Organizing in a Pandemic

With the entire world grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic, local organizing groups are defending vulnerable communities across the US. They have shifted their strategies to make sure people are empowered to vote, informed in the face of changing election guidelines, and ready to vote by mail – while also providing critical support to help their communities during the pandemic.

What MVP’s Partners Have to Say

“Half of the stress has been around communicating with funders and partners while also keeping our staff and communities safe. Messages like these (from MVP) mean the world to us!” – Nicole H., Executive Director of New Era CO

“This is incredible! Thank you so much, MVP team. Your support makes a world of difference for us, our staff, and our membership. Wishing you all safety and peace of mind as you do your amazing work.” – Stephanie P., Executive Director of Organize Florida 

“This is fantastic. We’re so grateful to you for making this no-strings-attached grant. Please extend our thanks to the entire MVP team. This is extremely impactful right now.” – Rachel G., Development Director of Texas Freedom Network

“Thank you for this incredible help, I was worried about how I could make this happen so last minute, so this is a great help!” – Leo M., Executive Director of Make the Road NV

Key Shifts in the Field

Groups are shifting to digital and are working remotely.

Of the 40 rapid response grants that MVP gave the first two weeks of March, the majority, with the exception of 3, were for Zoom accounts and access to digital tech tools to support phone banking and mass texting. At the start of the crisis, many groups were trying to ensure that their staff had what they needed to work from home effectively. This has meant purchasing laptops, hotspots, and home office stipends if needed, giving teams the opportunity to communicate with one another on a larger scale to be able to plan their organizational shifts and support. Several of our partners held trainings on how to use these technologies for members who have never used them before and are also seeking support to train their community on being able to use them as well. 

All of our partners have pulled canvassers from the field following expert advice and have transitioned their voter and community outreach to digital if they have that capacity. They have also canceled all in-person meetings and shifted to virtual gatherings. More and more partners have held community town halls online to build community and continue some of their efforts especially in places that have had primaries this week. 

There’s been a move to mutual aid and other services and our partners are stepping up in this moment to grow as organizations.

Our partners are some of the first on the front lines of community support and care. Many partners, including in Iowa, have been checking in with their communities through calls and digital means with their communities to hear how they are doing. In this time, civic engagement work must be broader than Get-Out-the-Vote organizing. Even if the group’s primary focus is political, they’ve all stepped up in this time to coordinate access to life-saving resources for their communities. We’ve seen Google docs coordinating food, medicine, and zoom dance parties as well as the provision of stipends so people can get what they need in this new reality. The majority of our groups work with people living paycheck to paycheck, by the time they can get to the grocery store a lot of things they need are missing and these groups are helping to mitigate that. 

They’re also stepping up as organizations. Some of our teams didn’t have the resources to provide adequate healthcare and many have recently made new hires whose insurance coverage doesn’t kick in for 30 days. Some don’t have paid sick leave. This is a reality given their size, budgets, and many other factors. However, they are working to provide that now. We have had a group let me know that they would offer this to all their team members and figure out the impact later. This is exactly what we want to try and support. The work we do doesn’t matter if we can’t care for our own or if our people aren’t there to do the work.

Partners have been concentrating on advocacy on the federal, state, and city level.

One of the things that has given us hope is seeing how partners are coming together to collaborate, lift each other up and make collective demands. In Michigan, Minnesota, and other states, groups launched collective websites making demands of their elected officials. Our partner groups are demanding increased access to mail-in ballots during upcoming elections, paid sick leave, free COVID-19 testing, rent and mortgage moratoriums, and so much more. The majority of our partners, whether in coalition or not, have all stepped up their local, state, or federal advocacy.

Push to do more collaboration and coordination both locally and nationally.

As noted in the previous point, groups are working hard to come together at the local level to support their communities, and this is true at the national level, as well. Networks have been convening calls to ensure that they are prepared to support their affiliates, members, and chapters with tools, resources, and wellness support as needed. Networks have been leading some of the federal advocacy around stimulus packages and voter protection efforts that include more access to online voter registration, mail-in ballots, and voter protections. 

Immigrant Rights groups are struggling to serve the undocumented community.

With undocumented and mixed-status families specifically left out of the Senate stimulus package, increasing economic impacts and layoffs in this community, and the SCOTUS DACA decision set to be announced this year, many of our immigrant rights partners are overwhelmed with the rise in support requests from their members. They are calling for the suspension of deportations, free COVID-19 testing for all regardless of immigration status, automatic DACA renewals, and for the Trump administration to withdraw his case at the Supreme Court. 

