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Why you need a strong offline advocacy volunteer program even when you have a great digital program

People always find it ironic when I – the “digital guy” – profess the need for an organization to resource a strong offline volunteer program.

Have the days of digital impact ended? Definitely not. Driving digital actions through congressional web forms and phone calls are an important aspect of a legislative advocacy program. But, to create true political power, digital grassroots activation needs to be a component of your advocacy program, not the entire thing.

Rampant gerrymandering by both parties over the past 20 years has dramatically reduced the impact of this type of mass constituent pressure in a legislative campaign. Quite simply, most state and federal lawmakers are no longer worried about losing an election.

But, lawmakers still care very much about their reputation and relationships “back home” in the district. This is the pressure point to be leveraged by a strong offline volunteer program.

Politics is the ultimate relationship business. What’s unique is that the ability to influence a lawmaker isn’t reserved exclusively for high-dollar donors or corporate executives. It could be a member of the lawmaker’s church, a college friend or a golfing buddy.

It could also be a well-trained volunteer who can speak to your issues, lives in the district and is committed to building an ongoing relationship with the elected official and their staff.

When I led digital advocacy engagement for the American Cancer Society, we invested deeply in recruiting, training and cultivating these types of volunteers. And the results were dramatic. In many cases, when our volunteer walked into their lawmaker’s office, the meeting began with the lawmaker saying, “Good afternoon, Betty. What cancer-fighting legislation am I going to agree to cosponsor today?”

Betty wasn’t a big donor or the CEO of a major employer. She was a committed and trained volunteer who had spent several years building this relationship. And she was backed by hundreds of people in the district who had already sent messages to the lawmaker echoing her same ask.

This is how the most influential nonprofit organizations get bills passed and achieve the societal change that advances their mission. Yes, they might have big email lists, but it’s their lesser-known offline volunteer program that truly differentiates them from other organizations.


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