In January 2019, the 116th Congress convened — and nonprofits are taking notice. Given this year kicking off with a government shutdown and both a presidential election and national census coming up in 2020, there are a number of reasons for nonprofits to pay attention to the legislation that will shape the way they further their missions.
Keeping with the marketing funnel model of nonprofit impact and digital engagement, part of the work your organization does is nurturing supporter engagement towards action and change. One of the tangible actions you can ask supporters to take, beyond donating, is to put their own reach to use by advocating on your behalf — whether through email, social media, signing a petition, phone calls, or offline events.
So let’s combine that potential: Here’s how to make the right asks of your supporters, and how to get them to make the right asks of their representatives on your organization’s behalf.
Segment your audiences
First of all, make sure you’re making the right asks of the right people. You wouldn’t ask your parents and your friends for the same favors — and if you did, you would ask them in different ways. Before you ask for any advocacy, segment your email list and consider the demographics of users following you on social media. Helpful considerations here will include your supporters’ location, level of engagement with your cause, and level of engagement with your organization specifically. (Psst: If you want to connect your unique email subscribers to the specific site content that they visit, we have a tool for that.)
Ask for their support at the right moment
Turtle has just donated $50 to your organization. She’s reached the confirmation page. Time to exit the site, right?
Your donation confirmation page is the perfect moment to ask supporters to take the next step — and if you’ve ever donated to a GoFundMe, you’ve seen this in action. Social proof goes a long way towards scaling change. With your organization at the top-of-mind for donors when they take out their credit cards on your donate page, this is the perfect moment to bend their ear about amplifying your cause even further. This can be especially effective if there’s a piece of legislation in the news that is relevant to your organization’s work.
More evergreen asks can also be put to use in confirmations for email sign-ups — it’s the perfect next ask to make after a user signs up for your email list in a welcome series.
Meet users on their level
As we’ve talked about before, goals are met with the right combination of motivation, ability, and trigger. This is referred to as BJ Fogg’s Behavioral Model, and what this means for nonprofits is that we want to make sure that your supporters are asked at the right time — when they’re most motivated — and asked in such a way that the request is easy for them to fulfill. Let’s look at the options for contacting your senator — and the best way to get your cause noticed.
The 4 ways your supporters can contact their representatives
This is the quickest way to reach your representative’s office and ensure that your voice is heard. The New Yorker notes that, especially in high-action times, they take up more time on the part of congressional offices, “thereby occupying staff, obstructing business as usual, and attracting media attention.”
The drawback to this is that it’s a higher barrier of ask for your constituents. Supporters can call their representative’s office directly, or dial the Capitol switchboard at 202-224-3121, but there are great websites like 5 Calls that give you all of the numbers you need, based on your location. Nonprofit and social justice organizations can also co-opt free tools like Resistbot or paid services such as an SMS or click-to-call mobile platform to mobilize their user bases.
This is less standardized across the board for Congress: Some members have their email addresses listed on their website, others have website forms to guard their inboxes more closely. If you want your users to email their representatives, you’ll have to either ask them to look up the contact info, or provide links to the websites for all 100 senators and 435 members of the House if your cause is a national one (pro-tip: not the best use of your time) .
The ROI of emailing congressional offices is challenging: Staffers aren’t required to respond to emails, and can therefore more easily ignore. As a private medium, there’s no publicly-visible record of the message which means these complaints or voices of support are often getting lost in a vacuum. Resistbot is one tool that can also help guide constituents to emailing their representatives.
3. Social Media
It can seem like messages will get lost in the shuffle on social media given how many people @ their representatives (or even other representatives) any given day. But according to the Congressional Management Foundation, it can take fewer than 30 Tweets around a single issue to get the attention of a congressional staffer, the caveat to that being that they need to usually happen within the first 24 hours of a post by that congressperson or a topic being discussed in the larger political ecosystem (e.g., border security during the 2018-19 government shutdown).
The more publicly a representative must deal with comments, the better. Facebook comments can be easily deleted or bulk-managed by staffers and the platform is easily spammed and trolled (although Facebook Town Hall is an available resource for users to locate their elected officials).
Tweets, on the other hand, can’t be deleted. This is also an easy ask to make of constituents, however social media is still riding sidecar to the IRL tactics of snail mail, phone calls, and other means of direct contact, as Emily Ellsworth Coleman wrote in 2016. Scroll down to the bottom of this article to find one tool for effectively Tweeting representatives (spoiler alert: we built it).
4. Snail Mail
Due to security on the Hill, letters and packages take the longest to reach representatives — both because of the normal processing time for the postal service and because of the additional screening. Even though every piece of snail mail must be read by a staffer, it can take weeks for your message to reach them. Again, as with email, you’ll need to rely on your supporters to look up the correct mailing address themselves if you’re mobilizing multiple constituencies, though once again Resistbot steps in with an assist (we promise we receive no kickbacks from them).
If you’re feeling extra bold, there are also pizza-grams, although it’s likely that those pies will go to waste.
How to help your supporters effectively lobby on your behalf
We’ve looked at the motivation, and we’ve looked at one aspect of ability in finding the right medium for your supporters to lobby on your behalf. Let’s look at the other aspect of ability: Making it as easy as possible for supporters to make the right ask — and get noticed.
Generally, the goal is to keep things short and sweet, and to focus on a specific issue with a specific ask for your congressperson. Their offices are often quite busy, so you want to make sure you get to the point with a specific reason for reaching out, whether it’s defending DACA, supporting the Paris Agreement, or raising awareness on an issue that’s not currently getting enough attention on the House or Senate floor.
You can provide your supporters with a 2-3 sentence script to use on phone calls, or a brief email text that they can copy and paste. There are websites to help operationalize social media advocacy as well with pre-written Tweets that users can send to their representatives — finding the right Twitter handle simply by entering their zip code.
Full disclosure, we’re now one of those websites: Politweets by Whole Whale is a free tool you can embed on your site and customize with messages for supporters around the country to send to their reps. You write the Tweet, they do the sending. Learn more about installing Politweets on your organization’s website.