Although nonprofit professionals and pundits increasingly are celebrating the Internet as a strategic tool for fundraising, there's been much less recognition of the Internet's transformative impact on grassroots advocacy. High profile online campaigns have proven how quickly organizations can recruit and mobilize large numbers of supporters via the Web.
One excellent example is the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence United with the Million Mom March, the nation’s leading gun violence prevention organization, which grew its online support base by more than 400 percent in less than 12 months. Nonprofit organizations focused on issues from health research to social services, and both large and small, can benefit from today’s advanced Internet tools and the latest strategies to drive online advocacy programs that influence policy and also build their support base.
In particular, the advent of online constituent relationship management (eCRM) as a strategy and technology has had a profound impact. eCRM is a systematic approach to using the Internet to build strong and sustainable relationships with constituents. Using an eCRM approach, an organization interacts frequently with constituents to learn as much as possible about their motivations and interests. The organization then leverages that knowledge to communicate in a personalized and relevant manner with constituents, which drives participation and engenders loyalty. To date, many fundraisers have adopted the eCRM approach but fewer public policy professionals have followed suit. However, eCRM can significantly impact grassroots advocacy programs by:
· Building a large constituency – Advocacy campaigns are, by nature, viral (however the ePhilanthropy Foundation urges the use of “pass along campaigns”)– that is, they can spread from person to person. eCRM tools increase the “viral effect,” encouraging people to forward messages to their friends and making it easy for them to do so. Typically an organization adopting an eCRM approach will find that at least 10 percent of people taking action on each alert/campaign are new to their organization, i.e., net additions to their file. These additions are great prospects for future advocacy efforts and also have the potential to contribute in other ways, e.g., to donate.
· Mobilizing constituents effectively and at low-cost – eCRM tools allow advocacy groups to mobilize constituents quickly and cost-effectively through email, far more so than through postal mail. eCRM tools make it easy to segment appeals to specific audiences based on their interests, their previous actions or where they live. Such segmentation increases response rates. eCRM tools also make it easy to test messages (subject lines, content in the body of emails, etc.) to optimize response rates. Email campaign functionality makes it easy to design automated sequences of messages, which cajole non-responders to take action with secondary “asks,” or to prompt responders to take follow-on actions, e.g., referring friends.
· Increasing response rates through easy response mechanisms – eCRM tools make it easier for advocates to respond. Online response forms on Web sites recognize returning advocates, pre-fill their information, and map legislative targets to individuals based on their ZIP codes. These forms allow constituents to personalize their messages and can automate message delivery via email or fax, or make it easy to send letters or log phone calls.
· Increasing delivery rates by utilizing multiple channels – With eCRM tools, an organization can send messages via email, fax, letters, or Web form submissions on a legislator’s Web site. Multi-channel message delivery options increase message delivery rates.
· Improving tracking – Traditionally, it has been difficult to track information beyond the number of people taking action in a grassroots campaign. One of the major benefits of an eCRM approach is much more granular tracking of each constituent’s activity as well as aggregate response levels.
· Fostering development of strong and loyal relationships – eCRM makes stewardship of advocate relationships easier by keeping constituents informed about the impact of their efforts. Sending a targeted email to update people who took action is quick, simple, and cost effective. Content personalization also makes it easy to acknowledge a constituent’s previous actions when he/she returns to an organization’s Web site and encourages him/her to engage in new campaigns.
· Providing a single, complete view of each constituent – eCRM tools typically combine support for advocacy programs with fundraising and general communications, making it possible to manage relationships with all external constituents (e.g., news subscribers, volunteers, clients, donors, advocates, media and other groups) in a more congruent fashion than in the past. For example, a constituent might be a donor, but not yet an activist. An organization can use eCRM tools to encourage the constituent to join the activist network or take action for/donate to a specific campaign based on his or her profile, or history of interaction with the group.
How Online Advocacy Impacts Functions in Addition to Public Policy
A grassroots advocacy program can be a great source of prospects for fundraising and other forms of participation. However, fundraising and advocacy functions have historically been hesitant to share lists, fearing that advocates would be turned off if asked for money and donors would be turned off if asked to advocate. Based on research, alienation of advocates is rare when they are asked to donate, and the same is true when donors are offered the opportunity to advocate. Consider, too that any tactic that helps build involvement or affinity aids donor retention, and therefore advocacy can be an effective method to further involve supporters. Most donors can and will give only one to two times a year, but they can advocate for an organization multiple times annually, which helps keep the cause or group top-of-mind.
An organization also can use advocacy as a strategy to build its brand. Branding is an important factor in driving donor preference. Studies show that brand especially influences older constituents. Successful grassroots advocacy campaigns reach and touch many people, including members of the general public (current and prospective donors) and the media. Such contact boosts awareness, reinforces the organization’s message, and can produce editorial coverage.
In summary, the Internet has already transformed online advocacy for many nonprofit organizations. New advancements in eCRM technology and strategy are only pushing the potential further. Nonprofit professionals in functions other than advocacy should not only be supportive of the role of online advocacy within their organizations, but also should determine how to most effectively integrate efforts – key for maximizing the synergies and, in turn, constituent involvement.