There is a national push for decarceration and support for communities that are currently in detention.

Coalitions that have been working on criminal justice issues and detention are coming together to seek the release of folks that are incarcerated during this pandemic. Cases of COVID-19 have been detected in ICE detention centers and have run rampant in state and federal prisons. Communities know that incarcerated individuals are at a higher risk since they cannot practice safe healthy measures and the healthcare systems are not set up to adequately care for those in detention.

How has MVP stepped up to help?

As the COVID-19 crisis became a pandemic, MVP went into rapid response mode to support groups with immediate needs. We were in constant contact with our partner groups to see how we can best support them and their communities, while making sure they have the resources needed to help hold the elected officials making this crisis worse accountable in upcoming elections. We launched the Pandemic Election Fund and have increased the number of grantmaking calls to get money out to groups faster. We’ve been working on streamlining all of our grantmaking and capacity building processes to get folks what they need as soon as possible. And we will continue to do all we can to support our partners, take care of each other, and continue fighting for our democracy. 

State Updates

  • For at least the past 10 years, Wisconsin has been a conservative laboratory. But holding an election during the worst public health crisis of our lives required sinking to a new, previously unfathomable low. Hundreds of people were already lined up to vote at polling sites across Milwaukee when the polls opened at 7 AM. And because of COVID-19, Milwaukee went from having over 180 Election Day sites to just 5. Facing these unimaginable challenges, MVP’s grassroots partners pivoted to digital in unprecedented levels and were able to ensure voter turnout to win a string of progressive victories, including a State Supreme Court race that will impact Wisconsin for the next decade. Learn more and hear from the groups on the ground by watching MVP’s virtual Wisconsin Debrief
  • Black Leaders Organizing for Communities: In one week, BLOC moved their 50 Ambassadors from the field to do virtual and digital organizing. MVPs pandemic response fund supported getting them on Hustle, so their Ambassadors could transition to calling and texting voters in Milwaukee. MVP’s WI State Advisor trained their Political Director on troubleshooting virtual phone-banking and training their team remotely. While they have been texting, Ambassadors are getting questions asking for community support from community members asking where they can get basic necessities and meals. Organizing groups are asking them to vote, but people are hungry. An Ambassador reflected, “How can I get their needs met and also explain the terrible response to this pandemic is exactly why we need to vote!” 
  • Leaders Igniting Transformation Action Fund: Their digital organizing game is LIT! They launched a #YesForMPS TikTok challenge, calling on supporters to post a video sharing what they want to see in MPS (Milwaukee Public Schools). LIT is working with 24 Vote Mob fellows on 5 campuses to call and text students, making sure they know how they can still vote despite not being on physical campuses anymore. They have sent over 200K texts to WI voters, reached over 350K through digital ads, and directed over 11K people to request absentee ballots for the Supreme Court and Primary Election. 
  • Voces de la Frontera: Voces now has a dedicated staff person that is using doing a vote by mail “chase” program, not only calling members to confirm they received their ballots and answer any questions they may have, and confirming when they mail their ballot. 
  • African American Round Table (AART): The 2 AART organizers are using this moment to run the type of political education series that organizations always aspire to do, but rarely have the bandwidth for in an election year. They are holding these on Zoom, taking the time to work with the community to understand what issues matter most, why they matter, and what are the power structures impacting our lives. This type of educational investment moves leaders along a civic engagement continuum so they can show up more in AARTs LiberateMKE agenda organizing work.
  • Getting out the vote: While some states have elected to postpone their presidential primary elections due to the coronavirus pandemic, Arizona elected to go forth with its scheduled March 17th primary. Our Partners at the One Arizona c3 table and other groups we support, who have historically supported field programs for voter reg and GOTV campaigns, shifted their efforts to digital platforms, phones, and texts in order to keep their volunteers, staff, and voters safe. Groups have been hard at work relying on digital ads, social media, texting tools like hustle, and predictive dialers more than ever to reach voters. Our partners at One AZ have made it easy for folks to find their polling location using their landing page which not only tells them where to vote in person or drop off ballots but also reminds them what documents to bring.
  • Advocacy: During a time of insurmountable fear and uncertainty, Arizona community organizations have come together to ensure that local state government is prioritizing access to testing, care, and economic relief. Working-class people will be most impacted by the direct and indirect consequences of the pandemic, the organizing community has once again risen to the occasion and demanded that this community be cared for and not left behind. On Monday, March 16th, a coalition of grassroots organizations came together to draft demands from Governor Ducey and the state legislature. You can see those demands HERE and here are the demands for decarceration. 
