Nonprofits are uniquely positioned during the coronavirus pandemic. While, like many industries, they are feeling the economic impacts of the virus through cutbacks in donations and operating funds, they have the unique experience of being a critical resource to their communities when a crisis hits.
Independent Sector is a national member organization that represents nonprofits ranging from charities to foundations, corporate philanthropy, and academic centers. As the coronavirus began to wreak havoc on communities and workplaces nationwide, Congress indicated that they were exploring legislation to address paid leave and tax credits to support impacted industries. Independent Sector’s core public policy team of Ben Kershaw, Allison Grayson, Ana Montañez, and Micah Nelson decided to launch a campaign to make sure nonprofits were heard.
“The nonprofit sector has a lot of scar tissue from previous congressional efforts, previous congressional tax credits and being left out of those tax credits because nonprofits don’t have taxable income, they pay payroll taxes,” said Kershaw, Director of Public Policy and Government Relations. “We knew we needed to mobilize the sector.”
When news of potential legislation came out, Independent Sector launched a letter-writing campaign to members of Congress. However, at this point, it wasn’t clear what the specific provisions of the bill would be. So, these letters were focused on the broad goals of supporting the nonprofit sector.
“We thought about how to mobilize grassroots advocates around a bill that didn’t yet exist and that we knew would come together quickly when it did come into existence,” Kershaw said. “What does it mean to have a core message about including nonprofits and treating them fairly and making sure that they were supported by this legislation, whatever it looked like? That was the thrust of the campaign with the contours of the legislation that we knew about at the time.”
This core messaging aspect of the campaign was the most successful, according to Kershaw, driving over 40,000 emails to Capitol Hill.
The coronavirus legislation came together at a rapid pace by any consideration, never mind the glacial pace that Congress typically passes legislation of this scale and with this price tag. So, once the text of the bill was released, Independent Sector shifted gears to have their advocates call their members of Congress to speed up the pace at which a staffer knew their story.
“We believe that once a vote is scheduled there just isn’t time,” Kershaw said. “Even if you could generate the emails that instant, they don’t work their way through congressional offices in time to be on the record before legislators are deciding which way to vote, so at that point, we felt the need to switch over to phone calls.”
Independent Sector represents a diverse set of charities, foundations, and corporations, each of whom have a base of grassroots advocates. For legislation that would have this size of an impact on the sector, they wanted to tap into their “network of networks” to expand the reach of their efforts.
“We had over 2,000 people take action on social media just to share with their networks that they sent this letter, and that’s before you think of any retweets or shares,” Kershaw said. “We know that giving people the opportunity to share their action on social has an amplifier effect."
One way they engaged this wider group was through preparing email language with the call to action for the individual nonprofits’ executives to send to their advocates. The second way was through a follow-up campaign in Quorum where immediately after completing an action to send a letter to Congress, advocates were prompted to share their action on social media to drive action from their networks.
Independent Sector’s campaign drove over 40,000 messages to members of Congress from the letter portion alone—more than they drove in all of their campaigns last year, combined.
Key to their success was the agility to switch between different means of communication to Congress as the landscape changed, from letters in the early conversations around policy possibilities to phone calls when the vote neared and specifics were publicized. Even though Kershaw had never run a call-your-member campaign with Quorum in the past, the Independent Sector team was able to quickly build and disseminate the call to action in time to make the voices of nonprofits heard.
“It was extremely easy to build, format, and distribute a critical message at an essential time for the nonprofit sector because of Quorum’s design and its power,” Kershaw said. “The product was intuitive enough and the real-time technical support was spot on to enable us to quickly get comfortable distributing a call-to-action to our entire network with a new feature that I had never used before.”