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Scaling a Grassroots Program to all 50 States with Western Governors University

Scaling a Grassroots Program to all 50 States with Western Governors University

Western Governors University is an online university that wants to engage with state legislators on issues that affect the university and its students. One of their primary goals is to influence legislation related to financial aid for online universities.

To help accomplish their goals, Mindy Barham, the government relations manager at WGU, set out to build a grassroots program in all 50 states.

Engaging with advocates and legislators across the country is no easy task, especially for nonprofit organizations that must be careful with how they spend their resources. And while WGU’s advocacy program is still newer, they’ve already seen some early success. During Barham’s 2022 Wonk Week session, she walked us through the following:

  • Getting Executive Buy-In
  • Structuring a National Team
  • Engaging With Advocates
  • Engaging With Legislators
  • Reporting & Gathering Feedback

Getting Executive Buy-In

One of the hardest parts of starting a grassroots program is garnering support from executive leadership. One of the concerns at WGU was that recruiting and activating advocates “might put some undue burden on our students,” said Barham, citing the fact that much of the student population falls into the “underserved category.”

“But when COVID hit and we were not able to travel, it became very clear that WGU was sitting on this untapped resource,” said Barham. Students, graduates and employees were “all sitting at home wanting to have their voice heard and wanting to be included in financial aid conversations and other education policy areas.”

Explaining this enthusiasm to internal stakeholders helped create a buzz of excitement at WGU.

“By the time we presented [the grassroots strategy] to the high-level groups to get buy-in, people were like, ‘Yes, sounds great. Let’s do it.’”

Structuring a National Team

Most organizations, including WGU, can’t hire personnel in all 50 states to run local grassroots campaigns. So to cover the same ground, WGU divides its team into seven regions, with a government relations team member assigned to each region.

“Prior to COVID, we had folks in all seven regions sort of siloed … and we found that just wasn’t great for our communication,” says Barham. “So while we still operate in regions, we’re moving more to an integrated role-based system so we all can collaborate, come together, divide and conquer.”

And while they do have team members working at the federal level, they primarily focus on state-level partnerships. This focus on state legislatures requires an organized and integrated system. WGU uses Quorum to keep team members aligned and track issues across regions.

“Using Quorum has helped us to see the bigger picture,” says Barham.

Engaging with Advocates

Before WGU could launch its campaigns, it first needed to recruit advocates.

Starting an Advocacy Pilot Program

WGU started with a pilot program with employees in their seven regions. Starting small allowed WGU to test its website and gain employee feedback before targeting external advocates.

“The pilot went well … it showed us that people are interested and willing, but it takes some time, and it takes a lot of outreach,” said Barham. “After the pilot program, we expanded it to six priority states, and now this year we’re expanding it to all 50.”

After the pilot, WGU found that they didn’t have to rely entirely on proactive outreach to new advocates in their expansion — people started coming organically. So far, the team has advocates taking action from 37 states.

Segmenting Advocate Audiences

Barham and WGU knew from the start they couldn’t send the same message to every person in every state. At the most basic level, WGU started segmenting advocates by state. From there, they broke it down into staff, alumni, and students. They then went a step further and segmented audience members based on where they were on the ladder of engagement and what they were willing to do.

”We’re using Quorum to track where they are in the funnel and also to automate some of that so that we’re not overwhelmed with crafting tons and tons of messaging,” said Barham.

Creating an Appealing Message (For Advocates)

While Barham knew that their audience was passionate about WGU, they weren’t necessarily passionate about the causes that WGU is trying to advance. “They came to WGU to get their degree and better their life, not talk about education policy,” says Barham.

To get the message across, Barham and her team avoided talking about specific education policies. Instead, they focused on the “why.”

“We write everything like an academic organization, and that’s not the way to do grassroots,” says Barham, “so that’s something we’re changing.”

Barham recommends keeping messaging short and to the point:

  • What are you saying?
  • Why should I care?
  • What are you asking me to do?

In the pilot group, they targeted employees with messages focused on awareness of what WGU is trying to accomplish in different states. Since employees deal with students all the time, and have seen how heartbroken students are when they need financial aid, they immediately recognized the importance of our advocacy program.

Similar to employees, Barham noticed that messages focused on financial aid resonated the most with students because they could benefit right away.

But the messages that worked well with students and employees didn’t necessarily work well with alumni. They had already graduated, so financial aid no longer motivated them to action. Through continued outreach, Barham found that alumni needed a little more explanation before engaging. This knowledge changed WGU’s approach to messaging.

Engaging with Legislators

After recruiting and educating advocates, the next step for WGU was to activate their advocates to engage with legislators.

Prioritizing States

When managing a 50 state grassroots campaign, it’s much more effective to narrow your focus on select areas. For this, WGU used Quorum to “[give] us a picture of all 50 states in one place,” says Barham. This helped WGU identify places where relevant legislative actions were taking place, allowing them to prioritize their focus on those areas.

“We just went state by state,” said Barham. “Is this a state affiliate? Do we have an MOU? Do we have grant aid available to our students? Are we talking with the governor? Are we talking to legislators?”

Using data from Quorum, WGU categorized states based on what was happening and what was important. But even if a state wasn’t a priority, they didn’t abandon all efforts there. “It doesn’t mean we can’t have our grassroots network send awareness messages or introduction messages,” said Barham. “It just means we’re not gonna do the full-court press of all hands on deck and full grassroots and everything in that state.”

