Category Archives: Tips and How-Tos

My worst policy presentations

Okay, so this should really be filed under “how not to”.

In class this week, we’re tackling the challenge of effectively communicating our fantastic policy ideas to elected officials, potential coalition allies, opinion leaders, agency bureaucrats.

To a large extent, it’s easy to overstate the importance of the policy presentation, as a finite act. Really, influencing how people think and talk about a particular social problem is an organizing challenge; people are much more likely to change their approach to a given issue based on their relationships with others than even the most cogent presentation of facts. So, I guess, that’s kind of lesson #1–what you do in all of the time outside of the presentation is way more important than what you do with that time. For many of the people to whom you are to present, who you are and who you know are still much more persuasive than what you say.

But, still, I’ve certainly seen minds changed based on legislative testimony or even a really compelling written presentation of facts, and it’s also certainly true that there is a lot of ambivalence among the general public and even our more targeted audiences about the issues with which we grapple as a society, and you have an opportunity with every policy presentation to elevate your perspective and move someone off the fence and firmly into your camp.

But, since my students and I will spend time this week looking at examples of policy presentations and talking about what makes different types succeed, and since there is so much anxiety about any kind of policy presentation that involves ‘oral arguments’ (why is it that putting our writing forward isn’t as scary? In some ways, I think it should be more so, because it’s there, staring at us, in near-perpetuity!), I have dedicated this particular post to:

My Five Biggest, Most Disastrous, Missed Opportunity, Worst-All-Time Policy Presentations

I’ve tried to pull out some lessons from each of these debacles, and it is my hope that readers will not only gain some insights from my failures but also be emboldened and encouraged to hear about the spectacular ways in which I have, well, flamed out. AND, I’d especially love it (and be very grateful!) if anyone would be willing to share a lesson learned from a presentation gone bad of their own, too. It’s all for my students’ learning, here, people!

Here they are, yes, in reverse order of awfulness. I’ve saved the best/worst for last:

5. Stunted Expectations
One of my biggest failures may have looked like a success. I gave a public presentation in Garden City, Kansas on the need for comprehensive immigration reform. My presentation was well-attended and well-received, and almost everyone there signed the postcards to Congress calling for progressive immigration legislation. So, what was the problem? Well, several, actually. Most significantly, I totally failed to tailor the presentation to the audience; I had been on a circuit around the state for a week, giving essentially the same speech, and so I failed to account for Garden City’s unique history and political tradition regarding immigrant inclusion. I should have asked much more–organize events in the city, do delegations to their elected officials, perhaps become part of the New Sanctuary Movement. It was also a perfect (missed) opportunity to try out some of my harsher critiques of the status quo; instead, what was nearly revolutionary in some communities sounded tepid in Garden City.
My diagnosis? Laziness, timidity, and forgotten context watered down my message for this audience and, as a result, I missed the chance to turn supporters into activists, passive believers into active campaigners, and the committed into a powerful leadership. We can’t be guilty of expecting too little from those to whom we present.

4. The Wrong Messenger
This failure felt wrong from the moment I agreed to do it, and it just kept feeling wrong. I was invited by a high school in Topeka to talk to a large group of immigrant students about higher educational opportunities, Kansas’ new instate tuition law, and leadership/advocacy. And I totally should have said, “no.” See, this is exactly the kind of thing that the immigrant young people who led the effort to pass the instate tuition law should have done themselves; who better to inspire other high school students than high school students? And, yet, maybe because it was during the school day, or maybe because I knew I’d already be in Topeka, or maybe because, after so many days of talking to hostile audiences, it sounded kind of fun to go to be thanked for the work…I said, “yes.”
And, it was okay; I mean, they were awesome students and excited about the new law, and they had some great ideas for how to advance organizing in their own community. But all of that just reinforced to me how it could have been wonderful, and, instead, wasn’t, because I took the easy way out and put my own considerations ahead of the cause’s. Would it have been more work to manage the logistics of getting permission for one of the student leaders to miss school and blah, blah, blah? Sure. But it would have lived my values of empowerment, and helping people speak for themselves. And it would have worked a lot better, too.

