “rebuilding years,” i.e. years they are not expected to win championships or anything at all. That’s exactly how we in the political and advocacy realm should set our mindsets during years that aren’t major election years— it’s not an off year, it’s a building year and we need to set ourselves up for future success.
Anyone who has ever worked in politics knows that things can get stressful and even downright chaotic in an election year. So use your odd years for mitigating as much of the chaos as possible. Here are four things every organization should be doing when there’s not an imminent election:
1. Program plan now
Set your objectives and goals early, so that in an election year, you don’t lose any time on campaign planning and can focus on campaign implementation. You might not know what your funding will look like, but try creating plans based on three budgets levels: a very conservative version in case everything goes wrong and no money comes in the door; another plan for what you would do if money was no object because a magical funder arrives with boatloads of cash; and, finally, something in between, which is probably the most realistic version. That way you can set programs and goals now, and not start deciding what your priorities are when the money lands in your lap. By then it’s too late, and you're spending precious time making decisions instead of implementing them.
2. Cultivate donors
Speaking of donors, your building year is the time to find and cultivate new donors. Sure, the fundraising team wants to do that every year, but if you really focus on building new relationships and creating a culture of giving in odd years, your even-year plans can be about increasing frequency or donation amounts instead of starting from scratch. Your fundraising team needs to focus on being Jerry Maguire in election years (i.e. showing you the money), so whatever they can do in odd years to find and build trust with donors will help expedite this process and alleviate some of the stress of election-year fundraising.
3. Engage your audience
Building relationships isn’t exclusive to donors. You want to build trust with your volunteers and action takers so that they are primed and ready when it’s go-time. You can’t neglect your list and then hope to just activate them when there’s a major campaign. Now, this doesn’t mean create urgency when there isn’t any, or deceive your list in any way, but keep providing your audience with updates and opportunities to engage.
4. Create systems
Programs aren’t the only elements that can be planned out ahead of time. Create systems and strategies and train your team on them now, so they are ready to go and you aren’t spending valuable time creating new processes and training staff when every minute counts. If you know your organization hires lots of staff in election years, start thinking through strategies and writing down guidelines now for a smoother transition. Get the how decisions out of the way now so that folks can focus on the who and when decisions in the moment.
There’s no doubt that election years are stressful and busy, but movement building doesn’t have off years. It’s important to spend non-election years building capacity and strengthening internal processes so that more of your staff's energy and resources can be spent on fighting the fight and winning come election season.