There’s old proverb that I’m sure you’ve heard before: “the best way to help yourself is by helping others.”
You might roll your eyes when you read this saying, and I’ll admit that there was a time when I thought it was touchy-feely nonsense, too. As I got a bit older and wiser, though, I realized that this is actually one of the most powerful pieces of advice you could possibly apply to your life. It really does hold true for almost every undertaking . . . and especially for politics.
If you have any small inkling that you might want to run for local office someday, then helping other candidates with their campaigns is the best thing you can do to set the stage for your success. There are two reasons why becoming a campaign volunteer will help your own political ambitions, and they’re equally important: gaining campaign experience, and building a network of supporters.
Why You Should Never Expect Politicians To Repay The Favor
Before we talk about how you should start volunteering, however, I need to give you an important warning: don’t expect any of the political candidates you help to ever repay the favor. This is a lesson many people in politics (including myself) have had to learn the hard way, but it’s something you need to take to heart. If you’re busting your rear end for a candidate with the expectation that he is going to give you a job or work equally hard for your campaign someday, then you’re setting yourself up for a huge disappointment.
Don’t get me wrong: the candidate you’re working for might very well show his gratitude by helping you realize your political dreams someday . . . but I’ve found that this is usually the exception to the rule. Unfortunately, politicians tend to have very short memories; if you haven’t helped them recently, then you haven’t helped them at all. And if you’re volunteering for a large statewide or national campaign, you might never even meet the candidate you’re volunteering for.
When a candidate you’re working for wins a local campaign, he often convinces himself that he could have won it without your help, anyway. And if he loses, you’re more likely to get blamed for not doing enough than you are to get sincere thanks for what you did.
That might sound like a cynical, negative outlook, but I’m really not trying to discourage you from volunteering for local campaigns. On the contrary . . . in spite of a lack of appreciation you might get from candidates, working on their campaigns is one of the best things you could possibly do for your own political future. You just need to stay focused on the real, tangible gains that will come from it.
Experience and Networking: The Two Biggest Benefits You Get From Volunteering
Experience is the first benefit that comes from volunteering for local campaigns, and the insights you’ll gain from working on even the smallest race this more valuable than you might realize. There are a hundred little things that need to be done in a successful campaign, and you won’t have time to learn on-the-fly when you’re the candidate someday. Especially in a smaller local race, you’ll have the opportunity as a volunteer to help with dozens of tasks: contacting voters, designing literature, distributing yard signs, putting on events, organizing door-to-door canvassing, and much more.
You’ll see what works, what doesn’t work, and what might work if it were just done differently. You’ll collect templates and plans that can be tweaked to fit your own campaign someday. You’ll grow thicker skin from challenging experiences, and learn to have better appreciation for volunteers by working in the field with them.
The second tangible benefit you’ll get from volunteering for a campaign is networking. While you aren’t likely to get much help from political candidates, you will build many valuable relationships with the people you meet while working on campaigns. I’m still very close to some of the other volunteers I met while working on my first campaign, nearly twenty years ago, and they’ve been very helpful to me in my own runs for office. The candidate who we were volunteering for when we first met? He lost the race,and I never heard from him again.
When you’re working for a campaign — whether it’s a small local race or a big statewide one — make sure that you show appreciation for your fellow volunteers, get to know them, and develop meaningful relationships with them. Ask them about their political aspirations, and tell them about yours. Invite them to hang out in social settings away from the campaign trail. And by all means, after the campaign has ended, keep in touch with them frequently and continue building the relationship.
When you decide to toss your hat into the ring for local office, this network of associates that you’ve built while volunteering on other campaigns will be extremely valuable, and give you a big advantage over any competitors. Right out of the gate, you’ll have a trusted group of friends who are experienced campaigners and who will be able to give you valuable advice, support and help on the campaign trail.
And here’s the best thing: you’ll probably find that beyond their usefulness to your political ambitions, this new group of friends are people whose company you genuinely enjoy. I’ve made some of my longest-lasting friendships while working on political campaigns, and would still be friends with these folks whether they were useful to my career or not.