3. Round Peg/Square Hole
I’m including this one to demonstrate that I have even spectacularly failed in policy presentation in multiple languages and in more than one country! I had been asked to be on a panel at the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras conference. I was to speak for 20 minutes about the prospects for immigration reform and workers’ rights in the United States, in Spanish, with simultaneous translation into English. I prepared my remarks, but, when the day of the panel arrived, the organizers told me that I’d actually only have 10 minutes, because the conference was running late. And that’s where the problems started. To try to fit in everything, I raced through, barely noticing the reaction of the translators in the back of the room. Soon, one actually left the booth, waving her arms frantically over her head. I was speaking so quickly that they couldn’t keep up; some of the attendees had absolutely no idea what I was saying, and I was probably losing many of the others with my rapid pace.
And, while I admit that I still speak quickly, far too quickly at times, this experience (and its humiliation) stayed with me; when presenting, especially orally, we have to know exactly what the parameters are, and never assume that we’re above the rules. The most profound of our remarks won’t have any impact if people aren’t around anymore to hear them, or if they’re said unintelligibly, or if the dominant message is that we’re inconsiderately disregarding the needs of those around us. And pay attention to body language and feedback cues from your audience. Nodding heads are good. People flagging you down is usually a very, very bad sign.

2. Totally Blindsided
So I actually did quite well on this one. My testimony fit exactly within the time limit and covered all of the key points, and I had great delivery, and…it really didn’t matter at all. Because I forgot that, sometimes, it’s what everyone else says that counts a lot more. This was a hearing on our bill that would restore undocumented immigrants’ access to driver’s licenses, a right that was stripped in 2000, nearly restored in 2001, and then definitively halted after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, out of national security concerns. I thought that I had done everything right for this hearing, in January 2004. Our bill had cleared the House the year before and was now in the Senate. The Judiciary Committee Chairman supported it, as did several of the members, with whom I had already spoken. I had lined up a strong list of supporters: faith groups, law enforcement officers, two eloquent immigrant leaders, an insurance agent…it looked very solid. It snowed more than 6 inches the night before, but we still had about 1000 people in Topeka to show their support. As proponents, our testimony went well. And, then.
Things first went bad when the final person to speak as a proponent was the one person on our side with whom I hadn’t spoken in advance. His argument still rings in my ears: part of it was, verbatim, that “Hispanics are having more babies than white people so, watch out, we’re going to take over.” Um, can you say “opposite of what we wanted to say?” Lesson that, sometimes, even your ‘friends’ can hurt you, if you haven’t done the work in advance. But, still, if it had just been that, we probably could have rebounded.
There was just one opposing testimony. From a father…whose son was killed in the Twin Towers. Now, I’m sorry for his loss. Obviously. As was everyone else in the room, which went silent when he began to speak. But I so wish I knew then what I found out about 5 minutes after leaving the hearing, which is that he was actually a representative of a group affiliated with the anti-immigrant Federation for American Immigration Reform. We had, in fact, already done a lot of work discrediting FAIR within the Kansas Legislature, but I was totally unprepared for this conferee, and, so, even later, my efforts to clarify and explain to our media contacts and friendly legislators were the classic “too little, too late.” Even the Chair whispered to me on the way out the door, “I don’t think we can save this.”
We have to acknowledge that we don’t set the agenda and often can’t control the conversation. That means that any successful policy presentation must include intelligence-gathering on those who oppose our understanding of the social problem and our strategy to solve it. Our message should not simply react to this opposition, but it must account for it, diffuse it, and effectively counter it. Otherwise, you’ll be like me, listening in shock as everything I said was completely wiped from the minds of my audience, and even my friends shook their heads in disbelief.

1. You Can’t Convince Everyone, and Sometimes You Shouldn’t Try
So I promised a real nightmare for this last one. One year, I agreed to do a call-in show on a conservative talk radio program about immigrants’ rights. It was on a Saturday morning–my birthday!–at 8AM. So that sets the stage. Now, I’d done my research, and I knew that this host and his listeners were quite hostile to my position, but I had a lot of faith in my persuasive abilities, or something. Anyway, I dutifully called in.
I was, of course, defeated from the beginning; the host was deliberately rude to me, refused to let me finish a sentence, distorted the few words I managed to get in, and, then, after about 15 minutes, directed his listeners to “call in and tell me if this is the stupidest person we’ve ever had on this radio show or not.” Seriously.
Either my Protestant guilt or sheer shock kept me on the phone, long past when I should have just hung up. The only redeeming moment was when one woman called in to say, “no, I think there was someone stupider on once,” but then the host talked her into conceding that I was, in fact, “actually way stupider than that guy.”
Easy lesson from this one, of course: there are many people who may be receptive to at least parts of our messages of social justice, especially when we couch them in the language of shared values and common aspirations. And we shouldn’t shy away from controversy or be afraid to debate.
We should also not allow ourselves to be exploited by those who have no interest in truth or dialogue, especially when we’ll be so baited that we may, actually, do something that could turn off potential allies. Or, when there are much better things we could be doing with our time: organizing our “choirs”, so that they’ll actually “sing”; honing our messages; researching our policy alternatives; reaching out to those undecided middles; or, even, celebrating our birthdays.