Creating an Appealing Message (For Legislators)

Of course, the messages sent to advocates are very different from messages for legislators. The approach that WGU uses for legislative communications is to introduce, educate, engage, and remind.

“They don’t know who WGU is,” said Barham. “ So we’re talking to them about who WGU is … and then once we do that for a little while … we move into the education phase.”

Scaling Outreach

“Our team is too small, and nobody has time to [write individual emails],” said Barham. “So how can we group states together and send messages quickly?”

To start, Barham and her team are working on creating a library of campaigns that advocates can access and send to legislators. For example, advocates can send a “WGU 101” campaign to new targets. After that message, the targeted official is moved into a different category with a new library of potential messages.In addition to templates based on the recipient, WGU also has templates based on the sender. For example, they have messages for students, employees, and alumni each sharing their unique perspective.

Reporting Progress and Planning for the Future

Much of the first year was spent putting the program together, building the action center, selling it to leadership, and testing. After a year, WGU has enough data to learn what worked and what didn’t.

After analyzing how people moved up the ladder of engagement, Barham identified activation as their most significant challenge for the new year.

“If we could increase our take action rate to the benchmark rate, that would be awesome,” said Barham.

In addition to quantitative data, WGU collected qualitative data to improve its grassroots efforts. The team set up a dedicated email inbox that collected responses and feedback from advocates and legislators. “Most of [the responses] were similar, which helped us refine our messaging,” explained Barham.

As WGU moves into the new year, they plan to expand on what worked, update what didn’t, and test some fresh approaches along the way.

For small organizations that want to make a big impact on a national scale, there’s a lot to learn from WGU’s approach—particularly related to organizing, segmenting, and scaling.

To discover how Quorum can help establish and grow your grassroots efforts, schedule a demo.

Full video transcript:

Hannah Cooper (00:00:35):

. Well, thank you. Hello everyone, and welcome to the last session of the day. I know it’s that time when everybody is looking for coffee but I, hopefully, you won’t need it today cuz this is gonna be a really exciting grassroots session. While folks just get logged in for this session, we just wanna start you all with an icebreaker in the chat. Since we’re gonna talk about building a grassroots program from scratch, and we’re now very much in fall, which is the perfect baking season. What’s everyone’s favorite thing to bake from scratch? Go ahead and put your favorite thing into what you like to bake. I’ll go first. My favorite thing is my family and I always do a marathon holiday baking. So we like to bake hundreds of Christmas cookies every year. Mindy, what about you? Are you a baker of any kind?

Mindy Barham (00:01:30):

You know, I’m not, I’m gluten-free, so, that sort of knocks everything out.

Hannah Cooper (00:01:36):

Yes. My sister is recently gluten-free and it is very difficult. And also because non, like, non0flour or flour alternatives are expensive.

Mindy Barham (00:01:47):

Yeah. You just don’t know how they’re gonna behave. So it, yeah, it sounds like a good idea, but after many fails I just, I’ve had to move on

Hannah Cooper (00:01:58):

. Okay. We have Shayna who said that she loves to bake, which sounds really, really great. Oh, and Stephanie just baked a batch of gluten-free chocolate cupcakes. That sounds good.

Mindy Barham (00:02:09):

That good.

Hannah Cooper (00:02:10):

Baking pies. I’m gonna give about one more minute for folks to join. Please feel free to put in the chat your favorite item to bake from scratch. Banana bread. Always a favorite of the pandemic. I can’t remember if it was SNL or something else about banana bread’s like PR person winning cuz of all the ban banana bread that was baked over the last two years. It was pretty funny. .

Hannah Cooper (00:02:43):

Awesome. Okay, it’s 3:03. So now that folks have had a minute or two to join the session, we can go ahead and get started. Throughout the session, feel free to continue to use the chat, ask questions, or brainstorm with folks. We’re gonna take questions and if a question seems really important for, you know, our topic, I’ll go ahead and ask it right away. But then we’ll also pause for questions at the end. So just to introduce everybody here my name is Hannah Cooper, I’m an account executive at Quorum. But prior to Quorum, I worked in grassroots advocacy for the Distilled Spirits Council, and I’m really excited to be joined by Mindy Barham, who is the government relations manager at Western Governor’s University to discuss how WGU has built and rolled out a 50 state grassroots program. Mindy is a seasoned professional with over 25 years of experience serving in administrative, project management, government relations, and compliance roles across a diverse group of industries. Welcome, Mindy. Thanks for joining us today.

Mindy Barham (00:03:47):

Thanks, Hannah. I’m excited to be here.

Hannah Cooper (00:03:49):

Awesome. We’re so excited to have you. So we’ll start with hopefully an easy question. Would you mind just telling us more about your role and about the advocacy work of WGU?

Mindy Barham (00:04:02):

Yeah, so my role at WGU is Government Relations Manager. And I do have a slide later on that talks deeper about our structure at WGU. But in the government relations manager role, there are two of us, myself and Emily Reiner. And we work across all 50 states doing mostly project management and monitoring and intelligence internal liaison work and that kind of thing.

Hannah Cooper (00:04:40):

Awesome. Can you tell us a little bit more about how your team is structured and how you all kind of accomplish the advocacy work that you’re doing?

