In the effort to send out volunteers to swing states, a grassroots organization started by a couple of Stanford students has turned into the main hub for volunteers to get plane tickets from sponsors who have frequent flyer miles. In the last three months, Travelforchange.org has sent 1,000 volunteers out on the ground.
The project was started by Alisa Whitfield and Mesa Schumacher during their senior year at Stanford while the Democratic primary was still in full swing. Whitfield had casually posted on mybarackobama.com to ask other supporters if they'd be willing to donate frequent flyer miles in order to send her to another state. Whitfield spent three weeks in Colorado while she was in between jobs.
"The goal is to connect people who can volunteer and have that time to give," said Schumacher, "with people who have the resources but no time." She said that both groups have shown a lot of excitement and investment in the campaign. Since the site officially launched in August with the help of a Google engineer, it has a handful of devoted volunteers, most with some Stanford affiliation. A PR firm in Denver even offered to help with their press releases.
When Schumacher isn't doing freelance design work, she is the group's Outreach Coordinator. She spends about four hours a day on the phone, talking to potential volunteers who are looking for a way to get to another state. Volunteers have come from all over the country and have mostly traveled to Colorado, Ohio and Florida.
"We were starting with the idea of getting a lot of students out, because that's where the idea [for the project] came from," said Schumacher. She was surprised however, at the higher number of older people offering to travel. "There are people beyond the Nixon generation who are feeling more positive about campaigns than they have in a long time." That older generation includes her grandmother, a lifelong Republican who is now an avid Obama volunteer. "She sends me Obama spam every day," Schumacher said.
From high school seniors to senior citizens, these volunteers can get free plane tickets by applying online at Travelforchange.org. Schumacher and others then contact these applicants to make sure they know what to do on the ground, and that they have their own arrangements for housing and transportation.
Once volunteers have been "verified" through this process, they can state why they want to volunteer and why they choose to go to a certain state. Schumacher said that one popular reason is that many have family - "old Jewish grandparents" - living in Florida whom the volunteers want to convince to vote for Obama. Sponsors can then choose to buy a plane ticket in a particular volunteer's name. Schumacher has been most impressed and inspired by the efficiency of new media and social networks in general. "People can feel like they're connecting with someone who's posted a picture and a personal statement."
The system functions on a gift model from one donor to one volunteer, so there are no monetary donations involved. Many of the original frequent flyer donors were Silicon Valley employees or executives who accumulated miles on business. Schumacher said that many sponsors were so eager and excited that they paid late booking fees just to get volunteers out as soon as possible.
The largest connection was between a group of expats in Italy and an organizer in the United States with a group called "Dan's Delegation." With these expats wanting to help but living abroad, they were able to connect to Dan's Delegation through TravelforChange and send 750 volunteers out on the ground in the U.S.
Now with less than two weeks remaining, Schumacher arranges sponsorships for about 10 volunteers a day. "We can't send everyone," she said. "It's unfortunate - it's just the truth. We're trying to send people out who are going to make the biggest difference." That means people who have gone through training from the Obama campaign and those who can spend the longest time volunteering will be targeted first.
Schumacher won't be traveling herself, because she said she feels that she would be of more help as a facilitator with TravelforChange. As for her hours on the phone coordinating flight arrangements, she said, "It's pretty cool to hear everyone's different kind of story of why they want Obama to win...people are feeling really charged about an election in a way that I haven't seen liberals act before. There are people like that all over, which gives me a lot of hope for this election."