Your turn–please share lessons learned from your own policy presentations gone bad. Really. It will make me feel better.

Yes, you can influence redistricting!

Every 10 years, our country conducts a decennial census, which brings us new insights into our population, allocates critical resources, and, of course

sparks nasty redistricting fights in most of the state legislatures in the country.

Just in time for the 2011 legislative cycle, The Alliance for Justice has released some new guides that reassure nonprofit organizations, including public charities and private foundations, that, yes, we can get involved in the redistricting fight, while legally protecting our nonprofit status. It’s critically important, especially given data that 70% of registered voters have no opinion about redistricting, and experience across the country that shows very little citizen engagement in the process.

This is critical, both because redistricting is so important to the exercise of democracy in our country, and because it’s often an incredibly divisive fight, the kind that nonprofit organizations usually want to avoid.

The Alliance for Justice can’t give you the political and moral courage to enter this fray, but they can reassure you that you can, indeed, do so, and give you the guidance you need to avoid running afoul of the Internal Revenue Service when you do.

You should check out the guides, but here are a few quick points to get you started (and to run past your Board Chair as you make the case for including redistricting on your list of policy priorities for the coming year!):

  • In states where redistricting is governed by the legislature (like in Kansas), efforts to influence it often count as a lobbying activity (and, therefore, should be tracked as an expense).
  • In states where redistricting happens outside of the legislative arena (like Missouri), this activity should not count as lobbying.
    *Question for the AFJ folks, though, that I haven’t been able to figure out yet: if a legislator sits on the redistricting panel (because some states include them) but is acting in his/her capacity on the panel, not as a legislator, then is it lobbying? I think not, but some clarity there would be good.

  • Any activity that educates policymakers about the issues at hand without specifically advocating a piece of legislation is not, similarly to other advocacy, counted as lobbying. In the area of redistricting, this opens up a lot of opportunities to discuss how redistricting impacts certain populations, issues that will be at stake, and civil rights implications.
  • Because redistricting ultimately influences political elections, it’s especially important that nonprofit organizations articulate (and actually hold!) nonpartisan rationales for why particular redistricting plans are preferable to others. In other words, opposing a particular plan because it unfairly disenfranchises voters of color is okay (as a lobbying activity), but opposing it because it would make it harder to elect Democrats (or Republicans) is not.

    Many states don’t get their full redistricting processes underway until summer 2011 (in Kansas, it’s after the 2011 session recesses in May), so you still have time to get your coalitions and plans in place. We want fair districts and equitable electoral opportunities in 2012 and beyond.

    It won’t be an easy struggle, but, with AFJ’s guidance, it’s one we know we can take on. And we can prevent this:

  • Translating what we know into what they’ll trust

    photo credit, victius, via Flickr, Plinth Telephone System

    So this week I’ve been thinking a lot about social workers, and our particular skills, and how those can come into play in the advocacy that we know our clients deserve and our world desperately needs. I’ve argued that we know enough, already, to make a significant contribution.

    I believe that. I’ve seen both effects at work, and I know that they make social workers a force with which to be reckoned, when we turn ourselves loose on the injustices that plague our communities.

    And yet.

    I also know, and have seen, how social workers can be so frustrated in policy, when they feel that their clients’ voices are not heard, that their practice wisdom is ignored, and that they are marginalized in the policy process.

    I’ve heard on more than one occasion from social workers who lament, when policymakers are talking deficit reduction and cost containment and we’re talking kids having a chance to succeed and focus on families, that it’s as though we’re speaking a different language.

