The Role of Communications Technology in Advocacy

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To stay competitive in the fast-moving Information Age, nonprofit advocacy organizations need to redefine and improve their relationships with their existing and potential constituents. Organizations that don’t adapt are becoming marginalized–their voices drowned out in the noise of well-funded competing interests vying for human attention. What makes the Internet so revolutionary is that it enables individuals to get information about issues that concern them and to communicate with organizations that interest them, whenever and however they choose. For mass media and membership groups alike, the Internet creates the prospect of disintermediation–the elimination of mediating institutions of all kinds that stand between individuals and information. For individual activists and nimble organizations, the Internet offers the opportunity for interactivity–instant interchanges between interested people with concerns and groups with information. This is a radically empowering shift.

The potential river of support hasn’t yet been fully harnessed by the nonprofit community. Engaging this existing and latent support is the challenge and the opportunity before us.

Sixty million acres is a lot of wild forest. That’s just how much the Clinton Administration is on the verge of protecting, thanks to the efforts of numerous environmental organizations. The Technology Project, working in conjunction with a part of a collaborative on- and offline campaign, launched an innovative Internet Campaign to make sure the Clinton Administration heard from the public on this one. Through a judicious combination of donated and paid advertising, the online campaign materials have been seen by over 20 million Americans. Through this online outreach effort, the Technology Project recruited 300,000 new e-activists who have sent over 450,000 messages to the Clinton Administration and other Federal officials. In October 1999, thanks in part to this grassroots pressure, President Clinton directed the US Forest Service to develop a policy to protect roadless areas in our National Forests.

In April 1998, Environmental Defense launched the highly successful Scorecard site. The easy-to-use site asks for your zip code and then provides you with federal data about the toxic pollution in your neighborhood. The Scorecard project’s flagship Web site has a domain name distinct from that of Environmental Defense, its parent organization. The site is a valuable resource both for educating the public and for giving local community groups easy access to data that they can then use in local organizing campaigns. The site has been incredibly successful, with tens of millions of visitors over the past few years.

Holly Ross, an Internet organizer for the Technology Project in Philadelphia, spearheads the campaign for more fuel efficient, lower emissions, and cleanly produced vehicles at GreenCar.org. Most recently, the campaign decided it was time to turn the “gas crisis” into a golden opportunity for GreenCar.org. Holly crafted a press release with a unique hook: Anyone logging onto the site can send e-mails to Ford, DaimlerChrysler, and General Motors, and tell the companies of their outrage over American dependence on oil–and the more acute problem of having to pay more than $1.50 for a gallon of gas. The result was an overnight success. The story ran on ABC radio, National Public Radio News Service, MSNBC, ABC News Online, and was picked up by Reuters. The campaign generated over 6,500 comments in just a few days.

In the fall of 1998, Joan Blades and Wes Boyd, husband-and-wife software developers, decided to use the Internet to protest the congressional impeachment process. The campaign website provided a focal point where individuals could sign the petition. Campaign supporters were asked to e-mail their friends and family and invite them to the site as well. This “tell-a-friend” communication proved so effective that, with no real paid advertising, the petition gathered over 500,000 signers in just a few weeks. Using that e-mail list as an initial organizing base, the campaign has been able to generate thousands of phone calls to Congress, hold 220 simultaneous district meetings to deliver the petitions, and raise $250,000 in five days.

Although Internet marketing is still in its infancy, Internet organizing and related uses of traditional media clearly hold tremendous potential for channeling the public’s concern about nonprofit causes. With their speed, low cost, and wide reach, such campaigns are an important new tool for leveling the playing field between nonprofit public-interest groups and the corporate and government institutions they seek to reform. They are already having a major impact on a wide range of issues. Such successful campaigns show how collateral media strategies can be used to promote sophisticated Web sites that engage the general public and lead them into effective political action.

Sarah DiJulio directs the emediacy program for the Technology Project. The emediacy Program is an online organizing and citizen engagement program and facilitates Internet campaigns ranging from forest protection to human rights in China.