How the Parkland Students are Changing the Rules for Advocacy Nonprofits

March 28, 2018 Colin Delany

In the nonprofit advocacy world, we’re used to having to fire people up. We send out action alerts, blog passionately, share petitions on Facebook and upload videos highlighting the stakes involved in our various policy fights, all intended to spark people to take action. What happens when the shoe is on the other foot?

After the Parkland shooting, students didn’t wait for professional advocates to step in: they began talking to reporters immediately (one courageous student covered the shooting as he hid in a school closet) and were soon planning media appearances about changing gun laws. As the idea of a school walkout and the March for our Lives took shape, advocacy organizations like Everytown for Gun Safety offered to help with logistics and planning, but the students themselves still led the work.

This dynamic may be foreign to advocates more accustomed to leading the charge, but it’s one I think we’ll see much more of in the years to come. Digital tools give all of us the power to organize campaigns on short notice all we need is time and passion. From Facebook to the phones in all of our hands, technology lets a small, committed group of people punch far above their weight. On the internet, no one knows you’re a dog  –  or that your highly effective advocacy campaign is run by teenagers.

Of course, Parkland isn’t the only example of this new reality. From Tea Party ralliers to Women’s March participants, “non-professional” advocates are shaping broader conversations in our country in ways never before possible. Indivisible, a new progressive advocacy organization, started its work by creating a toolkit for individual grassroots advocates to create thousands of local chapters dedicated to changing politics in their communities and across the U.S., so that these emerging advocates wouldn’t have to reinvent the mechanics of political advocacy anew. A unique political machine has risen, and it won’t be the last.

How Can Advocacy Organizations Embrace a New Kind of Advocacy Campaign?

First, with humility: professional advocates must avoid the temptation to just move in and take over. Let the grassroots be grassroots! Advocacy organizations can and should help when they can, but don’t try to cover genuine shoots of green with a carpet of astroturf. How can nonprofits provide resources and expertise to citizen activists without getting in the way?

Many of the same principles behind rapid response communications apply to this situation, too. Grassroots campaigns can now spring up without warning, usually prompted by some dramatic development in the larger culture (see: the 2016 election). The key is to have the tools, information and relationships ready in advance, so that you don’t have to scramble to be relevant in the moment. For example:

  • Build a library of content related to your issues. From policy language to video how-to’s, your organization should prepare content before you need it. If you have the photos, stories, testimonials, memes, infographics, white papers and more ready when the moment strikes, you can help activists arm themselves with the materials they need to persuade decisionmakers — and the public.
  • Build relationships with coalition partners, journalists, high-profile activists, opinion leaders and other potential allies or conduits for messaging. You CAN create them on the fly, but they usually take time to nurture. The best time to build a relationship with an influencer? Before you urgently need that person’s help. If you’re connected to the right people, you can help citizen activists amplify their work and reach a larger audience.
  • When it makes sense, provide the tools. Anyone can use Facebook, but most grassroots activists won’t know how to optimize their Facebook outreach to connect with their audience as effectively as they can. In cases like that, professional advocates can offer advice based on their own experience and on best practices widely known in the nonprofit world. Organizations can set up action alerts, create petitions and provide online toolkits to help advocates turn their passion into political pressure. Don’t reinvent the wheel, of course! If a publicly available platform will suffice, don’t put your scarce resources into creating it from scratch.

One of the great strengths of professional advocacy organizations is their ability to be persistent: most nonprofits are in it for the long haul. By contrast, many of these new, citizen-driven movements will prove to be ephemeral, but that’s okay: like Occupy, their influence on the political culture can outlast their formal existence. Individual activists may move on, but organizations can keep the flame alive while a new cohort of advocates find their footing.

Perhaps the greatest challenge for nonprofits adapting to citizen-driven activism is cultural: we’re used to running things, and surrendering control to the grassroots won’t come naturally to many professional advocates. Nor will it make sense all the time – in many cases, we’ll still need to keep stoking the fires just as we do now. I suspect that the most successful campaigns will find a balance, combining the passion of citizen activists with the experience and resources of professional advocates.  But finding that balance will take new skills, mindsets and partnership on the part of professional advocacy organizations – are we ready for the challenge?

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