John McNutt has been researching the intersection of technology and social change for over a decade. His work has followed the evolution of online communities, social work and the Internet, and has come to focus on electronic advocacy and its uses for nonprofits.
The following article gives a grounding in what he sees as the 4 basic processes of electronic advocacy, and delves into the current thinking on best practices and evaluating success.
Non-profit advocacy is an important part of the sector’s contribution to society. Our mission to build a participatory civil society and insure social justice falls firmly to advocates who represent the causes that we hold dear. Practically, non-profit advocates protect our programs, funding and integrity as a sector.
We have well-developed methods to promote our causes, build our communities and defend our organizations. These include lobbying, community organizing, letter writing, public interest research and so forth. While all of these tools have strengths and limitations, we have used them for decades with good effect. We are, however, faced with new realities that demand new tools.
What is Online Advocacy?
One of the more recent developments in non-profit advocacy has been the development of online advocacy techniques. Also called electronic advocacy, Internet Advocacy and Activism Online, these techniques use the Internet and other types of high technology to promote policy change.
This is basically a practice that was developed in the early 1990s and matured as technology and the nature of activism changed. There are many different types of activities that might be considered online advocacy. Excellent overviews are provided by Hick and McNutt (2002), Policy Link Institute (2007), Delany (2006), Davis, Elin and Reeher, (2002) and Dederich, Hausman and Maxwell (2006).
McNutt and Penkaukaus (2000) argue that these activities can be grouped into four interrelated processes: Gathering and Analyzing Information, Educating and Developing Awareness, Organizing and Coordinating Supporters, and Applying Pressure.
Gathering and Analyzing Information: Information is the bedrock of any advocacy program and Internet-based tools make it easier to collect and analyze that information. Functions like issue research and opposition research are now completed much more quickly with the huge range of data sources available online.
Educating and Developing Awareness: Once the information base has been developed, technology can be used to make the public aware of issues and educate people about the problem and what actions they can take.
Organizing and Coordinating Supporters: Organizing any action requires an endless stream of telephone calls, face-to-face encounters and meetings. Technology can make that process easier and ultimately more successful.
Applying Pressure: Electronic advocacy also means contacting decision makers and persuading them to support your positions.
These four functions allow an advocacy campaign to make the best use of technology and move the effort forward. They can happen together or in sequence.
Does it Work?
Evaluating any type of policy advocacy is difficult. It is very hard to say that one action caused the bill to pass, the administrative decision to go in our direction or the proper person was elected (McNutt, 2006). This is a research methodology minefield and the difficulty involved in doing this type of research is one reason that a bigger research base doesn’t exist. This is also true for more traditional social change techniques and at least some of the results from studies of traditional efforts are not completely encouraging.
The research into online efforts that has been done is encouraging. Decision makers report awareness of the Internet as a means of connecting with constituents and they report that they do take the contacts that they receive seriously (Congressional management foundation, 2005; Larsen & Rainie, 2002). There is also evidence that advocates consider these techniques effective (McNutt, 2007).
It is also important to note that changes in the advocacy arena (such as wired legislatures and e-government) coupled with devolution and new policy institutions will make it less advantageous to use traditional policy-change methods. This will cause even the most die hard traditionalists to rethink their approaches.
How Should Nonprofits Respond?
It is important that non-profit organizations that wish to be policy players develop an electronic advocacy capacity. Several ideas to bear in mind include:
- Advocacy is about relationships, not technology. Technology can facilitate those relationships but people are still they key.
- Simple, well maintained tools with adequate training for the staff and volunteers is the key to an effective effort. The newest and greatest might not be what you need.
- Never forget that the critical asset for most advocacy groups is information. A good database or other system to organize the information is crucial.
- Technology works better when an adequate technology plan and budget are in place and there is adequate training and technical support for everyone involved. This is true for advocacy as well as other needs.
- It is important to have a tight relationship between different aspects of your advocacy campaigns. This means that the online and offline components must work together.
- Some organizations are more receptive than others to online advocacy. Getting your organization to adopt electronic techniques requires a carefully planned effort.
Electronic advocacy is part of the new reality for nonprofits. It offers tools to help us reinvent the future of civil society.