Over the past decade, grassroots organizations have been steadily adding digital components to their grassroots campaigns to increase their effectiveness. Organizations have innovated with digital learning modules, gamification strategies, and social media campaigns. In 2020 and beyond, however, these tactics can’t just be new innovations you’re testing. Expedited by the pandemic, digital advocacy has become an essential part of an effective grassroots advocacy strategy.
The YMCA of the USA, like most organizations, found themselves needing to accelerate their digital efforts in March of 2020. By utilizing action alerts, social media campaigns, and outreach to targeted elected officials, they were able to make their voices heard on Capitol Hill.
Digital action was always part of the Y’s grassroots effort, but the new reality required them to think differently about how they used online engagement. Here is what they learned from going fully digital during COVID-19 how those lessons can change your approach to advocacy during the pandemic and beyond.
How the Y Went Digital
One of the first moves the YMCA made in their transition was to utilize more frequent action alerts — calls to action for advocates to call or write their elected officials – through Quorum. They leveraged their 25,000 person database to contact elected officials working on legislation to help organizations affected by the pandemic. Many of these advocates were employees who had been laid off or furloughed, so there was motivation to get involved and do something to help the Y.
“What was different about these [action alerts] was the urgency. YMCAs were among the first to close,” said Kelly Kennai, Senior Director of Communications and Advocacy Engagement at the YMCA of the USA.
Y facilities experienced the impact of COVID almost immediately, creating a demand for opportunities to take action.
They were strategic in how they used different platforms to push their policy priorities. The Y used email campaigns targeting key committee members to provide details on legislation and how it impacts constituents in their districts. They also turned to Twitter to get more advocates involved in the campaign.
“We want to make sure we have something for everyone,” Kennai said. “Some people aren’t comfortable doing social media campaigns. Some people want to do more than send an action alert. We’ll always have sample tweets or let people create their own.”
To elevate their issues to top aides on Capitol Hill, the YMCA took advantage of Quorum’s integrated email tool, Outbox. Using Outbox, the YMCA could email these staffers in mass, but personalize the emails so each felt like an individual correspondence.
“We started to do a series of personal emails from our Senior Vice President of Government Relations to Chiefs of Staff and Legislative Directors,” said Kennai. “We got a really great response from that.”
In place of in-person meetings, the Y launched a digital week of action. Each day they featured a different issue and gave volunteers the chance to take action and ask their elected officials for support.
A virtual week of action has advantages: you can cover a wide range of issues over the course of several days. By leveraging your digital campaign effectively, you can reach legislators and their staff at a level that wasn’t possible with in-person meetings.
The YMCA adapted and effectively deployed sophisticated digital grassroots efforts. You can use their example and apply these four best practices to your own advocacy program:
1. Find Balance in Your Online Strategy
People fatigue from too much online activity and overloading your base with action alerts will burn them out quickly. To keep advocates engaged, consider these ideas before you launch your campaigns:
- Meet your supporters where they are in the advocacy process.
- Be careful with your messaging and avoid making an issue urgent unless it’s necessary.
- Use a variety of tools to communicate with advocates: not everyone is on social media, so offer email and phone calls as an alternative.
- Make action easy: a constituent should only have to click a few buttons to connect with their legislator.
Moving forward after the pandemic, you will be able to build in-person advocacy back into your strategy. Fly in top advocates to meet with your most important stakeholders while online supporters raise awareness with the rest of the legislature through virtual campaigns.
2. Connect Constituents with Elected Officials for Virtual Meetings
The YMCA discovered lawmakers and their Hill staff were ready and willing to have virtual meetings.
“We were able to set up very targeted meetings and engage constituents so they could tell their story,” Kennai said. “This virtual environment really allowed us to tell the story from the local level. It was coming straight from the constituent and not the DC lobbyists.”
The pandemic has normalized the use of video calls and virtual meetings to get business done in Congress. Moving forward, legislators and top aides will likely be more receptive to online meetings with constituents.
3. Mobilize New Grassroots Advocates
Not everyone in your constituency is excited to meet their legislator in person, but engaging your advocates in digital action lowers the barrier to entry. Before they launched their most recent campaigns, the YMCA had 17,000 people signed up as grassroots advocates. Now they have 25,000.
“I think it demystifies advocacy a little bit,” Kennai said. “I think people may be intimidated going into a Congressional office. Maybe participating in a virtual fashion helps them to get their foot in the door,”
4. Get Creative with Your Digital Campaigns
Kennai’s best piece of advice?
“Challenge your assumptions and don’t be afraid to break the rules. There are so many tools, and opportunities, and strategies out there. Try them all, even if it’s to a smaller audience. Do a pilot here or there and see how it works.”
In the post-pandemic political environment, grassroots campaigns will be a combination of online and in-person programs. With virtual advocacy, organizations can connect their constituents with lawmakers more easily through online meetings, quickly train advocates on the issues, mobilize action faster with online campaigns, and activate a diverse group of advocates by lowering the barrier to entry. When in-person advocacy work returns, having diverse advocates who are well trained in the digital space will make your program stronger. Make the investment to go digital now and it will pay off with legislative wins in the future.