    And, so, when I was reading in Blink about how “our world requires that decisions be sourced and footnoted, and if we say how we feel, we must also be prepared to elaborate on why we feel that way” (p. 52), when the reality is that sometimes we can’t articulate that very well, or at least not to the satisfaction of those who are hostile to or at least suspicious of our profession and our orientation to begin with, which is state of the relationship between social workers and some policymakers today, it kind of struck me:

    we ARE.

    Speaking different languages, that is.

    And the consequences can be grave, because they (policymakers) need to hear what we (social workers and those with whom we work) have to say.

    So, then, it strikes me that one of our core challenges, in thinking about social workers and advocacy, is how to share what we know in ways that will be viewed as legitimate and, ultimately, gain credence in the battle over how to define social problems and how to frame how we solve them.

    This means learning how to give effective testimony, so that we fit the form enough for our substance to shine. It means weaving compelling stories into our policy arguments, and knowing how to reinforce those stories with the kinds of evidence (including, yes, statistics!) that people are more familiar with (all the while introducing the personal case as another type of valuable information). It means understanding what policymakers mean when they talk about deficits and bending the cost curve, not so that we acquiesce to their priorities, but so that we can integrate some of their language into our own rationales for change.

    And it means, of course, building the kinds of relationships to power that will, eventually, mean that we can influence the language of policy deliberation, and, in the meantime, that people will care enough about what we’re saying to ask for an interpreter.

    Leading your horses to water: Making social media easy for your activists

    Like so many things, it’s easy for social change activists to get really excited about social media and its capacity to bring people together around the causes we hold so dear, forgetting in the meantime that these new tools aren’t necessarily intuitive for all of those we’re trying to engage and, more importantly, that empowering people to use them successfully can be another opportunity to build capacity and strengthen our relationship with our constituents.

    That’s why I love what the Environmental Defense Action Fund has done with their Twitter Guide to the climate change bill.

    There is a lot that they’re doing so well with their web-based advocacy–great (as in horrifying and spell-binding) videos of the oil spill disaster in the Gulf, up-to-date blog posts, podcasts and other informative tools, and a good social media presence–but this Twitter guide is especially impressive because it manages to walk people through how to engage on this legislative issue on Twitter, without seeming condescending or too ‘tech-y’.

    And, while a guide like this can become outdated very quickly (as legislation changes and the Twitter discussion stream shifts), it provides an excellent model for organizations seeking to influence the online conversations their supporters have about their issues.

    Some of the essential elements:

  • Guide to the most common hashtags used by supporters and oppponents of the legislation (helps advocates organize their tweets, builds momentum around the topic, and facilitates monitoring)
  • Twitter-ready talking points (key messages, already formulated in short phrases suitable for tweeting)
  • Integration with Twitter (they include a link right next to each point that allows supporters to immediately tweet a given message–this serves two purposes: getting the message out quickly AND giving people a chance to practice interfacing with Twitter, if they’re new to that)
  • Beginner-friendly language that assumes neither that users have to be Twitter experts to get started nor that all of your followers are necessarily “Twitter fluent” (you could pick this up with only a very basic idea of what Twitter is and still get started–you really need to know more about how messaging and policy debate works, which is what you want to emphasize anyway; Twitter is just the medium)

    Does anyone have other examples of nonprofit advocacy groups producing tools like this to help advocates navigate the social media landscape? I’m especially interested in those that are campaign-specific and “battle-ready”, so to speak, so not the more involved guides that provide background information on the applications but rather quick, easy-to-use tools that can be immediately implemented in a campaign. Are you creating anything like this for your work, or might you?

  • Social by Social, for social workers

    Everyone likes free stuff, right?

    And when it’s free stuff that

  • Inspires you with awesome examples of how people are using emerging technologies to do amazing things in the world
  • Gives you a glossary of all the terms you need to know to live, and advocate, in the high-tech world (would be great to share with a confused or skeptical CEO!)
  • Provides social organizations, working on social problems, from a foundation of social conscience, with a guide to shape their work with social technologies
  • Shares expert advice for those currently engaged in social change campaigns, on how to integrate technology into your work
  • And lives the transparency credo that “social” is all about

    Well, that’s my very most favorite kind of free stuff!