Mindy Barham (00:04:50):

Yeah, so our team, WGU itself is structured into seven regions. And so with an RVP, a regional vice president as a lead, and within those regions, the government relations department reports to the external affairs, the greater external affairs department at WGU, but there’s a government relations person assigned to each region as a point person so that they have someone to talk to in government relations, first of all. But we also understand what’s going on at the state level, at the local level who are they talking to, what partnerships are going on, what events are going on, that sort of thing. So that’s how we’ve been structured in the past. And you know, prior to covid, we had folks in all seven regions sort of siloed working in their region, and we found that that just wasn’t great for our communication. So while we still have to operate in regions, because that’s how WGU is structured we’re moving more to an integrated role-based system so that, you know, some regions have three states, some regions have 13 states. So we all can collaborate, come together, divide and conquer. We’re all involved in what’s going on in all the states rather than being siloed. So that’s kind of our new structure for the coming year. So I’m pretty excited about it.

Hannah Cooper (00:06:35):

That’s awesome. And based on the structure change, and I think a lot of state government, you know, government teams are used to regions were there, you know, any immediate benefits that you saw from that change or any challenges from that change as well?

Mindy Barham (00:06:52):

Well, we’re kind of in the midst of the change, but I can say that I, our directors and managers and I actually welcomed that. It was really hard to work, especially because we’re all remote, we’re all over the country. And so it’s not like we go to the office every day and talk . So using Quorum has helped us to see the bigger picture mm-hmm. be able to look across all 50 states and say, Oh, you know, we were able to accomplish that in this state. How did we do that? Can we recreate that? You know, the legislative landscape is similar in this state, Can we, you know, recreate that over here? Yeah. So I think that’s helped us to see, like I said, the bigger picture, get out of the silos but still understand that, you know, the regions are doing different things and we can also gain knowledge you know, and insight, you know, maybe the West region is doing something really innovative and we wanna apply that to the south region or something like that. So you know, I think both ways are good for different reasons, but I’m excited to kind of broaden and to be able to work across the lines and not be so stuck in, you can only work in this region . Yeah,

Hannah Cooper (00:08:17):

Absolutely. Especially when there are really great opportunities for learnings from other states and other advocacy efforts. Right. Do people follow up with that question on why does it make sense for your team to focus on state-based advocacy?

Mindy Barham (00:08:35):

Because the work that we do is, our team is called government relations, but we’re really state relations. So there is a team within WGU that works at the federal level with higher education, with Pell Grants and that kind of thing. But we’re working down at the state level mostly because we’re working on partnerships at the state level and we’re working on opening up channels of grant need at the state level. And that needs to be done with state advocacy.

Hannah Cooper (00:09:12):

Got it. And with, you know, and you know, your team started a pilot program for a few key states to focus on that advocacy. Can you kind of walk us through that? And I would love to know in addition to that, not to hit you with like two questions at once and maybe this is a part of it, but kind of what were the key factors in deciding which states would be a pilot?

Mindy Barham (00:09:39):

So we pulled the government relations directors and we asked them okay, each of you can pick two states in your region that you feel are priority areas for us. And so each of them picked a couple of states and we decided to do an internal pilot with our employees first. So for a couple of reasons, one, we did some special coding to our website and we just wanted to make sure that everything was running properly. And two, we wanted to get some user experience feedback from our employees before it went to external-facing folks. And three, our staff works closely with students and alumni, and we wanted to hear back from them on what they thought because that’s kind of our two core groups that we’re gonna be targeting with this program. So we wanted to know what their thoughts were. You know, would our students have time to do this? Would they be interested in this? Is there any changes that you would recommend since you work with students day in and day out? That kind of thing.

Hannah Cooper (00:10:54):

Interesting. And so, you know, what did you, I understand that you kind of had these parameters and reasons. What did you learn from the pilot group? And then I did also have a follow-up question of, you know, if share kind of having your own pilot group with your employees helped to showcase your government relations efforts, even just internally?

Mindy Barham (00:11:19):

So the pilot went well, considering we did, there was not a lot of foreknowledge. We sent an email out in advance so that people would understand it wasn’t spam or anything like that. And it did take us a couple of reminders. It, I think it showed us that people are interested and willing but it takes some time and it takes a lot of outreach on a regular basis and telling people what you’re doing and why and why they should care. And WGU is such a mission-driven organization. We have a lot of people that work here who are very passionate about our students in higher education, and so you just need to get them on board, . So creating the program was not enough. And I think, you know, we learned that in the pilot, even though it performed really well.

Mindy Barham (00:12:26):

It gave us that knowledge of, okay, you know, this is like a starting point for us to understand and improve, you know, going forward. And after the pilot program, you know, we expanded it to six priority states, and now this year we’re expanding it to all 50. And partially that is because it really was already operating in all 50. We don’t operate in a silo at WGU. We have students, alumni, and staff in all 50 states. And you know, we started to talk about this program and it was organically people were coming to our action center and joining. So we actually have people in 37 states already. It’s amazing. So it’s more of, okay, you know, how do we you know, group the states in such a way that we can say these 10 states are in this phase, these are in this phase and craft a message that we can tweak slightly so that we’re not creating 50 messages because we can’t do that.

Mindy Barham (00:13:39):

Our team is too small and nobody has time probably to do that. So how can we group, like states together, send messages quickly? So those are some things we’re working on creating a library of campaigns where if we’re trying to, you know, this, these legislators need to know the WGU 101, we pull that campaign, we tweak it a little bit if it’s a student or alumni sending it, and then, you know, we send that off, followed by, okay, now they’ve moved into a different category. They know who we are, and we need to educate them about what we do and so forth. And we’re moving them on down through the funnel in all 50 states potentially, depending on our advocates and where they’re signing up and what they’re willing to do. But we’re using quorum to track where they are in the funnel and also to automate some of that so that we’re not overwhelmed with crafting tons and tons of messaging.

