Grassroots Campaigning: How to Use Online Channels to Build Offline Support

September 5, 2017 Brian Rubenstein

This blog post originally appeared in npENGAGE


“Hello Susan, it’s good to see you,” said the member of Congress at the sight of the constituent walking into his Capitol Hill office. “So, what bill will I end up cosponsoring for you today?”

You might think Susan was a wealthy donor or perhaps a significant employer in the Member’s district.  Maybe an influential pastor at a large community church.

But, you’d be wrong.  Susan is a grandmother, a cancer survivor and the major ingredient that differentiates organizations that truly make change from those that just make a lot of digital noise.

In an age where million-signature petitions are commonplace, the tried and true strategy of having volunteers send online messages to their members of Congress has greatly diminished in value.  According to research by the Congressional Management Foundation, nearly half of congressional staff believe that “most advocacy campaigns of identical form messages are sent without the constituent’s knowledge or approval.”

Enter Susan.  A volunteer who has been trained how to cut through the niceties that lawmakers prefer to let dominate a meeting (where do you eat, who’s your kin, etc.), tell her personal story and make a clear, specific legislative ask.

Every grassroots organization has volunteers like Susan. But, in today’s world of digital over-communication and rowdy town halls overtaken by DC-based interest groups, one, two or even 20 Susans isn’t enough. At the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN), the advocacy affiliate to the American Cancer Society, we have a volunteer like Susan in every congressional district. And, we’re constantly recruiting more who will be ready to serve as the lead volunteer in their community.

Stop! I know what you’re thinking, so don’t say it. “Well, we could build that too if we had their budget.”

You can do it. Without a big budget. Leveraging the tools you already have.

It will take time. It will take effort.  And the rewards will be well worth it.

Era of Increased Activism and Grassroots Campaigning

The recent presidential election has led to a level of true grassroots activism that hasn’t been seen in decades. Ordinary Americans not formally affiliated with any organization or cause are rising up to make their voices heard. This year’s Women’s March and March For Science are just two examples of this incredible trend.

At ACS CAN, we’re seeing this newly inspired level of activity reflected in our offline recruitment as well. Our recent campaigns have generated results 200 percent and even 300 percent higher than in previous years.

While the effort to recruit offline volunteers is never easy, the timing for such a campaign has never been better. If your organization has been waiting for the right moment (or perhaps the extra motivation) to invest the staff and financial resources necessary to build your offline infrastructure, this is that moment.

How to Use Online Channels to Build Offline Support

As the person responsible for leading ACS CAN’s digital program for the past 10 years (they called it eAdvocacy when I first started), I’ve always been very clear in my mission—use the online to build the offline.

Such a pronouncement always confounded others in the office who expected me to preach the gospel of how digital would overthrow the world of grassroots campaigning. And, while it certainly has led to significant change, no amount of automation, artificial intelligence or Big Data can change one simple fact—there is nothing more powerful than having that volunteer constituent sitting eye to eye with that targeted lawmaker.

So how can your organization begin to build or expand your own network of “offline volunteers?” The first step—which we’ll cover in this article—is to identify your digital volunteers who might be interested in volunteering offline and quickly drive them into a local activity that will engage and excite them.

Let’s get started with some general tips. Then, I’ll walk you through an example of a campaign we ran recently.

1. Build the Internal Partnership

There are two key roles in building your offline program – the digital director and the grassroots/field/volunteer director. (We’ll call her a field director to keep it simple.) In smaller organizations, responsibilities for both roles could fall on the shoulders of the same person.

The digital director is responsible for identifying recruitment opportunities and executing them across all  your digital platforms.  Meanwhile, the field director is responsible for ensuring the processes are in place to follow-up with all those new hot leads as they come in.

The people in these roles must be fully bought in to the recruitment plan and, most especially, the timing of its execution.

2. Make Your Pitch Relevant, Timely and Impactful

This is where your digital director earns her digital paycheck.  Forget the stand-alone recruitment campaign that’s scheduled just because Congress is on recess and your organization has nothing else to communicate about.  Weaving your offline recruitment seamlessly into your legislative campaigns will garner stronger results from volunteers who are already engaged and knowledgeable about your most pressing issues.  Integrate your recruitment plan into the initial build-out of your legislative campaign so it’s inserted into the overall campaign narrative.

3. Prepare Yourself and Your Process

When a recruitment effort fails, this is usually the step that was skipped or poorly managed.  BEFORE you launch a recruitment drive for offline volunteers, you must do three things.

First, be sure the field director has the capacity to handle this new influx of volunteers.  Whether the field director will manage it directly or farm it out to field staff or other volunteers, everyone needs to be prepared to jump into action the moment the campaign is launched.

Second, you must have activities for these new super volunteers to do.  Not in a month.  Not during the next state legislative session.  Immediately. You don’t want to recruit 100 new and excited prospects only to leave them waiting for an opportunity to get involved.

And third, know exactly what you’re going to do as the names come in.  Will you send them a series of follow-up emails?  If so, write the emails in advance.  Are you asking other leadership volunteers or staff to contact your new prospects? Then be sure you set clear expectations, including when the names will arrive, how you want your team to follow-up (including how quickly), and the process for reporting back on those efforts.

