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Political, social and environmental change doesn’t come from polite whispers. It comes from deep passion for the issue, showing up to protests, and mobilizing your power as a voter. Teenager Greta Thunberg, the most prominent activist of the moment, energized a global environmental movement by first going on a solo strike from school in front of the Swedish Parliament.
Most of us feel strongly about a political or social issue as Thunberg does—and often, there are like-minded groups we can join. Other times, we see an unmet need and want to organize our own group. It can feel nearly impossible to start. Making a better world is, frankly, overwhelming when you go it alone. But you don’t have to do it all by yourself. Chances are, there are others out there who share your ideas. But how do you reach them in the first place?
Digital tools can help. NationBuilder is a software platform that helps groups communicate and organize. “A common problem that I see in working with organizations across the spectrum is that people tend to think that because they personally feel strongly about an issue, a ballot measure, or a candidate, that everyone in their community or district is aware and feels equally strongly about the issue or candidate,” says Marco Suárez, a senior enterprise account manager at NationBuilder. NationBuilder’s team of experts can help organizations define their goals and strategies, but what the software itself offers is the infrastructure for organizers to build and strengthen relationships with their community—and scale as a movement grows.
For advocacy groups, that involves a lot of finding and engaging new supporters as well as driving rapid response from them. That can include targeted email and text outreach, as well as action-focused website pages that they can set up quickly in response to topical events. Social media tools can help spread the call to action.
Suárez, who has experience in political campaign operations and campaign finance, says that the most important thing when it comes to mobilizing people for a cause is not only understanding what you’re fighting for and what your ultimate goal is, but what strategies you’ll need to employ and which people you’ll need on your side to get there.
“It’s not something that happens overnight—you’ll need to make a deliberate effort to understand who is open to supporting your cause and the process you’ll need to take them through to make the case. This process isn’t the same for everyone and often takes time,” he says. “The hard reality about organizing is that a lot of people out there probably don’t feel as strongly about your cause or candidate as you do. But like any relationship, it takes a lot of time, persistence, and effort to build up.”
The Challenge: Getting Started
Move LA is an organization dedicated to a better, cleaner and more efficient transportation system in LA County. Its initial task was to build a broad-based coalition to secure public funding to address the daunting challenges of traffic congestion, public transit, affordable housing and creating good job opportunities.
Eli Lipmen, Move LA’s director of development and programming, offers this advice to others who want to set up or improve an advocacy organization: “Just get started. There is no right or wrong way to make a difference – every way is unique.” He suggests the first steps of conducting a mapping exercise of who you know in your own network—and who those people know. And then start holding meetings to create your action plan. “Do extensive research so that you understand the issues and know your position. “We live in a complicated world and, therefore, you have to have a deep and complex understanding of an issue to be effective at making a difference.”
There’s also strength in numbers, and identifying sympathetic or related organizations that may be helpful. Both River LA and Move LA have used the NationBuilder platform to work on their organization’s strategies. “NationBuilder has allowed us to identify people that support our initiatives on social media and give us an opportunity to re-engage to pursue our shared goals,” says Foster.
River LA has done just that in its mission to merge design and infrastructure to help integrate nature and the communities around the LA River through policy and participation. “I believe that the Los Angeles River is the intersection of so many crucial issues in Los Angeles. From homelessness and water quality to park access and mobility, the LA River can be a conduit to create a solution that makes a lasting impact for LA County residents,” says Jason Foster, director of strategic partnerships. “Sharing our work and our mission to bring water, people, and nature together along the 51 miles of the river is the key to attracting new donors, volunteers, and allies to our organization.”
The Next Step: Maintaining and Gaining Momentum
So now that you’ve got your core people and messaging in place, you’ll need to maintain momentum to keep the work going—especially after an election or other milestone has passed.
“Getting people engaged initially can be easy if you can find your advocates but it is keeping them engaged and involved, amongst all the other things happening, that is challenging,” Lipmen says.
For Move LA, that means continuing a conversation among stakeholders (labor, environmental and social justice groups, seniors, persons with disabilities, students, affordable housing advocates, and business associations) and asking them to “be bold.” “Grassroots and community-level work is critical because change can happen one community at a time. However, sometimes there is a need to think big and take a step back to bring together community leaders across sectors, communities, and industries for transformative change at scale,” Lipmen says.
Foster sees a digital and cultural divide between the people proposing solutions and the people that are generally affected by the core issues around the river. “At River LA, our work is centered on using the technology that exists to provide access for the million people living within a mile of the Los Angeles River to learn more about our work and the revitalization efforts taking place.”
Suárez says that it is important to use a tool such as NationBuilder to build the right kind of momentum—at the right time, to the right audience. “if you jump into a campaign or advocacy space with really aggressive messaging right away to everyone that you can possibly find, you can turn people away pretty quickly. You need to make sure that you’re working to build relationships with these people from exactly where they are.
“So if we have people who are already donating, maybe those are the people that we’re going to need to ask to volunteer. If we have people who were signing up for our email list, maybe those are the people that we need to work into making their first small donation. We need to make sure that we’re not throwing people into the deep end when they first come on board, and we’re getting people to warm up to our organization and the work that we’re doing, because we can’t expect people to become supporters or advocates overnight.”
For Results, Say It at the Ballot Box
Lipmen says that political organizing can be a third-rail that scares organizations out of going the distance. “Many nonprofits have limited experience with the ballot initiative process because of an irrational fear of or lack of experience in political organizing,” he says, noting that it’s actually a nonprofit’s duty to engage on issues that affect them through the initiative process. “This includes campaigning for, or against, a ballot initiative that advances their issue. The more nonprofits that engage, the stronger we become in advocating for those who benefit the most—low-income households, people of color, and those who are generally left out of government and political decision making. So build a coalition, support or write an initiative, and then work towards its passage. Your supporters will not only be grateful but more supportive of your cause for future campaigns.”
But of course, every great movement begins with just one person who wants to make a difference. “Get started! Movements are built over time and we never know what will take hold of an issue. Everyone has something to contribute and it’s about creating the space for all of our causes to exist together,” says Foster.