Hannah Cooper (00:14:54):

That’s great. I did want to I, I thought it was really, really helpful how you kind of described that funnel and how you, you were, you know, bringing folks to recognize your grassroots program at WGU and trying to organize them into the latter of engagement to get more quality grassroots actions from them. I did wanna follow up and just ask, you know, in terms of what you learned from the pilot group, did you find that user behaviors differed between states and how they interacted with your action center? Or based on issues that folks were taking action on? You know, were there any differences in how different groups responded to your messaging or action center or any findings, other findings that you found from your pilot group?

Mindy Barham (00:15:44):

Yeah, so in the pilot group, we just had employees and the message was WGU awareness. So it was like, you know, I work at WGU, we had this many students we’re in your state, you know, that kind of messaging. And then when we moved to students and alumni and we had different messaging. So we had states where we’re trying to open up that channel of access to equitable access to state financial aid. Our students jumped all over that because they can benefit right away. Whereas our alumni were like, Hmm, you know, I wanna give back, but, you know, it’s not the same. And so that was something we worked on the latter part of this year is how can we get our alumni more involved in our advocacy efforts? And so we started going to some events.

Mindy Barham (00:16:48):

We host commencement events across the United States for our graduates to attend. So we started to go there and we had a booth and we were talking to alumni, letting them know what we’re doing. And that was very helpful because you know, they simply just didn’t understand what we were doing and why they should care. But when they understood that oh, I could have, I could have had financial aid in the state and I didn’t because of this outdated notion, you know, Yeah, I’ll help other students. Yeah, I’m in, you know, so that was helpful to understand to, to tweak the messaging a little bit. Students get it alumni, we need to hook them a different way. And then employees, they get it because they deal with students all the time that are heartbroken because, you know, they need that financial aid in order to continue their degree program or something like that. So, so yes. We did notice some differences in, in our messaging and, and that’s something that we’re working on this year is to craft different messaging for different audiences.

Hannah Cooper (00:18:09):

Got it. We do have a question coming in from the chat that kind of relates to messaging from Tamika. How can we have a successful grassroots campaign within specific states? We struggle with getting groups on board. Could it be our messaging? Should we send multiple emails? And Mindy, just based on kind of what we’ve talked about so far, was just curious if maybe you had any insight into this. And I guess the only Tamika, if, if you can put it in the chat, maybe, I guess my follow-up question would be you know, are you trying to target specific groups of folks within those states? But Mindy was curious if you had any insight.

Mindy Barham (00:18:52):

I was just reading it.

Mindy Barham (00:18:59):

Yeah, I mean, with WGU, I’m not sure about your organization Tamika, but with WGU, we initially focused our grassroots program on your affiliation with WGU in some way. So you’re a student, you’re alumni, or you’re an employee. And so, you know, we thought that those groups, like I said, they should be passionate about WGU and they are, but education policy is, you know, they came to WGU to get their degree and better their life, not talk about education policy. So I think one of the things that we’re going to be working on is smart brevity, something that Axios talks about. So, you know, your writing doesn’t need to be, let me tell you about this education policy and all of these fancy words. And you know, like, they don’t wanna hear that. They wanna hear, what are you talking about and why you don’t have access to state financial aid because of this? And we’d like you to let your legislator know. So, so I mean, that’s, that’s kind of our goal. I mean, we’re an academic organization, so we write everything like an academic organization, and that’s not the way to do grassroots. So that’s something we’re changing and hoping to get more. Participation is to keep it, keep it short bullet points. What are you saying? What are you asking me to do? Why should I care?

Hannah Cooper (00:20:46):

Absolutely. Was just gonna say that exact same thing, Mindy . So I won’t, I won’t repeat that, but I found when I was doing grassroots that the most successful communications were short were, you know, the ask was bolded and at the front, at the top right away. And that’s true for your advocacy communications that are going to your advocates. And then of course, the communications that are going to the elected official. Just make sure it’s very clear why it’s important to them and why they should take action. Do you wanna, I wanna keep going and talk about now that your program is going to be in all 50 states how are you approaching your efforts? And I’d love to, you know, we’ve kind of talked a little bit about how you’re funneling advocates kind of through your ladder of engagement to engage with them. But kind of how are you approaching your efforts now and how are you grouping your advocates?

Mindy Barham (00:21:38):

Well, that’s something we’re just starting the process now. So we literally went state by state and created within Quorum in a Sheet using custom fields all of the things that matter to us in the state. And then that gave us a picture of all 50 states in one place. And then we could also, you know, sort them by category. And that allowed us to understand, okay, in these states we’re talking about legislative action so that, you know, we’re gonna say those are our priority states and there’s something like 13 of them or something. So you know, what kind of legislative action is gonna go on there? Do we need to engage grassroots to get that done? Or are we, do we have a direct line to the governor? We can just have a meeting and, you know, get something signed, Like, you know, what is the process?

Mindy Barham (00:22:56):

So that’s kind of where we’re at right now we’ve identified the states this year that we wanna be focused on and how are we gonna build our digital advocacy and grassroots campaigns around those priority states, then being a priority, but then also the next tier. Because at any time those can pop up into the first tier, right? You just don’t ever know how a door’s gonna be opened and you have to pivot quickly. You have to be agile. So you know, the idea is with the introduce, educate engage and Remind is an introduced state. They don’t know who WGU is. And so we’re talking to them about who WGU is and we’re, you know, at the very beginnings. And then once we do that for a little while, we feel like, okay, now we’ve moved into the education phase.

