Notes on the Importance of “Swag” from Obama and Romney

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June 19, 2012; Source: Associated Press

It takes a lot of volunteers to run a successful political campaign, and the unpaid work of calling up voters, holding signs and knocking on doors can lose its luster after about 15 minutes. That’s why the campaigns of President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney are looking to the oft-maligned “swag bag” as an incentive to keep their volunteers motivated to press on.

The campaigns have also kicked the swag factor up a notch, not only rewarding volunteers with inexpensive but potentially meaningful keepsakes, but making a contest out of attaining certain prizes. Romney campaign digital director Zac Moffatt briefly summarized the campaign’s program of “swag” incentives, telling the Associated Press, “The more you do, the more you deserve to get rewarded.”

For the campaigns, the “swag” itself can range from bumper stickers for routine participation to sweatshirts for more involved volunteer work and even, in one Obama campaign case, to a signed copy of the president’s recent State of the Union speech for the superhero volunteer.

As unimportant as it may sometimes seem, the lesson for nonprofits here is not to ignore swag and simply assume that one’s volunteers will remain motivated solely due to their dedication to the mission at hand. Instead, you may want to consider stealing a page from the presidential campaigns’ playbook and offer your volunteers something tangible. It may not matter to all, but it will to some. One thing to keep in mind, however, is that many “swag bags” will undoubtedly wind up in landfills, so if you don’t want to balance the weight of volunteer rewards on the back of Mother Nature, NPQ recommends looking into some biodegradable swag. –Mike Keefe-Feldman

  • Jackie DeCarlo

    In the Catholic Relief Services fair trade program, we do find swag to be important for rewarding our volunteer Ambassadors. It also helps for building loyalty and a community spirit, not to mention brand awareness. We took several tips from the AmeriCorps program in that regard.

    We do our best not only to make sure our swag is environmentally friendly but also fair trade or union made. I think the Obama campaign in 2008 guaranteed union procurement of its swag, and I’d be interested if both candidates are making those commitments this election cycle.

    Jackie DeCarlo

  • Becky Lunders

    Great article! I have seen this in action and swag = volunteer retention! There is a treasure of a company in Richmond, VA called Turnkey Promotions that does incentive programs for nonprofits. They have done the research and have data to support that volunteers are motivated by stuff that bears the logo of the cause for which they give their time and talent. The CEO Katrina Van Huss knows nonprofit, and has the tools to help us all raise more money and make our volunteers feel good about it! Katrina can be reached at .

  • Aria DiSalvo

    Thank you for including that last reminder Mike! As a swag company that cares deeply about the environment, and workers, we are always refreshed when people want to make low-impact purchases. Generally the concern comes from nonprofit organizations, so great job so far! We need more folks interested in the environmental legacy left by their consumption (and sweatshop-free alternatives).

    If you are looking for something unique and ethical, I hope you will check out Thanks!