    Social by Social is a free ebook that believes, as I do, that we should use technology to do the things that matter–who wants to read on Twitter that ants are taking over my kitchen? But what about using text messages to remind people to vote in the primary election? They call for fewer ‘cool new tools’ and more thinking about what we need in order to improve our world. They see technology the way that our organizations should–as a trigger, something that equips us to do what we should, and want, to do anyway (get our clients engaged in politics, connect our donors to advocacy, mobilize grassroots action on legislation) but found harder to do without these applications.

    This is the most fun “book” on social media for social good that you’ll ever see–it has a ton of hyperlinks embedded right into it, and quotes from super-smart, super-savvy people who write whole books on this stuff themselves, and enough how-to suggestions (how to: get buy-in from your organization to experiment with social technologies, avoid gadget-chasing, set goals for your experiments, monitor conversations about your work, use video, events, and photos in your campaigns, give up the search for ‘control’ in order to let the relationships you’ll need for action flourish, measuring return on investment) to make it a real resource to keep by your computer. It’s also British, and you know how i feel about the UK.

    But, by far, the best part is the inspirations. I’ll have posts on a couple of these individually over the next few weeks (okay, maybe months!), but check them out–you’ll find not only inspiration for your own online advocacy, but probably some campaigns that you want to participate in, too.

    And then it has a section on what these new technologies will mean for different people, trying to improve the world from a different sector’s vantage point. My favorite section is on campaigners: how can you not love someone who advises activists for social justice to “be promiscuous”–go where people are, don’t assume that anyone is closed to your message, and connect with people so that they become part of your movement.

    And, finally, I love that this project used the very technologies, and the very same ideology, or approach to the work, that it advocates for others. By living what they recommend, the Social by Social team provides a model for what this new engagement might look like for organisations (um, I mean, organizations).

    Happy social-izing!

  • Crashing the party: smart mobs and candidate events

    No, I’m not talking about the Salahis.

    It’s public events that I think we should be ‘crashing’ this election season–the debates and forums and coffees and press conferences and dozens of other photo opportunities and hand-shakings that candidates for local, state, and federal office will hold between now and Election Day. And, because it’s 2010, we need to do it smarter.

    Here’s what I’m thinking: nonprofit advocates using social media (especially text messaging) to alert at least a core group of activists when there will be opportunities to get in front (literally, although, increasingly, these events are held online) of candidates, in order to raise your issues and bring immediate attention to your cause. You find out (because you’ve subscribed to the newsletters of all of the candidates in your area; they will be only too glad to add you) that Candidate XYZ, who’s running for Congress, is holding a town hall tomorrow night. You text that to 30 of your supporters, asking for those who will be able to go to raise your priority of (you fill in the blank: juvenile justice reform, special education, homelessness, immigration reform). Exchanging texts or messages, your group finds at least 1-2 people (2 is probably better; if the crowd is hostile, no one will feel totally alone) willing to go, split up, and ask a question to highlight the issue.

    The key is, you do this for the coffee the next morning, too, and the debate the following Saturday afternoon, and the press conference next Tuesday, and…you get the idea. Of course, no one has to attend all of those events themselves, because you’re using social media to divide up the work.

    You’ll get attention from the candidate and his/her staff, when the same issues are raised repeatedly, and you’ll likely get some media coverage, too, and you might even organize some support from among the other attendees, when they find that you have a common passion.

    And these things almost always come with some free refreshments, too, so, you know, there’s always that.

    Agenda-setting, Twitter-style

    TweetScoop graph the day President Clinton was hospitalized for chest pains in February 2010

    I have to be one of the world’s worst tweeters. I’ll admit it. I’m totally sporadic with it and, even though I really don’t follow many people, compared with the most active Twitter users (and I truly think that all of the people that I’m following are totally interesting and cool), the stream moves so quickly that, since there are long stretches each day when I’m away from my computer (and, we’ve established, I can’t follow Twitter on my phone!), I somewhat randomly pop back in when I can, send out a tweet (usually links from my RSS feed), check my @melindaklewis messages (including retweets of my blog posts from some kind and generous souls!), and scan back through the most recent tweets, a practice which means that I inevitably miss a lot. I know that I’m far from Twitter best practices, but, with three kids 3 and under running around, it’s about the best I can manage.