Mindy Barham (00:24:04):

Let us tell you what we’re doing and the specific reasons why WGU is different in that kind of thing. And then when we get to an engaged point, that’s when we’re, you know, ready to run legislation or something’s gonna happen legislative-wise. And so that might be, you know, okay, we need to mobilize our grassroots, we need to start, you know, sending, take actions, you know, and then so we accomplish our goal, then they go into a remind phase of you know, just wanna let you know, WGU is here, we’re doing these things in the state. You know, so that they remember that we’re still around and we’re still doing good things. So that’s kind of the cycle. And then we’re using that to measure our progress. So how many states were we able to move out of, introduce and into educate or, you know, that kind of thing.

Mindy Barham (00:25:15):

And then within there, you know, we have, like I said, we have different messages to two legislators from these different groups. So there’s very, there’s a bunch of different tiers. And, and like I was saying before, the goal is to group those you know, here’s, here’s the messaging for students, here’s the messaging for alumni, here’s the messaging for employees. It’s very similar. Only it says, you know, I’m a student at, I’m an alumni, I’m an employee at and maybe something different for, you know, alumni. Like I was able to you know, get a better career because of my degree at WGU. Like, the story’s a little bit different. So crafting all of those things into, with those four categories in mind so that we can quickly pull like I was saying, being agile and, oh, the state, something’s going on here, we need to be able to pull those messages quickly, tweak them, and then be able to send those out.

Mindy Barham (00:26:29):

So last year we spent a lot of time you know, putting the program together, building out our action center you know, selling it to leadership, that kind of thing, and testing it, learning to understand this year it’s like, okay, now we get it . We think this is the way that we can best serve all 50 states without hiring a bunch of people. Or, I mean, WGU is a nonprofit organization and so we have to be very careful with our money because that money is student dollars for tuition that we’re spending. So we try to do most of our work internally as much as possible.

Hannah Cooper (00:27:23):

Got it. And I did wanna ask a follow-up question. We’ve talked a lot about flexibility which I complete. I, I think everyone here can agree that flexibility is highly necessary for any grassroots advocacy campaign. But then it’s can be difficult with also making sure you’re staying consistent with messaging. And then understanding that you kind of have an added I don’t wanna say tier, just cuz we, you’ve talked about tier, but kind of an added consideration of having different groups of folks that you’re reaching out to. Did you run into issues with trying to balance staying flexible with campaigns but then also trying to balance your messaging?

Mindy Barham (00:28:14):

I would say yes. I mean, we had to draw a line last year and say unless we’re running legislation we cannot engage grassroots. And there were a lot of times where, you know, we wanted to, if we had, you know, the staff, maybe we could have but we wanted to be able to focus on those states and do those states well. So, you know, I think our messaging what we tried to do with our messaging was tone it down from policy won talk to did you know that you weren’t, that you weren’t eligible for state financial aid simply because WGU is a hundred percent online and your state requires a physical presence. That’s it, that would get people what? So, you know, I would say we did that a lot. I haven’t tried the A/B messaging within Quorum, but I’m excited to do that.

Mindy Barham (00:29:25):

We did that a lot with our own campaigns. Let’s write a student campaign this way and see what happens and then we’ll write another one this way and we’ll see, you know, which one performs better or which one is resonating. So, we were able to be flexible with our messaging and, and change some things on the fly. You know, based on, you know, this just isn’t resonating, especially with, I mean, I think our biggest obviously glaring issue was alumni don’t care so much about opening access to state financial aid because they’ve graduated. So you know, how do we, how do we either hook them in or, you know, try to try to appeal to them when they’re graduating and they still have that you know, excitement and heart for WGU and, and wanna give back and, you know, that sort of thing. Or do we use alumni in a different way? Do we use them in a workforce development campaign kind of way? Is that the best way to use their advocacy power?

Hannah Cooper (00:30:45):

Yeah. another, another question. And we’ve talked, you know, about this obviously, and you’ve just mentioned how you can engage your alumni in a different way. But are there any other ways that engagement for each tier looks different? Or do you engage different tiers you know, differently throughout the year? Can you kind of talk through either what your communications plan looks like or any just key differences between the groups?

Mindy Barham (00:31:16):

Well, initially, like I said, we just finished up this exercise not that long ago. So we’re in the midst of designing our campaigns at this point. And so like I said, we envision the introduce campaigns to be more of a WGU 101 kind of feel. And some basics about WGU that we’re in their state. We, I mean, we’ve got an election coming up. There’s a lot, there’s gonna be a lot of new legislators. They’re not gonna know who we are. They’re gonna get a lot of emails from other folks. So that’s something we’re working on. It’s getting in a congratulations on your election email situated. But it’s, you know, it’s an introductory note, which, you know, it does, it is different between states. So some of our states are, are what we call state affiliates.

Mindy Barham (00:32:24):

So we have an MOU or an agreement at some level that allows our students to access that state financial aid. That doesn’t mean that legislators know who we are mm-hmm. especially new ones. And so the messaging’s a little bit different for those states. Hi, we’re WGU this is what we do. We’re in your state, We’ve been in your state X years you know, here’s our stats in your state versus a state that we don’t have a partnership with. The messaging would be something like you know, we partner with states, here are some examples of other states where we’ve helped in workforce development and, you know, that kind of thing. So it does depend on, there are several columns in our state of the states is what I call it. And, you know, we’re just getting to that point of looking at all of those states and where they fall and what message that we think is gonna resonate in each of ’em.

