It’s 2018 and people are getting involved in their communities in ways that were previously unthinkable. Don’t believe me? In February, EMILY's List, an organization that trains pro-choice Democratic women to run for office, announced that over 34,000 women have reached out to the organization since Election Day 2016. For context, the previous record was 920. That’s a 3,695% increase. This newfound civic enthusiasm is not simply contained within the political sector—nonprofits can and should capitalize on the heightened interest and awareness as well.
During my time at NationBuilder, the world’s most widely used software for politics, I've had a unique view into how some of the tactics of political organizing can be used by nonprofits to mobilize their supporters and drive them to action. Below are five tips that nonprofit leaders can learn from political organizers.
Operate on a deadline
Out of necessity, political campaigns work on tight timelines. There are only so many days until an election, so every day counts. In our customer community, the political campaigns raise an average of 100% more donations per donor than nonprofit customers using NationBuilder. Furthermore, donors to political campaigns donate 250% faster after the first request than nonprofit donors. It stands to reason that nonprofits can learn from the tactics that make political campaign outreach work, like imposing deadlines and creating time-sensitive campaigns to ground and stress the urgency of fundraising efforts.
Find your leaders, ask for more
In 2016, Bernie Sanders' historic campaign pioneered new tactics that they called “Big Organizing.” As outlined in the book Rules for Revolutionaries, “big organizing” focused on finding the leaders within their group of supporters and making ambitious requests from them. The campaign felt it was a waste to ask these extremely dedicated people to do simple things, and they found that this engaged group responded much better to big, meaningful calls to action—things like running an event, taking on a data project, or managing a volunteer team. So, how do you find your leaders? You make big asks.
Contrary to popular belief, donating does not fall into the big ask category. With things like one-click donate and quick pay, it is simple to donate and not what's meant by asking people to do big things. A big ask is asking them to recruit $500 in donations from their friends and family, rather than prompting them to personally donate. This is a far more powerful contribution. It brings multiple people into your organization and establishes the supporter as a recruiter. They take ownership of your brand by asking their friends to support it alongside them. Once you find the leaders within your supporters, build relationships with them. These relationships are as valuable as your high-dollar donors. While you can find lots of people who will do the easy tasks, the most important people in your organization are the ones who would rather take on real responsibility.
Act local, act often
One thing that campaigns do particularly well is provide a variety of ways for their supporters to get involved. Campaigns host house parties in different neighborhoods, meet up to knock doors on a weekly basis, and provide at-home volunteer opportunities—there’s an option for everyone. If you are operating with a small staff, connecting with your supporters on a regular basis, especially in person, may feel like a daunting task. Allowing supporters to host events on your behalf can dramatically expand your reach without expanding your staff. We Are All America, an organization promoting the protection and safety of refugees and asylum seekers, does this well by providing an easy way to allow people to sign up to host on their behalf for World Refugee Day.
Mix your medium
Email is still king, but it’s not the only game in town. One of the most undervalued media for supporter engagement is text messaging. Previously expensive and time consuming to do at scale, texting has dramatically changed in just the last few years. Many political campaigns have begun to replace the traditional contact methods of email and phone with text messaging. Jagmeet Singh, the first person of color to become a leader of a major political party in Canada, replaced many of his phone banking events with text messaging parties for volunteers to text potential supporters of his campaign. Tools like Hustle, Relay, and Twilio are affordable and easy to implement for this purpose. And with average open rates of 98%, texting is a great way to make people actually see important information from your organization. Start by using text messages for event confirmations—sending a simple text asking people who have RSVP'd to confirm their attendance is a great way to significantly decrease your flake rate.
Integrate your data
Facebook, Eventbrite, GoFundMe, MeetUp, Mailchimp, and more—these are all great tools, but you can very quickly end up with six or seven different systems, all housing various segments of your integral supporter data. Recognizing your most important supporters in order to make those big asks can be extremely difficult if you are operating out of multiple systems with fragmented data. Now is the time to integrate.
More than any other time in history, our attention is pulled in a million different directions. As an organization, if you can’t understand how, where, and when each of your supporters connects with you, you will not be able to effectively communicate with them—losing the valuable potential of the people who care about your cause. Important stats like email open rates, social media metrics, fundraising history, and volunteer engagement all need to flow into your database. The goal is to create a 360-degree view of how each person engages with your organization. You may notice that your best social media advocate isn’t the same person as your most dedicated volunteer – that’s ok. In fact, it's good to pay attention to differences amongst your supporters and encourage them to participate according to their talents. Integrating data into one system is essential to make that possible.
As the midterm elections approach, there will be more than enough real-world examples of political campaign strategies to observe and learn from. And while, as a country, we are still figuring out how to breakout of our political silos, we can break free from the operational ones by embracing the insights of those working outside the nonprofit sector.