    That’s why I was glad to see some of Tamar Weinberg’s suggestions for Twitter in The New Community Rules, and to think through how Twitter can be used, in shorter bursts like the ones I can handle, for framing and issue strategy. Let me explain what I’m thinking here, and then share some of the tools that I learned from Tamar’s book and have since played around with, that I think could help with this.

    We know that a big part of the framing battle requires figuring out how to talk about the issues that we want to advance in order to make them resonate with our targets and the general public. We know that winning this battle of ideas and words can make our proposed public policy solutions seem quite commonsense, and go a long way towards having those same policy ideas accepted. There are more than 75 million Twitter users worldwide, and more than 50 million tweets are sent each day. While an estimated 25% of these accounts are inactive, a lot of Twitter users are ‘influencers’, those whose ideas on issues are likely to change the way that others see those same issues. Figuring out what they’re talking about, and how, lets Twitter help you insert your issues into the broader public agenda. You could also use these tools to do an impact evaluation, of sorts, to see whether your work to elevate the profile and/or change the conversation around a certain issue has been successful, although, unless you’re doing a really nationwide campaign, you’d have a hard time being able to isolate your work and audience enough for that to be very accurate (those of you in bigger cities can set your location to find local trends and all of us can at least specify the U.S. as our location).

    My favorite of these trending sites, and the one I use the most, is You can search for any keyword (or combination–it helps if you use Twitter at least enough to know which hashtags are most commonly used for the issues you care about). For example, here’s what it shows for “public option”. You can search at particular points in time, and I found a really interesting spike right after President Obama announced his version of health care reform (on February 23, 2010). This application also gives you representative tweets sent that use this hashtag. The front screen also includes the top 10 or so hashtags, although, I’ll be honest, these are mostly celebrities or other references that I completely do not understand, leading me to believe that they relate to popular culture!

    Another cool program, although you have to pay to get its most optimum features, is Tweetscan. It works similarly to the above, except they’ll actually email you alerts when the hashtags you’re watching crop up.

    Twitter does its own analytics, of course, although, in my opinion, they’re not as helpful as some of the external applications. You can do real-time searches on Twitter, though, to see what’s trending–this is probably useful if your organization is in the news right now and you want to know what people are saying about it, but it doesn’t give you the time perspective that hashtags do (although they do search the body of the tweet, not just the hashtag, so this could be a good way of navigating the hashtags initially, if you’re not sure what they are).

    At the opposite end of the spectrum is Twitscoop, which you can use as your Twitter landing page, to send tweets, track trends, and monitor urls, too.

    Twitt(url)y–This tracks the top websites being tweeted, which, while not as helpful, in my opinion, as a keyword search, can give you a sense, on a given really hot topic, the particular sources or “takes” on an issue to which people are referring most, which gives you a sense of the most trusted sources/allies or, sometimes, your most potent adversaries. (Note: the link above takes you to the English filter; the first time I was on the site, it was off, and I couldn’t figure out why all of the top posts were in Chinese!)

    For me, finding these tools has kind of restored my faith in Twitter, helping me to see that there are ways for it to be meaningful and relevant even if I’m not checking it from my smart phone all the time. It helps me to get a sense of the pulse of the conversation (and a surprisingly high percentage of that conversation does deal with public policy!), and, you know, sometimes I even learn who this Justin Bieber is that my cousin Molly kept talking about.

    When you’re #@! angry, use Twitter petitions to get results!

    Nonprofit Tech 2.0 had a post highlighting the Twitter-based petitions and how different causes are using them to create significant impact.

    This stuff is seriously cool.

    Basically, the idea is that, since so many elected officials and corporations and government agencies are using Twitter to get their messages across, there is a whole new avenue for influencing them, too, via their Twitter accounts.

    So, advocates are starting these Twitter petition campaigns to send tweets to folks like President Obama, Senators Harry Reid and Chuck Grassley, CitiBank, and the Prime Minister of England, directly to their official Twitter accounts, to communicate a specific (obviously brief) message: end Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell, advance the National Labor Relations Board nominees, stop blocking health care reform, support efforts to stop climate change, etc…

    To use the service, you can either create your own petition or “sign” someone else’s petition by sending one of the tweets directly to a target.