Hannah Cooper (00:33:39):

Got it. Can you, I, I guess, can you expand, and I, I, can you kind of expand on the state of the states, actually, I love the way that that’s phrased. And is that, do you, where does that live? Does that live like in a spreadsheet or how does that work?

Mindy Barham (00:33:56):

Well, it lived in a spreadsheet for a little while until I put in Quorum . So I initially put it in a spreadsheet just so that we could you know, fill in the blanks. Like I said, we’re, we’re fully remote. And so having everybody call in and just, we just went state by state. Is this a state affiliate? Yes. No. Do we have an MOU? Yes. No. Do we have grant aid available to our students? Yes. No. Are we talking with the governor? Yes. No. Are we talking to legislators? Yes. No. So we have all these categories that are important to us that help us decide, you know, okay, if this is straight nose, there’s probably not a goal state for us this year doesn’t mean we’re not doing anything there. It doesn’t mean we can’t have our grassroots network send awareness messages or introduction messages. It just means we’re not gonna do the full-court press of all hands on deck and full grassroots and everything in that state. So that is, that’s how started

Mindy Barham (00:35:13):

I set up the states as issues within Quorum. So each state has an issue, which is also helpful for us on our action center, because I can toggle on, show this on the action center, and that state will pop up. And so our vision for this year is to build out all of the state profiles and then on the way how the Quorum Action Center works, have, you know, the state on the left-hand side, you know, California, here’s what we’re doing in California, here’s all the work that needs to be done in California, and here are our goals in California. And then on the other side is all the take actions you can participate in. So write a letter, call, posts on social media, you know, whatever it is. So you can go right to your state and, you know, I live in California, I pull down California, I look, I see what we’re doing there.

Mindy Barham (00:36:13):

I participate in the campaigns I want to, and, you know, move on with life. So that’s where we’re trying to get to. It’s about a quarter of the way built out. So, the reason we did that is because the homepage of Quorum the take action section is kind of small, and we didn’t wanna have 50 states where you had to scroll through and look, and we didn’t want people advocating outside of their state. And we felt like that was too confusing, at least up front for our advocates. And so it made better sense for us to build out these state pages and just direct people go to your state. We did get some user feedback saying there’s never anything for me to do because the take action box was, was blank all the time. So we want to direct people to their state and then put those campaigns in the, in the state you know, send out these introduction campaigns, Great. And then use gamification. Awesome. Now send out these educational campaigns. Great. Now send out these engaged campaigns or, you know, mm-hmm. , that kind of thing.

Hannah Cooper (00:37:37):

Got it. That is a really, really helpful overview. Thank you so much. That just helped me kind of organize that in my mind. So that sounds, First of all, it sounds like a great way to organize a grassroots program. And before we kind of get to our next section here, I wanna ask a few questions about how you worked this grassroots program internally, but I will also quickly say that when I was at discs doing a 50-state grassroots program, we worked with different groups, state by state, kind of local guilds, and we would also have them sign an MOU so that they would understand kind of what they were agreeing to, to partner with us on a grassroots advocacy effort and just make sure we got their buy-in immediately to say like, Yep, we know this is a thing and we’re gonna participate in your program. Okay. So I do wanna go into kind of internally what road did you run into any roadblocks in building this program at all?

Mindy Barham (00:38:37):

We did run into some roadblocks. We had talked about building a grassroots program before covid and WGU leadership was very concerned. Our student population, a lot of them are in an underserved category. They’re working, they’re married, and they have competing priorities. They’re not the 18 to 25-year-olds at the brick-and-mortar full-time student. And so our goal obviously is for our students to study and graduate. So there was some concern that we might put some undue burden on our students. But when Covid hit and we were not able to travel, it became very clear that WGU was sitting on this untapped resources of our, you know, 130,000 plus students, 268,000 graduates, and 7,000 employees all sitting at home wanting to have their voice heard and wanting to be included in financial aid conversations and other education policy areas.

Mindy Barham (00:39:51):

And so that was the spark that allowed WGU to take the reins and start this grassroots program. And honestly, when, when we started building it out and talking to our internal stakeholders, it created quite a buzz. And we got a lot of, what, what is this quorum? What is this grassroots? We didn’t mean to do that, but it was actually, I recommend maybe just kind of talking about it on the side in your organization, . Because by the time we presented the grassroots road show, I called it, where we had developed everything and we just presented it to the high-level groups to get buy-in, people were like, Yes, sounds great. Let’s do it.

Hannah Cooper (00:40:41):

That’s awesome. And did you find with doing the internal grassroots road show that because you had gotten internal buy-in, did you have like internal champions you could lean on if you ever run into a roadblock? Or like, for example, I would, I would kind of do the same thing. I would, I would show our grassroots program internally and if I ever needed to connect with an advocate or a group who I wanted to engage, I could go to one of my colleagues who maybe had a better relationship with them and they were already signed in and I could ask for help. Did you find anything similar with just letting, you know, kind of doing a little internal education on the importance of grassroots?

Mindy Barham (00:41:21):

Yes, I mean, absolutely. So you know, the alumni especially we’re working much closer with them in our events and trying to find Hey, do you know a student that fits, you know, this category, or we need a student to talk to a legislator about this. Do you know, you know, so we’re able to, through those relationships you know, and students as well. So we were able to build relationships with the student-facing organization, the program mentors within WGU, so that if we were looking for, you know, we really need a student that can talk about you know, being a single mom and this was the only solution for them, or, you know, a rural student that lived three hours away from any college , this was the only solution for them, You know, so sometimes we need those to show legislators. So that those internal relationships helped us to be able to go out and, you know, it helped they would come to us as well. Yeah. You know, do you have anybody in your grassroots network that can speak to this or told a story about that or, you know, so it’s helped us to be more collaborative internally for sure.