What This Looks Like at ACS CAN

Earlier this year, ACS CAN launched a major campaign around increasing federal funding for cancer research.  As a digital director obsessed with volunteer engagement, I’m a lover of bad news. Nothing activates volunteers more effectively than something dear to them being cut or eliminated. So, when the White House budget called for a $1 billion cut in cancer research funding, I saw an opportunity.

Now, let’s be clear. I’m not a horrible person. I don’t actually want cancer research funding to be cut. Fortunately, I knew we had strong allies in Congress who shared our passion to ensure these cuts wouldn’t happen. But, I was excited that I could now promote the threat of a cut as we know that is such a strong motivator for volunteers to act.

Step 1: Our Internal Partnership

ACS CAN is a major proponent of the Direct Action Organizing model created by the brilliant grassroots campaigning organizers at the Midwest Academy. One benefit of this model is that we start our campaign planning by bringing together key players from every relevant department. This includes grassroots, field, media, policy and lobbying. The beauty of this meeting is that it provides everyone with a comprehensive view of the campaign.

In the planning session, I learned that our local staff and volunteers would be asked to focus on the cancer research issue during the upcoming August congressional recess. They would be tasked with attending town hall meetings, conducting local events and dropping off materials at Members’ local offices.

These were perfect opportunities for activating new recruits.  We quickly decided that we would launch a petition drive asking members of Congress to reject the proposed budget cuts (and increase cancer research funding), and deliver those petitions during the upcoming recess. With buy-in from our campaign director and field staff, our partnership on this was project was set.

Step 2: The Narrative and the Ask

With a general plan in place, now it was time to build the narrative that would not only produce huge numbers of petition signatures, but also guide some volunteers up a ladder of engagement that would result in a new cadre of volunteers excited to deliver them.

As I noted earlier, we’ve found our best success when we integrate recruitment directly into the campaign. In our emails asking people to sign the petitions, we made it clear they would be delivered locally during recess (planting the first seed of opportunity).

“We’ll be delivering these petitions to your members of Congress next month when they’re back home.”

Then, when the signature drive was winding down, we sent an email to the petition signers asking if they were interested in delivering signed petitions to their lawmaker.  We directly tied the fact they thought the issue was important enough that they signed the petition to this new impactful opportunity to deliver them.  In the recruitment email, we made three important points:

  • This activity is happening locally in your community. It wasn’t a generic nationwide ask.

“Our [statename] staff and volunteers are planning local activities to deliver thousands of petitions telling lawmakers why they must reject any proposed cuts to cancer research and support increased research funding.” 

  • You’ll be contacted by a local volunteer or staff person. Again, emphasizing local.

“If you complete this quick form, we’ll have a local volunteer or staff person contact you by email or phone – your choice.

  • By telling us you’re interested, you’re not committing yourself—lowering the pressure for volunteers to raise their hand.

“They’ll tell you about our upcoming activities and you can decide if you want to participate.”

As importantly, we made the sign-up form very simple, requesting only the information we truly needed at this moment, and making the volunteer feel like they were in control of the situation.  This included allowing the volunteer to decide if they wanted to be contacted by email or phone.

Step 3: Executing the Process

This is the hard part.  You’ve set expectations with your prospect. They expect to be contacted in a timely manner—which, in today’s direct response world, means almost immediately—and they want to have a fun and impactful activity waiting for them.  To add further stress, at this critical juncture, you’re also handing over direct control of the operation, typically to your field staff and/or existing volunteers.

Here is where all that preparation pays its dividends.  Long before the recruitment email was sent, we:

  • Notified field staff about the campaign and its timing
  • Created a process for providing them with the petitions for their state (a simple mail merge file for them to print locally)
  • Provided best practices on volunteer conversion, including a template email that had been used successfully in a previous campaign
  • Ensured they were already hard at work planning local activities

At ACS CAN, we’re fortunate to have a grassroots manager in each state and, after many years of hard work, a lead volunteer in every congressional district.  This allows us to engage volunteers at a very local level. However, you don’t need that built-in infrastructure to succeed.  After all, no organization—including us—starts with that in place.

Regardless of your current infrastructure, the key is to designate a group of people who will be responsible for following-up with the prospects after they express interest in getting more involved.  If you don’t have local staff or a volunteer leadership structure, this is a great task for your highly active volunteers (those you know by name) and board members.

I’m a huge fan of peer to peer recruitment and engagement.  It’s why I love having a volunteer conduct the initial outreach to a prospect rather than a staffperson.  The volunteer can relate more directly to the prospect and the information seems more credible.

Example of our grassroots campaigning model:

As you can see from the graphic below, we kept the execution process very simple.  As noted earlier, the key is speed of execution and immediate action opportunity. We timed the outreach to take place within days of the prospect completing our online form and within two to three weeks of the petition delivery activity.

 

Example of ACS CAN's Grassroots Campaigning Model
 

 

 

And this works for social media, too! 

  • Create a social media narrative
  • Ask for volunteers in your post/tweet/etc.
  • Be responsive to requests and comments from followers, including direct messaging people who respond with interest
  • Follow the engagement diagram above

 

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