3 Ways Nonprofits Can Win in the Golden Age of Advocacy
The Golden Age of Advocacy has begun. For the first time in history, people can communicate directly with decision-makers in front of a public audience. The combination of smartphones and social media has become the world’s single-most powerful civic technology. From Tahrir Square to the National Mall, no other tool has shown such potential to mobilize people for a cause.
The question is, how do nonprofits stand out when almost every organization has these tools? What separates a well-intentioned campaign from a winning one?
Although the newsfeed algorithms, devices and “hacks” change continuously, there are still constants in modern advocacy. In my work at Phone2Action, a grassroots advocacy platform, I see the following tactics succeed time and again:
1. Jump the Ladder of Influence
Traditional advocacy campaigns climb a ladder of influence. First, they gather signatures for a petition and get people to send form letters to a lawmaker. If there’s momentum, maybe advocates write personal letters or phone the lawmaker’s staff. If the campaign generates enough buzz, it could score a big news story or meeting with a lawmaker. The pre-Internet campaigns relied on patience and long-term planning.
Forget the ladder. Why wait in line when a single tweet, Facebook post or Medium article could electrify advocates, the media and decision-makers? Why plan so fastidiously when agile reactions to breaking news and viral media can raise more awareness with less effort?
My co-founder Jeb Ory compares advocacy on social media to playing blackjack with infinite chips. There’s no risk! The “jackpot” is when decision-makers, seeing the momentum, feel compelled to respond publicly and act.
Plenty of advocacy campaigns use social media. However, they neglect the next tactic.
2. Choose One Story
In my previous job as an education organizer, I used to send agonizingly detailed emails about legislation to parents. After founding Phone2Action, I recognized that dry, wonky policy language doesn’t resonate with people. But stories do.
I’ll share an example. In 2001, five-year-old Madison McCarthy went into sudden cardiac arrest in a kindergarten classroom. No one knew how to perform CPR. The paramedics arrived too late. Fourteen years later, when the American Heart Association (AHA) was campaigning to mandate CPR in New York school curriculums, they looked for stories. And they found Suzy McCarthy, the mother of Madison.
The AHA recorded Suzy telling her story. In the final weeks before the vote, AHA advocates received patch-through calls with Suzy’s recording. They flooded Governor Cuomo’s office with calls and took to social media. The lawmakers listened. New York became the 26th state to mandate CPR training in school curriculums.
Neither statistics on CPR nor briefings on the legislation could have moved advocates the way Suzy McCarthy did. A nonprofit that wishes to be heard must find one story that speaks to the soul.
3. Make Action Live and Immediate
People can become desensitized to “Donate now” and “Act now” when those words arrive by email. The recipient thinks, “maybe later.”
I see nonprofits get from later to now when they ask for action in person and harness technology. Zippy Duval, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), has mastered this skill.
Zippy gave his annual address at the Farm Bureau Convention on Jan. 8, 2017 to 5,000 American AFBF members from 50 states. After a rousing speech about overregulation and his support for H.R.5, the Regulatory Accountability Act of 2017, Zippy asked the attendees to take out their phones. He told the audience to text “AFBF” to a five-digit number, which opened a form to message Congress in support of the bill. Within five minutes, 1,500 people had sent emails, tweets or Facebook posts to their representatives.
That’s what I mean by live and immediate. When your nonprofit gathers a community, don’t waste the opportunity. Make advocacy happen in the moment.
Advocacy Became Cool
Nonprofits started doing advocacy long before it was cool. Now that “the march is the new brunch,” people are ready to act. It’s an advantage but also challenge because nonprofits expect to do heavy legwork before asking people to take action. Leaders mistakenly fear they will alienate advocates by asking for too much too soon. Instead, advocacy organizations must be ready to move quickly without extensive planning.
In the Golden Age of Advocacy, a direct line to decision-makers fits in your hand. Moving stories are easier to source and amplify. Collective action is a tap away. There has never been a better time in human history to run an advocacy campaign.
Disclosure: The AHA and AFBF are clients of Phone2Action.
Ximena Hartsock is the founder, chief operating officer and president of Phone2Action, a venture- backed, award-winning, civic-engagement and communications technology company. Prior to founding Phone2Action, she was a member of the executive cabinet of former Washington, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, serving as the director of the department of parks and recreation and later as the chief of staff of the City Administration.
As parks director, she managed a $41 million annual operating budget and more than 1,000 employees. During her tenure, she oversaw renovations of Washington D.C. public pools, the completion of the city's state of the art olympic facility, Wilson Pool, the construction of numerous athletic fields and parks and the implementation of wellness programs for seniors, youth and families.
Before this position, Hartsock was Washington D.C. Public Schools' deputy chief for teaching and learning under the education overhaul led by Michelle Rhee and Adrian Fenty. In that role, she led key reforms, including the expansion of online learning, international baccalaureate and dual language programs, the implementation of a comprehensive “out-of-school-time” program that served students after-school, on weekends and in the summer, and the implementation of a credit recovery program for students at risk of dropping out that helped improve the city’s historically low graduation rates. Hartsock came to that position after working in the Washington D.C. government as a federal project administrator and school principal.
In 2013, her company Phone2Action won the prestigious SXSW Interactive Technology competition. Phone2Action has been featured, among others, in the Washington Post and The New York Times. In addition to her responsibilities at Phone2Action, Hartsock serves on the board of industry leaders of the Consumer Technology Association (CTA). A native of Chile, she holds a Doctorate in Policy Studies and Administration from The George Washington University.