Hannah Cooper (00:42:48):

That’s great. That’s always the best too, is especially when I think a lot of folks in general kind of have questions or unsure about different relations or even grassroots advocacy. So I think getting internal buy-in is always great just to further that education and then helps with buy-in externally as well.

Mindy Barham (00:43:09):

Yeah, I mean, I would say, you know, we went down the path of when we formed our work group, we went down the path of what are all the possible concerns? What, you know, what are the concerns gonna be or what we thought might come up or what we’ve heard in the past? And then mitigated those somehow. You know, we went to our data department and had them talk to Quorum and certify that the data is safe and protected and, you know, that kind of thing. We worked with the legal department to make sure that we were compliant with our program in all 50 states we worked with so that by the time we presented that for buy-in, we were very prepared and very competent. You know, and it, I think leadership felt like, okay, you know, this isn’t just something these folks were doing on the fly. They’ve really spent some time researching and thinking about this. And you know, looking at potential risks and complications and how we might, you know, not experience those by addressing that upfront, you know?

Hannah Cooper (00:44:31):

Gotcha. And I do wanna get to one final question. Thank you so much for that overview, especially internally. And this is actually a similar question, but one final question before we open it up to everybody else for questions. So I say that as a warning, would love to see some more questions coming through at the q and a. I know folks have questions about Mindy’s great work. So just my final question. What does success look like for this program? Are you tracking any metrics or milestones to kind of help prove the efficacy of this program and why it should continue?

Mindy Barham (00:45:07):

So we’re tracking, you know, every campaign that we do and the emails that we send out. And we’re tracking if we’re moving people through that funnel. So that’s kind of the main three. And, are we attracting people to our program? Are we getting people to take action when we want them to? I think that was probably our biggest hurdle. We had a lot of people sign up. A lot of people open emails, and a lot of people click. And our take-action rate was lower in some cases, not all cases, but in some cases. So if we could increase our take action rate to the benchmark rate, that would be, that would be awesome. But that’s our main goal. So we’re looking at, you know, how are these campaigns performing with our advocates? Are we getting people to sign up? Are we getting people to take action? Are we moving states through the funnel? You know, that’s, those are our top metrics.

Hannah Cooper (00:46:27):

That’s great. And a follow-up, a related follow-up question from Shayna is how do you receive and evaluate feedback among the metrics that you just mentioned you know, feedback, on the program from your stakeholders?

Mindy Barham (00:46:45):

Meaning our advocates or leadership or

Hannah Cooper (00:46:51):

I guess we can do both, it sounds like. I think advocates but I think both would be helpful.

Mindy Barham (00:46:58):

So, I mean, one of the things that we did that was hugely helpful cuz we’re a small team, is we set up a email box. So when I send out emails they might be from me, they might be from another government relations person on the back end, I send replies to government and any one of our team members can go in there and feel those and answer those questions. So that takes the heat off of, you know, one person. For example, when we were working in California last year, it was very busy with a lot of advocates in California. We had a lot of things going on, and the government relations director was constantly traveling and meeting with legislators and, you know, she just didn’t have time to answer all of these questions. And most of them were similar, which helped us refine our messaging, by the way, .

Mindy Barham (00:48:05):

So that was one way that we received feedback and, and evaluated was, you know, we’re getting a lot of the same question here. Maybe we need to address that in our messaging. And then having that group email box was helpful to take the burden off of one person. And then from the leader side of things, WGU is very innovative, lifelong learning culture organization. They know we’re not gonna grow this thing in a year, and so they’ve been very interested to expand what we’re doing and iterate. So there’s not, you know, we’re not doing anything completely crazy but there’s no hard and fast, well, you know, it’s gotta be this or it’s gotta be that. Now, personally, I’m always looking at those benchmarks, and if they’re way below I’m concerned. You know, like something’s, something’s not right there.

Mindy Barham (00:49:25):

We haven’t any, had anything significantly below. We did do a couple of experiments last year with targeting some college and no degree population that doesn’t know WGU just because we were just wondering, you know, does that group care about some of the issues that we’re working on? Or is that worth, is that path worth going down? And those were pretty low rates to begin with, but I do think there was promise there in that you know, you’ve gotta hit people seven times before they pay attention kind of thing. And so, so yeah.

Hannah Cooper (00:50:06):

Got it. And then a follow-up question on that and I thought, I thought that was a great response and it reminded me of a few things, but we do have a follow-up question on that note, and it’s how do you solicit feedback? So outside of folks being able to email your government relations email or ask, you know, asking leadership for feedback, how do you solicit that feedback from folks?