  • There are six groups that are facing a budget shortfall given COVID-19. Many of them are core partners in the state and collectively they are at risk of having to lay off 500 people. MVP has pledged $1M to support their $4M gap and we have sent over $600k as of this week to support these groups. 
  • Led by the Dream Defenders, 18 organizations issued a public letter demanding a decrease in Miami’s jail population in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, persuading Miami Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernande-Rundle to announce a plan to release people with misdemeanors and non-violent charges from the jail system. Many of MVP’s partners are working together to advance a collective strategy around 2020 local prosecutor, sheriffs, and judicial elections as part of an overall strategy to dismantle mass incarceration in Florida. 
  • Organizations across Florida are placing demands on state and local officials to respond to the needs of communities, winning protections against evictions from local and state governments and commitments from utilities not to shut off power. Through all of this, the Florida state government’s response to the crisis has been woefully inadequate.
  • Many of our partner organizations are the hubs of their communities, trusted folks who are responding to immediate basic needs. For example groups like East Michigan Environmental Action Coalition even now are running water drops, organizing for water access, and preventing water shutoffs which are a huge issue in Detroit and other cities in Michigan. Last week, a partner held tele-townhall with city officials and school districts to get out information to parents and students about resources for emergency support – over 1000 people attended.
  • Organizations also launched both short and long term emergency policy responses. They wrote out a statewide policy agenda called A Just COVID Response, alongside 90+ organizations signed on. Organizations are driving policies and tracking progress, including their advocacy for paid sick time and expanding unemployment. Michigan Liberation, Detroit Justice Center, and Detroit Action are trying to decarcerate and get vulnerable populations released from jail. We the People and the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation are trying to get detained folks released. 
  • Groups are developing new tactics and also returning to things that worked before and honing what really works in a remote setting. 
  • All of this work from access support to policy is helping organizations improve their organizing work. Election Protection has taken a whole new meaning now, with organizations working closely with the ACLU and others to make sure there is either universal online absentee registration or even moving entirely to a vote-by-mail system by November. All of the work being done now is going to be able to reorient and transition into the electoral organizing that we have spent months building for in November. 
  • We already suffer from a lack of belief in government in many of the communities our groups organize in. The work that our partners are doing to demand solutions for the most vulnerable among us while strengthening ties to each other. It will be critical to maintaining our democracy overall. We hope that all MVP donors understand that civic engagement doesn’t begin & end with voting-related tactics, but includes things like establishing mutual aid and meeting the immediate needs of the distressed.
  • The Pennsylvania primary (which includes all down-ballot candidates, as well as the presidential ones) is likely to be pushed back to June 2 (legislature is remotely voting today, 3/23/20, on doing so). This will mean that all of our groups’ plans for persuasion Get Out the Vote will have six more weeks in their schedules. Many groups had planned & budgeted their years to shift their Census door canvasses to voter registration, and then voter ed–the timeline for this has gotten more challenging. Groups are shifting their door canvasses to do virtual phone- & text-banking.
  • Many groups have shifted their organizing focus to support immediate needs/mutual aid. Groups in Philadelphia have banned together to support low-wage workers, and are organizing a virtual town hall meeting with City Councilmembers and the Mayor to lift up the concerns of food service, retail, domestic, and education workers who are left without resources. Pittsburgh/Western PA groups put out a call to protect housing for the vulnerable during the period of crisis–which won a state Supreme Court decision to end evictions during the epidemic. 
  • On March 16th, our largest partner in the state, Maine People’s Alliance (MPA), launched a major statewide project, Mainers Together, which is both “(a) a hub to connect individuals in communities across Maine with the support they need in the face of the pandemic, and (b) an effort to build a new statewide infrastructure of hundreds of new volunteer leaders who have the skills to organize their communities during and after the COVID crisis.” So far, over 800 volunteers have signed up, and over 100 volunteers attended the first Zoom training. From this, MPA recruited 16 regional volunteer leaders who are convening local team meetings across the state. MPA staff have run four trainings for these leaders on grassroots fundraising, making safe deliveries to those in need, policy campaigns, and compelling story-sharing. MPA’s goal with MainersTogether is to build an organizing infrastructure around mutual aid that can then be “harnessed for demanding policy change and the kind of elected leaders who can deliver it (and ousting those who won’t).” In the short run, MPA leaders are also fighting to get the paid sick leave policy that they helped pass in the last legislative session to be implemented more quickly.
