I Emailed My Legislator, But Do They Care?

Online advocacy is broken – or at least in a serious rut. As non-profits, we’ve become experts at flooding legislators (especially Congress) with emails from concerned constituents, asking them to vote this way or that. But we rarely have the space or the data to step back and ask: is this working?

Increasingly, the answer seems to be “no.” The tactics that revolutionized advocacy when MoveOn first came on the scene are losing their effectiveness. The Advocacy Gap Report, a detailed survey of current and former Hill staffers and thousands of activists, found a disconnect between how activists want to talk to their legislators, and how those legislators want to hear from their constituents. Their striking (but not surprising) discovery is that legislators want personal contact and real, human stories from their constituents, in person or over the phone, while our activists would far rather sign an online petition or send an email – even though they know it’s not the most effective form of activism. Meanwhile, members of Congress and their staffers feel overwhelmed by thousands of identical emails, and put less and less weight on them in their decision-making. (The report goes into far more detail about the situation, and is well worth a read.)

Take that picture, and add a gridlocked Congress, polarizing rhetoric, corporate lobbyists with bottomless pockets… well, it’s a bleak time for doing advocacy.

But I don’t bring this up to depress anyone. What we should learn from this data is that it’s time to adapt. Online petitions won’t disappear anytime soon, but we need to add some new tools to our toolbelt if we want to keep using the web to power change in the world. At NTC in March, let’s have an honest discussion about what’s working and what’s not in online advocacy, and where we can go from here. I want to share (and hear from you) some innovative ideas for making online advocacy more effective. To give you just a taste of what we’ll talk about:

Segmentation, segmentation, segmentation: While the vast majority of our online supporters are probably only willing to send their legislators a form email, some of them are willing to do more. Much more. And we have the data and technology to identify those people, and give them more impactful things to do. Whether we need supporters to schedule in-person meetings with their members of Congress, or are looking for one passionate individual with a great story to make our case for us in a regulatory comment or letter to the editor, there are people out there who will rise to the challenge, if we only ask them to. How do we find these people, and how do we best put their passion to use?

Take it local: Congress may be gridlocked, but many state and local governments aren’t. Real change can (and often does) start locally. It can be a slow road to larger victories, but at least anecdotally, email advocacy can still be powerful on the state and local level. And passing state legislation can be the spark that leads to national change. When does it make sense to spend our limited resources on state legislation instead of national campaigns?

The corporate angle:  While changing a corporate policy isn’t the same as passing a law, it can be easier to do, and it does make an impact. Show a corporation that it’s in their financial interest to change their ways, by getting a critical mass of their customers to express their unhappiness, and there’s a fair chance that they’ll do what you ask. And you gain a powerful story to tell Congress when you do try to pass that legislation. Should your organization be focusing more on corporate campaigns?

Let your supporters drive your impact: 2013 was the year of user-driven petitions. Organizations can harness this innovation to cultivate better activists out of our supporters. Can you empower your supporters to tell you what they want to work on? Can you give them the tools to advocate for the changes they want to see?

If you’re doing online advocacy and are wondering how to make your efforts more effective in the age of the government shutdown, join Food & Water Watch, Sierra Club, and Rainforest Action Network at NTC to hear examples of what’s working, and talk about what’s next: I emailed my legislator, but do they care? Getting real impact from online advocacy.

Jo Miles
Jo Miles is an Online Engagement Strategist with the Education and Outreach team. She engages Food & Water Watch’s supporters online through email, social media, and other channels, and focuses on building up the effectiveness of online advocacy and fundraising campaigns. She is always looking for new ways to use technology to help further our mission to protect food and water. Prior to joining Food & Water Watch, Jo was at Beaconfire Consulting, where she worked with a wide range of nonprofits to help them run powerful online marketing campaigns.