Two weeks ago, I attended an enthralling session entitled “Real World Engagement” at the Nonprofit Technology Conference in Minneapolis. The session, moderated by Chris McCullough of Percolator Consulting, discussed what it takes for an organization to successfully engage real world supporters offline and online. Sarah Francis of MomsRising.org and Loren Drummond of the Washington Trails Association shared their experiences and practices moving fans to action. The session was a mesmerizing, fascinating peek into how two brilliant organizers recruit, motivate, inspire, and engage online fans to drive change.
MomsRising is a one-million strong organization that works to further family economic security, working on key issues that matter to families. As Sarah mentioned early on, “we work to turn members from online to offline.” Sarah Francis is the Chief Technology Officer and director of several of their campaigns. The Washington Trails Association (WTA) advocates for protecting and maintaining all of Washington’s trails. They also run the largest trail maintenance volunteer program in the country. Much of their work involves collaborating with cities, parks, municipalities and other organizations. Loren Drummond, Digital Content Manager, believes “that it is our job to get people out on trails exploring.”
The first step to real world supporter engagement: Define your audience
MomsRising’s audiences are everyone who has a mom or is a mom, political leaders, and the media. Sarah noted that moms are a hard group to organize because they are extremely busy, children are extremely expensive, moms are faced with childcare issues, and stressed for time. It is very hard to get them to turn out to a political event or meeting, especially due to the cost of babysitter.
The Washington Trails Association’s target audience is hikers, defined as “anyone who enjoys or likes to spend time in wildness.” The WTA is a voice for trails, but they are not defined by the type of trail or type of hiker or climber. Other audiences include birders, geocachers, environmentalists, parents, and hunters.
Offer value: WTA’s hiking reports and crowdsourced trip reports
The WTA wants to protect public lands and get people out using them, and members want to go hiking. Based on the intersection of these needs, the WTA created a database of all the trails in Washington, and overlaid it with member-sourced trip reports. The result is a robust, interactive, crowdsourced hiking resource. Anyone who has hiked a trail may file a trip report and post photos to the trail description. The descriptions are also entirely community-built and maintained. To date, there are about 6,000 trip reports on trails.
Offer value: MomsRising listens and offers moms what they want
MomsRising takes on critical issues facing women, mothers, and families, by mobilizing massive grassroots actions. To be successful, the organization had to discover what moms wanted in Washington State, and listen to them.
Sarah went to Department of Early Learning’s website, where she found a parent poll revealing that a priority is finding something free and fun to do with their preschool-aged kids. Sarah thought “what can we do that is free and fun to turn out kids??” She convinced someone in charge of operations at Washington State Capital to allow MomsRising to hold a free concert at the capital, dubbed the Olympia Dance Party. The event packed the rotunda between Senate and House, and made legislators aware of the need for affordable preschool care. This is one example of how MomsRising decides on how it can best offer value to its members, while also pursuing its own interest. Ultimately, in Washington State, MomsRising has increased fiscal budgets for issues that moms care about, including affordable child care.
Offline to Online: Creating a team of engaged fans
During the Olympia Dance Party, MomsRising staff walked around asking people in the crowd to sign up. Afterward, Sarah Francis from MomsRising invited everyone who came to the Olympia Dance Party to sit in a room, where she listened to what the Moms wanted from government. This group became known as their “Capital Moms.” Most of the Capital Moms had worked for government agencies or were a lobbyist, and are happy to be the “proxy moms” for women across the state. The result: a team of superheros who are really excited about lobbying and working on legislative issues. This came about from knowing what moms wanted (free, kid-friendly, fun events), and listening closely to their interests.
Moving online fans up the ladder of engagement
MomsRising brings fans into the organization by giving “happy claps” back to engaged users, asking them to share their stories to the Story bank, and inviting them into campaign planning. Stories from the Story bank are vetted and then shared with legislators. In addition, Facebook fans vote on the yearly MomsRising bumper sticker.
MomsRising also hosts conference calls and webinars to offer resources and then brainstorm campaign ideas together. Because supporters conceive of an idea together, then more likely to come out and see the idea happen in real life.
The WTA invites online fans to come to events, write for them (their 60-page bi-monthly magazine is volunteer-written), and post a trip report. Online fans also participate in some decisions. For example, during the month of Aug, WTA hosts a hike-a-thon and asks their hike-a-thon (private) group for suggestions and ideas related to the hike-a-thon.
Bring fans into the organization to deepen their engagement
The WTA brings fans into the organization in a number of ways: through self-published trip reports, an “in my backpack” app (for storing trip reports, hikes they want to take, etc.), interviewing those who file trip reports, and the Facebook Question of the Week. Loren leverages the Question of the Week to create a feature for the newsletter.
Loren also uses social media to capture small testimonials. When the WTA asks “who first took you hiking?” on its Facebook page, people cannot wait to share. From a simple question, the WTA gathers a list of its engaged supporters even before they are members/fans, and can continue to track their engagement.
MomsRising brings fans in through its Story bank. One of the key things for their campaign is to put faces to stories, and those who share their stories are then coached and prepped for sharing them publicly.
They have learned several lessons about asking for stories: when MomsRising asked “please share your childcare story,” no one shared. But, when they asked “what is your experience finding affordable childcare…?” people will respond. MomsRising specifically asks about experiences and feelings, which encourages more participation. Sarah also asks for stories in a PS within the newsletter or an email, because a direct ask for stories does not generally get a lot of response. Usually, the people who will give you a story are on a higher level of engagement with the organization, so this also builds up their list of more engaged online fans.
Be a Superhero for Kids: Real world campaign success
MomsRising executes its campaigns through a multi-layered online/offline strategy. They open an issue on their website, then push it to Facebook, then newsletters, then deliver items to offices from real moms to real legislators.
The “Be a Superhero” campaign was conceived of on a campaign call with core supporters. MomsRising made superhero capes and put together an online petition encouraging legislators to be superheroes by supporting preschool education. One target was Legislator Joseph Zarelli, who was not known for being supportive to this issue. MomsRising moms showed up at Zarelli’s door with petition and cape, “because we knew he could be a superhero for kids,” as Sarah Francis explained. They took photos with him as a superhero for kids with the cape and kids, and he loved it. Sarah made sure his local paper knew about it, and printed the press release about how Joseph Zarelli was a superhero for kids. When Headstart budget was debated, Senator Zarelli stood on the Senate floor and spoke about the importance of funding preschool. He also voted for a huge fiscal note. They have used their “be a superhero for kids” cape approach with others, and it always works. Ultimately, the legislature voted to expand funding for Headstart by 2015 on a sliding scale for all families on Washington state. (Below is a photo of Rep. Ross Hunter wearing his superhero cape.)