6 Tips to Improve Your Advocacy Right Now
As we all know, advocacy is part of the mission at almost every nonprofit. What is not often discussed is that many government affairs professionals say it’s getting harder to do and they need more effective tactics. In a challenging environment, optimization matters. While technical tweaks and testing help, there’s a lot to be said for processes and practices designed to maximize impact — and there’s a lot you can do to improve your program.
Here are six tips to improve and pitfalls to avoid, most of which are low- or no-cost.
1. Humanize Your Appeal
Having your supporters share their stories, as opposed to sending a form letter, is powerful. These stories provide the constituent anecdotes that lawmakers need to support a position. Many in your audience are willing — perhaps even eager — to talk about their situation, but they sometimes need help getting started. Systems that prompt your supporters for information, rather than just giving them a text box, result in rich, personalized anecdotes that move the needle. (Sophisticated teams will also use this process to tag supporters with key attributes, which can help in the future).
The National Multiple Sclerosis Society regularly uses personal stories and took the strategy further this year when the Senate Finance Committee invited the organization to testify about prescription drug prices. Using personal anecdotes obtained through multiple advocacy campaigns, Steffany Stern, the nonprofit’s vice president of advocacy, told the committee real stories about Lisa in Michigan, Helen in Massachusetts and others.
“It was really great to do a search, scan through a document in 10 minutes and grab five stories that hit on this,” Laura Bennett, director of grassroots advocacy at the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, said.
2. Engage Beyond Critical Votes
Your advocates push members of Congress and state legislatures on issues, but they should also help you build relationships with those same lawmakers. Ask your advocates to thank lawmakers for their support after key votes and at the beginning or end of a session. Don’t go overboard. But genuine appreciation — some of it public — is often well-received.
3. Make Advocacy a True Conversation
Effective advocacy is never a one-way street. Of course, you will ask your audience to take action. But you have to give back, too. Tell them how campaigns are working. Educate them on issues. Make them feel a genuine connection to your organization and an authentic involvement in your mission. The National Multiple Sclerosis Society, for example, is bringing dozens of supporters who were active over digital channels during the pandemic to Washington, D.C., for in-person training later this year.
4. Avoid One-Dimensional Communiques
Asking for only one action (e.g. “email your member of Congress”) gives supporters only one opportunity to help you. They either can or can’t, will or won’t. Giving them multiple opportunities to take action (e.g. email your member, tweet your member, call your member, join a town hall or share your story) gives them more opportunities to participate. Diversify your ask and you may see more people take action — and more people taking multiple actions, too.
5. Don’t Forget Social
Social media — organic or paid — can greatly enhance campaign performance because it allows an organization to reach beyond its list. While it does have a cost, paid social media is a powerful, targeted tool to promote campaigns and recruit new advocates, a top priority at almost every organization.
6. Don’t Rely on One Channel
Email is a workhorse, but it is not the only tool nor the most effective. Text messaging, for example, has a 99% open rate and often produces double-digit conversion rates. Based on my experience, fewer than half of nonprofits use text.
The National Multiple Sclerosis Society, by contrast, makes heavy use of text, keywords and shortcodes. At its recent Public Policy Conference, the organization asked supporters to “Text PPC to 52886” to register. Later, from the podium, they asked participants to “Text MSResearch to 52886,” mobilizing hundreds of supporters to contact members of Congress. They even put a map on the screen showing the activity in real time.
“We do feel like we're being heard,” Bennett said. “We know we're making an impact.”
Jeb is the founder and CEO of Capitol Canary. Jeb, who has been featured or quoted in The New York Times, Forbes Small Business, the Chicago Tribune, Politico, and Campaigns in Elections, is a thought-leader in the civic technology industry. He’s on the selection board for Stanford University’s Social Impact Grants, an advisory member of Designing Chicago, and an alumnus of IMI Plc’s graduate development program. Jeb’s work has spanned three countries, including Singapore, Shanghai, and the United States, where he led a business unit at DCI Marketing, now a Marmon company and subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway.
Ory, who has a Bachelor of Arts in international relations from Stanford University and an MBA from Chicago Booth, has cofounded three technology companies. He lives in D.C. with his wife, Lea and his daughter, Sybil.