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Time is Gold: Harnessing Your Coalition’s Advocates Online

Insights May 13, 2014

Nonprofits, political campaigns, and advocacy groups have been utilizing the power of digital reach for decades.  From organizing educational resources to driving mass support, these groups have many similar and differentiating ways in which they utilize the web. Most significantly, however, nonprofits frequently deal in the most coveted currency: TIME.

Time is tricky. If you’ve ever run a philanthropic organization, tried to round up volunteers for a local charity run, or asked someone to organize a fundraiser, you know how difficult it is to effectively obtain time commitments.  For all the interest and surface-level support nonprofits and advocacy groups receive, actually converting an interested member into an active participant is increasingly difficult.The 2013 census reported the lowest volunteer rate since 2002.

Yet just like corporate brands, the Internet has allowed these organizations the ability to reach many more individuals than traditional cold calls or door-to-door solicitations. Most notably, the web has allowed national campaigns the ability to recruit and retain advocates in a way never before possible.

Traditional vs. Digital

By transferring many offline efforts to the digital realm, asking and receiving a time commitment can now be a fluid process.

Cold Calls vs. Targeted Emails

Traditionally, nonprofits relied on phone banks and cold calls to obtain monetary donations and engage members of the community. However, with at least 25% of Americans ditching their landlines (and many of us screening our calls), phone banks are now a much less effective method of reaching potential advocates (the telemarketer didn’t do nonprofits any favors in this category, either).

But that certainly doesn’t mean individuals are disconnected from phones altogether. As the percentage of mobile visits continues to climb, programs such as MailChimp, which allow you to design customized interactive emails, are being used by even more nonprofits and advocacy campaigns.

MailChimp and other similar services allow users to track open and click rates, test subject lines and preview what their campaign will look like to each recipient when viewed on a mobile device. The Internet Advertising Competition (IAC) awarded the African Wildlife Foundation the 2013 Best Nonprofit Email Message for this campaign, which demonstrated their unique balance between a genuine and urgent call to action, similarly illustrated with foreboding graphics.


But with the capabilities for mass reach comes a less personalized approach. Organizations who deal in time need to understand that their advocates are savvy and can differentiate between a mass email and a truly personalized one. Time needs to be spent in order to be received.

For their digital campaign, the organization “charity: water” developed three personalized pitches to different groups of individuals based upon their levels of previous engagement. The results were incredible. Charity: water reached an open rate of 57% compared with their previous average of 25%. A measure of success, however, is not just how enticing your pitch is, but how it actually converts. Charity: water raised more than $2 million dollars with this one campaign, showing that their personalization, language and chosen digital platform was well worth the effort.

Telling vs. Showing

Another way many nonprofits and other organizations traditionally gained support and recruited advocates was with good ole’ door-to-door solicitation. With requests for petition signatures, a volunteer commitment or even the contribution of a letter to your local paper, these groups were one doorbell closer to a successful campaign. Yet, interrupting dinner to ask for time and money is a difficult feat — particularly for a problem many don’t typically see.  Issues such as fracking, poverty and genocide seem to be out of sight and out of mind and conversions for this type of recruitment are traditionally low. So how do advocacy groups truly express the urgency of these issues? With various types of digital messages.

The success of videos like KONY 2012 are not coincidental. Created by the nonprofit, Invisible Children, this documentary recorded 18.4 million views by the original host alone. The video called for the capture and trial of militant leader Joseph Kony who has been accused of a variety of war crimes. Two years after the video went viral, the campaign is viewed as part success and part failure. Kony 2012 topped records for numbers of shares, becoming a household name and producing international trending topics such as #KONY2012 and #StopKony; yet its end goal, to capture Joseph Kony and stop the recruitment of child soldiers, has not yet come to fruition. The documentary’s ability to evoke pathos, to successfully overcome the barrier between the consumer and the victim, led to its monumental virality. Video collateral when done well is invaluable to a nonprofit or campaign.

Understanding how to effectively recruit volunteers and obtain donations is essential to the success or failure of a nonprofit or advocacy group. With all of the new technology available, it’s key to not only know how to use it but to understand how to make it most effective. Terakeet’s Advocacy team has been essential to numerous nonprofit and digital campaigns. We understand it’s necessary to thoroughly understand each groups’ target demographics in addition to which platforms are best for differing goals. Here are a few takeaways every advocacy group should keep in mind when planning their next campaign:


1. Understand Your Niche

Competition for funds and manpower amongst nonprofits and other campaign-based organizations is extremely tough. Thoroughly understanding who you’re connecting with and why they would want to assist your organization can be a daunting task, but is well worth the time. When looking for potential advocates, identify who is most affected by your cause. Where do they interact online? What other related issues or causes affect these individuals? Most importantly, what do you want your supporters to do to help? Keeping all of these in mind when planning your next campaign will help increase your conversion ratio and ensure your outreach budget is stretched as far as possible.

2. The Time Equilibrium

Let’s face it: a time commitment is a lot to ask for. Before you request your supporters’ time, give them yours. People are much more likely to give their time when they see you’ve already put in the effort to address their needs and concerns. This strategy applies to method of recruitment as well. While mass emails can be effective tools for reaching large groups quickly, it doesn’t depict sincere interest and can leave a bad taste in your supporters’ mouths.  For those individuals you’ve identified as potential volunteers or advocates, spend the time on a more personalized approach.

3. Quality Over Quantity

Part of effectively utilizing your support base is understanding that fewer, well-trained, advocates can do more for you than 100 mildly interested individuals. Identify a few highly-relevant, engaged people and give them the time they need to become activists and proponents of your organization. Recognize that certain advocates or volunteers won’t be cut out to do the same things – embrace this and plan accordingly. Ensuring that you are not only recruiting but retaining your advocates is essential.

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