    I like that it’s free, it should (at least initially) grab some attention from the target because it’s a new media (and, in many cases, there’s someone relatively high-up within the organization monitoring the stream, unlike the person who usually answers the phone), it’s integrated into a technology that delivers it (rather than, say, using Twitter to ask people to make a phone call or send an email), there’s feedback regarding if/how the target has responded (and when), and it has the potential to not just mobilize this specific ‘ask’ from your known supporters but also bring in new supporters and attract their interest in your overall work (because they can see who started the petition, and make the decision to follow you–it’s a button right next to the “sign and tweet” button).

    I took action on a couple of petitions; it only took a few minutes, and, of course, those tweets go out to all of my followers, too, which builds my connection to those issues and potentially brings new folks on board, too.

    Who will you put in “the hot seat”?

    Where are your advocates? Geolocation and your nonprofit

    Not THAT Four Square--The Four Square World Championships in Bridgton, ME

    More technology time–I’ve had to learn about geolocation tools, like FourSquare, mainly from other bloggers, in order to think through how nonprofit advocates could use it effectively. Not only do I STILL NOT (hint, hint) have an iPhone (alas), but I really don’t go anywhere cool enough to be worth doing much geolocating myself (I mean, I love our neighborhood park and public library, but I don’t know that I could get too many ‘badges’ for visiting them as frequently as we do!). Still, this whole “bring the online down to street level” idea really seems to be catching on, and it seems that nonprofit advocates need to think about how we can make it resonate for our work. If you are a FourSquare Mayor or the like, I’d love to hear what you think!

    Nonprofit Tech 2.0 has a great post on the how-tos of adding your nonprofit to FourSquare–please check it out as a way to get started. The post linked above also has some of her screen captures that show what users will see when interfacing with your nonprofit on that particular geolocation application.

    Here are my advocacy and organizing-specific ideas for how to make this technology work for your organization, along with some cautions that could limit our ability to take advantage of these tools.

  • Making your nonprofit a venue on FourSquare This seems like the obvious first place to start; you add your nonprofit and then, when people are in the area, you will pop up on their FourSquare application, perhaps with a notification about an advocacy action alert. As Heather points, out, this can be a good way for organizations that primarily interface with supporters online to connect in a new way (“I didn’t know you had an office right by my kids’ childcare center!”), but, here’s my concern: how many of us are really well-prepared to welcome a potential donor, volunteer, or advocate who literally walks in off the street? Really? We’d like to think we are, obviously, but many times, we have a hard enough time dealing with walk-in clients and really very little capacity to immediately engage, affirm, and direct someone who comes in the door to help. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, though–think about how you could create take-away materials related to your advocacy, train your front-desk personnel to shepherd these new advocates, and capture email addresses and social media profiles so that you can build a stronger online relationship with this drop-in advocate.

  • Adding tips to your venue and/or to-dos to your profile This seems to be the easiest for nonprofit advocates to latch onto immediately; you can put fast facts about your organization and/or your cause or, even better, link to a mobile-friendly advocacy webpage, where people could take action immediately. It would be a great, and unexpected, way to break through information overload and register on people’s attention, so that they can take action on your cause. Even better, if they complete to-dos, they get badges (here are Heather’s), so they can get points, as well as the satisfaction of standing on the right side of justice, for sending your email or signing your petition or making a donation. Hurray!

  • Check-in at events I immediately started to think about rallies and mass mobilizations when I read about this. It has some potential for messaging and crowd-focusing, but not really for turnout. Think about it, when people ‘check-in’ to your protest, for example, they could receive guidance regarding messaging, dynamic logistical information, or other continually evolving communication. If this sounds other-worldly, let me tell you that at the last capitol rally I attended, about half the participants had their smart phones out, taking pictures, Tweeting, and (I know from at least a couple of them) updating their Facebook statuses. Seriously. Obviously, though, because people don’t check-in until they’re already there, FourSquare won’t draw as many people to an event as a tool like Facebook.
  • My favorite FourSquare feature for nonprofit advocacy is the Shout-Out. Basically, you (and all of your advocacy allies) can trumpet nonprofits’ great work everytime you check-in to a venue–a lot of possibility for coalition-building, network-strengthening, and general movement-generation. Think of how helpful it would be to have your advocates giving you virtual praise whenever they come to volunteer, stop by to pick up flyers, or attend a press conference. And how you could generate goodwill with allies by doing the same for them!

