With healthcare come and gone, today’s legislative buzz is all about financial reform, global warming, and immigration. Recently, I asked experts in the nonprofit sector to find out how the people who are most vested in these social justice issues are gearing up for battle.
“I sure hope you’re not getting started now,” said Heather Holdridge of Fenton Communications. After all - climate change and financial reform legislation are already in front of the House. Healthcare for America NOW (HCAN) started organizing in early 2008 by asking people to make pledges before a bill was even in existence. They knew that they needed time to build a list of people if they wanted to be involved in shaping the bill.
This is a critical strategy. There’s an invaluable opportunity to influence the content of a bill before it’s introduced if you can do a few things early on: swiftly organize and mobilize a large grassroots base, take advantage of buzz in the news, and get ahead of the news cycle so that you can shape and frame coverage of your issue.
While there’s not an infallible formula that prescribes the exact amount of time prior to a bill’s introduction that a movement should start mobilizing, a good rule of thumb is earlier is better than later. If people aren’t educated you won’t get a good response. “Some issues are less complicated than others, so it’s more about ensuring that you have enough time to educate people and give them opportunities along the way to take action,” said Holdridge. In other words, you need to make sure that when you ask people to take action it’s still valuable.
Although immigration legislation hasn’t come to the floor yet, the savviest advocacy teams have been mobilizing and educating their ground troops for several months. Reform Immigration for America (RIFA) amped up their grassroots strategy in a major way after they saw themselves outdone by the opposition. “You need to match the other guys blow for blow. Then you need to surpass them,” said John Brian McCarthy of RIFA. They’ve now recruited over 100,000 email supporters, made almost 1,000,000 congressional contacts, generated over 427,000 calls to Congress, and grown their social media fan base from 20 to 200,000. Not bad considering that the campaign was started in June 2009 – less than one year ago!
Obviously, RIFA’s impressive achievements are far from serendipitous. RIFA’s team has worked hard to amass their grassroots base and mobilize them to act. Their success is a credit to their talented team and a well-integrated and thoughtful strategy that keeps their growing constituency engaged and active. But all of that is easier said than done, right? How exactly does a campaign go about organizing, educating, and mobilizing thousands upon thousands of constituents?
Prior to implementing a grassroots advocacy strategy, an organization needs to make sure that it has set reasonable internal expectations and is realistic about the impact they can have. Only after that, will they be able to formulate their external calls to action.
Once a strategy has been established, then an organization can start focusing on its tactics for achieving their goals. A simplified to-do list might look something like this: establish your goals, optimize your messaging, invest in growing your list and consistently engage your supporters, capitalize on the news, cross platforms, and credit the grassroots with your successes. Diversifying your message stream across multiple channels to offer people a variety of tools for engagement is very important. “You need to cross platforms to choose the medium that’s best for each message. You need to respect people’s desire to engage on their own terms,” said John Brian McCarthy of RIFA.
What can we learn from these strategists? Invest in a building an army of activists before you go into battle. Engage your activists across multiple channels. Optimize your conversion stream to make engagement as easy as possible for your supporters. Check your google analytics daily. “If you’re not checking your google analytics every day, you’re leaving money on the table, faxes on the table, and letters on the table,” said McCarthy. Take the battle online. The internet offers an unparalleled opportunity to aggregate massive amounts of people and mobilize them quickly. A combination of online paid advertising, earned media, Twitter and facebook outreach as well as an active email list provide the cheapest, fastest, and most saleable options for swiftly reaching a wide audience.