Organizing and Outreach
In grassroots activism, it's critical both to "gather the troops" and to keep them rallied. If you are active in animal advocacy in your community, chances are you're not alone. You may be part of a loosely-defined network or a thoroughly-established local group. Either way, once you have gathered a group of concerned, committed individuals, you must find ways to make it simple for people to take action, and to stay involved with the cause.
Using effective communication tools and developing partnership with other local groups are also helpful in furthering animal protection at the grassroots level. Below are some tips on creating effective, dynamic community groups and coalitions.
Communication tools such as the telephone, the Internet, and email can make networking a breeze for community-based groups, and can improve the efficacy of animal protection campaigns.
Perhaps the single most important step an activist network can take to prepare itself for a campaign is to create a phone tree. Sometimes, all it takes is just a dozen phone calls or a handful of letters to change policies for animals.
What Is a Phone Tree? A phone tree is a network of individuals who agree to make a couple of phone calls, usually one to an elected official, and one or two more to others on the phone tree. Phone trees can also be used to alert activists about urgent issues, such as legislation moving to a vote, a public hearing on an animal protection issue, or a protest against a circus performing in town.
There are different ways to construct a phone tree. Usually, one person is designated the tree coordinator, while everyone involved in the issue identifies and recruits potential phone tree participants. People who have expressed an interest in an issue but who don't have time for regular meetings are often happy to be part of a phone tree.
Typically, when a phone tree is utilized, the coordinator contacts one or more activists in the network and conveys information about the action that needs to be taken (for example, "Please call Senator Rodriguez and urge her to support the bill that would ban canned hunts. After you place your call to the Senator, be sure to call the next two members of the phone tree"). Each activist calls others until everyone in the network has been reached. The last contacts on the phone tree then report back to the coordinator to ensure he or she knows the process has been completed. This "loopback" mechanism is important, as is regular updating of contacts in the tree. If a phone tree is missing "branches," you may have the illusion that action is being taken when, in fact, your message is not getting out.
Make telephone work fun. Instead of calling it a "phone tree," you might consider naming your network of callers the Animal Rapid Response Team or Animal Action Network.
Keeping Informed: Make it easy for phone tree participants to keep up to date with issues. The more information you can provide the people on your phone tree on national, regional, state, or local issues, the better informed and more confident your callers will be when it is time to get phones ringing.
Encourage callers to log onto a website, such as Born Free USA's (www.bornfreeusa.org), that contains information about particular animal issues. Another useful source of information for grassroots networks are the Action Alerts put out by our Action Alert Team. Individuals can join the Action Alert Team online, or by calling our office.
Keeping It Simple: When calling legislators, keep your message simple (for example, "Please oppose reinstating bear hunting in New Jersey"). Lawmakers' offices will tally these calls, just as they do letters, as either "pro" or "con" on an issue. Check with your congressional delegation or state legislators to see if they have district offices in your area or a toll-free number. Both of these options can save your callers money.
Get the Word Out: Don't forget to thank your callers whenever appropriate. If possible, use the phone tree to alert your callers to the outcome of an issue; they'll appreciate knowing that their work paid off. Don't overuse your phone tree, but don't let your callers get rusty either. Using the network once or twice per month is a good average.
The telephone is a well-established, speedy tool for getting messages out. Many volunteers find it easier to make a phone call and voice their opinion than to write and mail a letter.
Used properly, email and websites can be powerful tools for outreach and advocacy. With a few simple keystrokes, you reach thousands of people, almost instantaneously. Virtually all of the written materials that your local group produces can be adapted for electronic distribution via email and/or a website.
When planning to develop an online presence or an electronic networking strategy, here are some important issues to consider:
- Start with a clear understanding of what you want to accomplish and whom you want to reach. Is your constituency online? If not, are you trying to expand your base of support?
- Make sure you have the resources to maintain an online presence, and determine who will be responsible for answering email. Once you create a website or launch an email newsletter or discussion list, who will manage it?
- Collect email addresses from your members, supporters and volunteers, the media, your contacts in lawmakers' offices, your donors, and anyone else with whom you communicate regularly. Include a space for email addresses in your membership sign-up forms, newsletter subscription forms, and fundraising reply cards.
- If your community group has a website where visitors can sign up to volunteer, to subscribe to a newsletter or action alert, or to donate money, be sure to ask for an email address as well as other contact information.
- If your group has a table at a conference, rally, or other event, include space for an email address on your sign-up sheet.
- Use email to communicate with media and with staff consultants in legislative offices.
- Establish and promote an email list. These lists, which can be created on software or via websites, allow you to send an email to a large number of individuals and to maintain an email contact database. Email lists can be used to alert grassroots activists about meetings, to distribute action alerts, or to host discussions.
Preparing Effective Email Alerts: Before the Internet was widely used, activists and advocacy organizations distributed action alerts by mail and fax. Preparing an email action alert is a similar process. But since email has the potential to reach a significantly larger audience, there are some special considerations. Here's a simple checklist to use when preparing action alerts for electronic distribution:
- Keep the text short and focused. It may be tempting to provide a detailed analysis, but if your goal is to motivate people to action, get right to the point.
- Write a subject line that's compelling or provocative.
- Keep in mind that the subject line is the first thing the recipient will see. The more compelling you make it, the more likely it is that the message is going to be read.
- Identify yourself. Remember to include all your contact information: phone, address, fax, email, URL if you have a website. You'll have far more credibility — and will probably get better results — if you clearly identify yourself, your group, and your cause.
- Include contact information for decision-makers. You'll get better results if you include the telephone, fax, and postal address of the decision-makers you are asking people to contact. Research indicates that emailed messages to corporations and public officials are less effective than other forms of communication. Whenever possible, urge activists to mail a letter or send a fax instead of or in addition to email.
- Compile and maintain a list of the newsgroups and email lists you post to. Once you've identified the best places to post your alerts, keep the addresses on hand for future use. If your email allows you to set up individual mailboxes, create one for these addresses so you can send them in a single message. (Use the "Bcc" field if mailing to multiple addresses, to protect recipients' privacy.)
- Send a test message before sending out alerts. Always send a copy of the alert to yourself or to a colleague before distributing it. Check the format to make sure there are no broken lines or other problems. Check any URLs that you include in the alert to make sure they work properly.
- Many websites offer detailed technical information about effective use of the Internet. A particularly useful resource is "The Virtual Activist 2.0," an online guide produced by NetAction (www.netaction.org).