    In general, my sense with FourSquare is that it will, at least initially, challenge nonprofit advocates’ ability to bridge real-world and online connections with allies. It will require us to have our most welcoming, inclusive, on-message selves ready not just through our online social networks but also in our storefronts. It will take a new kind of transparency, then, as we open ourselves up in multiple venues to those committed to our same causes. And, therefore, it will bring new potential for deeper relationships with those same advocates. And, avid FourSquare users promise, it will be fun!

  • “But I thought we weren’t experts”? Online Q&A and your organizing

    We’re still in social media mode here, and I’ve spent HOURS exploring Yahoo and Linked In Answers to better understand how their communities use them and come up with some ideas about how they could play a role in your organizing and advocacy work. As always, I’d love to hear what you think!

    I had never used Yahoo! Answers before I read Tamar Weinberg’s The New Community Rules and started to think about how participation in these online question-and-answer forums could be a parallel component of social work advocates and community organizers’ social media strategies.

    I’m not going to argue that this should be your #1 strategy, or even your number #1 online component, but it’s pretty quick and easy to contribute to these forums, trust is built based on the quality of your answers and your transparent participation, and you may find (like I did) that it’s a helpful place to spend some time online, anyway, because you can learn quite a bit from the crowd that hangs out there.

    I was primarily surprised by the number of questions that relate to social policy priorities. On one day, I found questions that social justice advocates could have likely answered regarding (these were all in the politics & government category):

  • Workers’ rights in California
  • Immigration consequences of a juvenile offense
  • The rights of a homeless person to stay on a bus even if the driver complains about the passenger’s odor
  • Termination of parental rights in the state of Michigan
  • An abused wife’s rights to permanent resident over the objections of her ex-husband
  • Eligibility criteria for Medicaid for a family of 2

    There are other categories that could make a lot of sense for you, too, depending on your issue and your organization: Pregnancy and Parenting (Post-Partum Mood Disorders?), Health (a variety of disease-specific advocacy), Environment (conservation, climate change advocates), Family & Relationships (that covers most of social work!), News & Events (especially if your issue is hot on the agenda), and even Home & Garden or Business & Finance (there were some questions related to home financing, saving, and debt that could be relevant for a lot of community development organizations).

    The idea, of course, is to provide high-quality answers to these questions, AND, since we’re organizers and advocates, also to offer people a chance to get involved with campaigns to address the problems their problems reference. So, “the legislature and courts in XYZ state have not positively affirmed the rights of homeless individuals to be present in any place of their choice, but there’s an active campaign to push for ABC legislation to do just that…here’s how you can join.”

    In order to not alienate those who are turning to this forum to look for answers, it’s critical that you actually offer answers (not just, “come to my website to check it out”)–Yahoo Answers users vote on the submitted answers, and those users whose answers have received the most votes are prominently displayed in a bar on the right of the screen (and it would be good to have your profile there!).

    As the title suggests, much of this whole exercise is contrary to the spirit of “do nothing for people that they can’t do for themselves” that characterizes the best organizing. Just “giving people the answers” goes against organizing ideals of helping people to find their own solutions to their problems, although certainly the fact that people are seeking out this online community to find their answers suggests that they are actively seeking knowledge and tools. Still, to keep this from being “organizer as expert”, this is the perfect activity/forum for one or more of your most active volunteer leaders; they may already be using Yahoo Answers for their own purposes, and they can certainly become comfortable with the format and part of the community quite quickly, and then use their expertise in the issues on which you’re working to help others grapple with the same challenges.

    The New Community Rules also recommends Linked In’s question and answer forums, and, while I think that those could be a helpful tool for an organization looking for coalition partners or new employees or maybe even new investors/donors, the questions I found really seemed to center around professional advancement and networking. It would seem harder to authentically connect your advocacy issues in this format.

    If anyone has tried or decides to try this out, I’d love to hear how it goes–how much time does it take for you to develop answers and find relevant questions? How well do your answers rank? Are you able to build connections to the people whose questions you answer? What about submitting your own questions, particularly related to how to frame specific issues or how to structure certain strategies?

    And, um, if you find a question on there about how to entertain a 3.5-year-old for an afternoon so that a work-from-home Mommy can spend hours on Yahoo Answers…it’s totally a coincidence that that avatar looks so much like me.