  • The groups involved in the Community Power Planning Project, a collective voter engagement planning and capacity-building cohort of 6 small, local organizations representing communities of color (primarily immigrants), have all shifted their focus to mutual aid, since they are all the natural hubs of the support networks in their communities. We are working with the organizers of this project to figure out how best to support their efforts in a way that also builds the capacity for their emerging voter engagement work.
  • Right before the pandemic hit, we were about to provide seed funding to help “voterize” Food and Medicine (FAM), a grassroots group in Eastern Maine with deep roots in the labor movement. FAM has a rich history of organizing its members to provide direct support to community members in need, and we’d already been focused on how they would leverage that in their voter work. FAM is responding to the crisis by again mobilizing a volunteer support network to get food and other supports to those in need, and MVP will be helping them to develop a more effective data management system and get training on relational organizing, both for their short-term mutual aid work and the political work to follow.
  • Advocacy: MVP partner organizations in Minnesota launched a statewide platform for a People Centered response to COVID. Strong advocacy has brought some important victories: statewide moratorium on evictions and utility shuts offs, funding for childcare workers, childcare for emergency workers (including grocery store workers). City-wide relief packages in St. Paul and Minneapolis crafted by progressive champions elected by our movemnts are more generous and inclusive than federal ones (undocumented people are eligible for aid from the city of Minneapolis). 
  • Mutual Aid: UNIDOS-MN led in the creation of the Immigrant Family Fund, which has raised more than $200k to support folks not eligible for unemployment or other federal aid. ISAIAH/Faith-in-Minnesota is organizing members who can to commit their $1,200 relief check to this fund. Women for Political Change, who organize on campuses and among youth, created a Mutual Aid fund which gives $200 to young people who apply to buy groceries. 
  • Voter Turnout/Vote by Mail: We urgently need to pass legislation to allow the MN Secretary of State to send a mail-in ballot to every Minnesotan. As the groups we work with turn to re-envisioning their work in this new reality, focal points are emerging. We must re-double our investments in training, infrastructure, and staffing for relational organizing; make voter registration and helping people update registrations a top tier priority; and create ballot chase programs that evolve traditional GOTV into a 2+ month effort to remind every supporter to vote by mail and then, once they’ve voted, recruits them to engage their relational network to do the same. While at the same time, groups still have to prepare to run a traditional GOTV program on top of the vote-by-mail ballot chase, knowing there will still be a critical in-person voting opportunity that many voters will be depending on.
New Hampshire 
  • In NH, we have helped all of our groups get access to the tools and technology they need to make the shift to virtual organizing. In particular, we are helping groups ramp up their relational organizing efforts. 
  • All of our groups have come together around a coordinated campaign to pressure NH leaders to put the needs of workers and communities first, by directing economic and employment supports, healthcare and frontline responses, and housing and well-being policies towards those with the greatest need.
  • Rights and Democracy (RAD) was about to launch a 3-month deep canvass focused on rural New Hampshire, utilizing a race-class narrative, which it has now shifted to a deep phone canvass. As part of the coordinated campaign mentioned above, RAD is gathering hundreds of petition signatures and using social and earned media to lift up the stories and voices of those most impacted by the crisis. In addition to needing to hire staff to lead its digital organizing work, RAD is facing a hole in its budget due to a drop in individual donations, since many of its supporters are now out of work.
  • New Hampshire Youth Movement has launched a rapid response network to mobilize its members to coordinate its actions. One such action, a petition drive to get the state university system to refund spring semester tuition to students, getting positive press attention. Within days the state had agreed to offer that refund. 
  • Local partners have been moving quickly and thoughtfully to transition their field work to digital platforms, keep their staff employed, and keep their community informed and supported, plus handling family needs. Faced with an antiquated voter registration process that doesn’t allow online voter registration, as well as underinvested public healthcare and social services infrastructure, Texas groups are continuing to step up. They are calling for the availability of online voter registration, demanding local voting reforms, working to count the undercounted for the census, and advocating to address racial, health, and worker justice issues.
  • The May runoffs have been postponed to July 14, which include the US Senate Democratic runoffs. Turnout sharply increased in the March Primaries over the 2016 cycle, so we must continue building toward turnout in November. Early primary voters experienced grueling long waits of more than 3 hours in San Marcos and in some universities. The fact that 75% of Latinx youth had not been contacted by a presidential candidate shows how much we need grassroots to fill gaps to increase voter education, issue engagement and advocacy, and turnout. This is the peak time for Census outreach and voter registration efforts, and with so much at stake, we need all hands on deck.


– April 2020