March 17, 2017

Will Nonprofit Advocacy Be Transformed by the Resistance?

Kristin Johnson is a speaker at the 2017 Nonprofit Technology Conference in March.

If you haven’t noticed, there’s been a slight uptick in people exhibiting activist-like behaviors in the last couple months. I can prove this based solely on my Facebook wall, where I have watched my political D.C. friends get out-activisted by old high school classmates and friends of my mother, who went from sharers of baby photos to vehement, pink-hat wearing radicals.

I have lifted my jaw off the ground multiple times, marveling at the Google spreadsheets being passed around each day with phone numbers and scripts for contacting Members of Congress. Suddenly, town halls are the new brunch, and wait—was that—were people chanting the number for the Capitol switchboard at that rally?

These new activists, hungry for knowledge, are not just sharing daily targets and talking points—they are also discussing the most effective ways to change votes and influence their legislators.

And in lots of ways, nonprofits are missing from the equation.

Sure, some orgs are seeing definite boosts in actions and donations, especially from their existing base of supporters, but this new wave of people are learning how to engage with decision makers via their friends and online networks, and not necessarily hopping on our email lists to be fed a steady diet of action alerts and online petitions.

Add to that, these newbies are spreading articles and tweetstorms that Members of Congress don’t necessarily read those nonprofit-inspired emails and petitions—or even trust that they were sent from real constituents.

Uh-oh.

Death of the Action Alert?

Online mass advocacy campaigns have never been perfect. The better we’ve gotten with edit-and-send email technology and name collection tools, the better the offices we’re targeting have gotten with receiving (or ignoring) them. Many recipients now have the technology to run them through computer algorithms to group similar text and topics and respond with the same form letter.

Nonprofit: “Yay! We got 10,000 people to submit our action!”
Congressional Staffer: “Yeah… We’re going to count that as one vote in favor…”

For many nonprofits, these tactics are the bread and butter of online advocacy. Sending petitions and form letters are a useful pulse check to an email list, and they still reign as one of the most cost-effective acquisition tools to bring on new names.

But when it comes to connecting a constituent and a decision maker, time and again, it’s the personal stories, in-person meetings, and jammed up phone lines that get noticed.

“I don’t care if those emails don’t get read—500 of those 10,000 actions came from people new to my list,” you may say. I get it—in the fight against constant email list attrition, new names are gold. People who engage with you as activists are more likely to become donors, who in turn, could help you fund other lobbying activities that may be more effective in turning a vote.

But as your advocacy team huddles late into the night trying to figure out how to get my mom’s friends signed up to your email list, you must think through how your organization can be of value to these new activists—and to all your veteran grassroots champions for that matter.

Will Nonprofits Be Able to Prove the Change They Make?

Before your organization presumes to step in between a person and their representative, reassess what you bring to the table.

  • What can your organization do to amplify those voices and make them 100 times more effective?
  • What can you do for someone that a viral Google Doc just can’t?
  • What part do you play best? Organizer? Travel Agent? Educator? Event Coordinator?

Revisit the last five times your nonprofit’s advocacy efforts had a direct impact on legislation or a policy decision: What votes have your supporters actually changed the outcome of?

Was your nonprofit was one of 15 other organizations to flood Senator So-and-So’s office with thousands of emails about an issue last year? That’s nice. Did they change their vote? Is their re-election at risk if they didn’t?

What did your organization do that was different from the 15 other groups? What got through?

Remaining a Part of the Equation

For the nonprofit community to continue being seen as relevant to new generations of activists, we must measure our reputations for effectiveness alongside our list sizes.

The nonprofits that get noticed will be the ones who find ways to aid and abet activists. They will be the ones who outline effective plans of attack that mesh online and offline tactics to surround a target.

They will be the nonprofits who can prove to people that joining their ranks is better than going it alone.

It’s a communications challenge as much as it is an organizing challenge, but it’s one that thoughtful nonprofits have the ability to crack.

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Kristin Johnson
Kristin is a technical project manager at Rad Campaign, an award-winning web agency that specializes in web design, web development, online strategy, and marketing. She guides clients through every step of a project or campaign, from site planning, content architecture, and design, to ensuring the delivery of a fully tested end product. Before joining Rad, she spent nine years at National Wildlife Federation in multiple roles that touched on online advocacy, email marketing, content creation, social media, constituent data management, media outreach, web production, user experience, technical planning, and information architecture.