Mindy Barham (00:50:32):

We are planning to do a user experience survey with our, we have a group within WGU that handles those kinds of things. You know, because we’re always wanting to make sure that our students are satisfied and that employers are satisfied with our students and that kind of thing. So that’s something on our list is to create a user experience survey. I would like to hear you know, things like, you know, I’d like to participate, but I don’t understand, or I don’t have time or, you know, even more questions like, how much time can you spend on, on advocacy and have, you know, different levels or something like that. I’ve got a couple of surveys written out that I’d like to pull our folks with, but we needed to get our state of the state situated first, so, so that was our first priority. But I’d love to hear how other people are soliciting feedback outside of email surveys, that kind of thing. Yeah,

Hannah Cooper (00:51:58):

Absolutely. Yeah, folks I did wanna say too Mindy and I were talking beforehand, and if folks have any ideas that they do at their own organizations you know, either for a 50-state grassroots strategy or how you solicit feedback or gauge success, feel free to put that in the chat. And Mindy, I will add, I’m trying to think of other things that I did grassroots-wise. We definitely had at both of my roles, you know, we had an email that folks could use that was like a team email to answer questions. We did also, like internally for my team, I would send out, you know, weekly reports just so that they would be kept updated on how our grassroots was performing. And then we would also host quarterly calls for our advocates to join. So they, like, if they just wanted to join and be kept updated on the specific work we’re doing, they could. And then one last thing I’ll say is that with our state groups, I actually had a kind of an advisory committee from each state, so they could kind of be the leaders of their state and they could tell me within their industry and they could tell me what they liked, what they didn’t like, and whether they wanted to do in that state as well.

Mindy Barham (00:53:11):

Yeah, I mean, we have talked about using the Outbox tool to do like a drag-and-drop newsletter either mm-hmm. not sure that we have the resources to do it by state but we might pilot that in a couple of regions and see if that is how that’s received. So we might be able to solicit some feedback from that. But, you know, I think our, our challenge is you know, we’re trying to do a couple of things. We are trying to, but it’s hard to do it on a regional level because states are so different. So we can’t say in this region, this is what it’s, you know, it doesn’t work that way. It’s state by state. So, but we might, we have thrown that idea around. We do like the newsletter feature in Quorum and we use it for other things. We haven’t tried using it for grassroots, but that’s a good idea actually.

Hannah Cooper (00:54:16):

Yeah. And I think that you know, to your point, I think that anything that makes sense to share with your advocate network can kind of help solicit that feedback as well. So I, that’s kind of vague, but to what you’re saying, Mindy, in terms of using a newsletter but just giving your advocates a source of truth on the issues that you’re working on and that you want them to engage on, so that you’re seeing kind of as like the first group that they’re going to go to when they wanna learn about the specific issues that you’re advocating for. So I think that can always be helpful. And then when you’re kind of seen as the source of truth a lot of times I think that drives engagement and like helps with soliciting feedback as well.

Mindy Barham (00:55:04):

Well, and I think too something else that we had thrown around as an idea was we’re, we’re constantly doing partnerships on a national level, but also on a state level. And so when there’s a press release about a partnership you know, sending that out to our advocates, Hey, did you know that WGU has partnered with Amazon or Walmart or McDonald’s or whatever it is Sheets? And we felt like, you know, not only does that tell your advocates were doing things in your state but that could also be a way of letting legislators know, like having our advocates send out. So we’re informing two people at one time, We’re saying, Hey, advocates, guess what you know, we have this great partnership, why don’t you tell your legislators about it?

Hannah Cooper (00:56:08):

Yeah, absolutely. On that note too, and as a follow-up question, just with and I will, I’m gonna ask one more question, and so we may not have time, but if you have a question, get it in now. But one last final question on that note, in terms of engaging lawmakers on the grassroots advocacy work you’re doing, how do you coordinate, Do you coordinate at all with any traditional lobbying efforts to help your grassroots engagement? So you know, if, if you have folks who are going to meet, you know, with people, with elected officials in person, do you kind of coordinate efforts there so they know the grassroots work you’re doing?

Mindy Barham (00:56:46):

That’s what we’re trying to get to. So the whole purpose of grassroots initially was, you know, we spend the first 13 minutes of a 15-minute meeting talking about who WGU is and all the misperceptions and debunking those, and you know, and we have like two minutes to talk about actual policy. So what we’re really trying to do with grassroots is have our, the most passionate people that we have, our students, alumni, and staff, have them constantly be sending those messages so that when our direct lobbying, our government relations folks come in they, they already know who WGU is. Oh, I’ve been getting your emails, you know, from my constituents mm-hmm. I understand that you have a different model. That’s great, Love it. You know so to have that bigger network of, at the time that we started grassroots, it was like 400,000 people of alumni, students, and employees.

Mindy Barham (00:57:57):

So, that was for all 50 states. But to have that larger group open the door for us with easy messaging you know, that they could send out that our GR directors could follow up with in person and hopefully get to the point of more policy talking by the time they get there. So that was the Yeah, that’s great. That’s a goal of ours. You know, we, and we’ve used it somewhat for that, but last year, you know, we, we got it up and running. It was covid, we had legislation. We are doing a lot of take actions.

Hannah Cooper (00:58:40):


Mindy Barham (00:58:41):

We are focused there, but this year is more of you know, things are a little bit calmer for us. And so I think we’ll have more of an opportunity to do that, especially in the tier two states where you know, we don’t expect anything to happen there this year. So we’re gonna be monitoring, you know, are we dripping these campaigns via our advocates? Is that working for us? Are we getting phone calls? Are we getting meetings? Are constituents getting phone calls and emails? That kind of thing.

Hannah Cooper (00:59:26):

Got it. That is an amazing overview. Thank you so much for your time today, Mindy. This has been incredible. We’re one minute to the hour. So I do wanna end here, but thank you for going over in detail, your 50-state strategy and then as well talking about how you work internally with your team to get buy-in and then show the value of your grassroots work. It’s really important. So thank you so much again.