Once you’ve identified some basic facts about the issue you’ve encountered and seek to remediate, you should determine what could be the most effective way to resolve it. Some considerations for this stage include:
- Time considerations —environmental issues are by no means problems that can usually be solved overnight, but time is a commodity as much as money so keep efficiency (in cost, time, and focus) in mind as you choose the path forward;
- Capacity to engage and maintain base of advocates —organizing takes time and a lot of relationship building: make sure you and anyone else interested in engaging in political and public pressure has the time to bring new people into the fold and maintain their interest in the cause; and
- Financial resources —formal organizing and team building can cost money to truly be effective. Resolving an environmental issue typically requires organizing and public pressure, as well as at least some financial resources to be most effective. Effective organizing often requires printing of testimony and campaign signs, refreshments for organizing meetings, funds for transportation to decision makers’ offices — all things that require financial investment.
Given these considerations, if you think that organizing is an appropriate strategy for your issue, read on to learn about organizing best practices, methods, and common roadblocks you may encounter.
A. Social Media
Here are some general tips for effectively using social media:
- At a minimum, create a Facebook group (open or closed; a closed group requires an Admin to approve any new members) to organize your members, interested outsiders, and allies; a Facebook group is a great way to facilitate discussion of your issue and any relevant news, as well as to plan, organize, and execute public events. It can also be used to raise money from your supporters and share your mission and message.
- Twitter is useful for commenting on relevant current events; in some cases for raising money and broadening your base of donors; for sharing video content; and for following and engaging with key reporters and members of the media.
- Always try to provide your own original commentary on any news articles you share, or at least include a relevant short quotation that speaks to why your group shared it.
- Try to post or say something once per day, or a handful of posts every week, to keep your followers engaged.
- Closed Facebook groups are easier to manage and can have more candid discussion, but open groups are useful for building large membership.
- In-person events should always have a Facebook event to accompany any other methods to increase attendance.
Social media can also be a tool for political advertising. See Section C for more information on using social media in the context of advertising and effectively portraying your message.
Organizing Without Social Media
|Organizing Without Social MediaWhile social media is a great tool to spread your message, it is not the only way to organize. If you live in a community with limited internet access or your community is not familiar with this method of organizing, you may determine that social media should not be the primary method for community organizing. Instead, you may notice that your community gathers in certain areas, such as churches, P.O. Boxes, or others, that could be places to spread your message. Utilize local contacts and leaders who may already have well-established methods of connecting with community members. You may decide to organize in person meetings, which can allow community members to come together to discuss the issues you are working to address. The Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC) provides a helpful resource with steps and tips on holding a house meeting, which may be accessed here.If you decide to organize without social media, consider partnering with other organizations that are more familiar with using social media to organize. Online platforms are a great way to amplify your message, and can spread your advocacy message to additional members in your own community, as well as to other communities doing similar work.|
B. Basics of political organizing
Organizing people is hard and can take a lot of time, money, and effort. However, when done effectively, organizing can be one of the most powerful and potent tools advocates can deploy to get things done.
a. Identifying and forming your coalition
It can be helpful to use social, political, and demographic characteristics to identify supporters. Not everyone will be on board with your project and it’s likely that many people will not even view the problem the same way you do. Furthermore, keep in mind that time, money, resources, and focus are precious commodities for your organizing efforts. Identifying your “coalition” in a clear, concise, and dynamic way will result in a more targeted, efficient, and precise foray into engaging the public and influencing decision makers.
When organizing your coalition base, consider the ways that your issue impacts various communities and how individuals with various backgrounds may perceive or interact with the issue. For example, advocating for clean up of a particular park, may not resonate with an individual who does not live nearby or does not have access to reliable transportation to visit the park. Additionally, an individual who uses a wheelchair may not be interested in supporting your cause of the park does not include ADA accommodations and a BIPOC individual may not feel safe in the park in part because of the lack of BIPOC staff at the park. However, by thinking about these various groups and how their daily experiences and backgrounds impact their interactions with a park, you may be able to reframe your issue campaign to better reflect the concerns of a broader base of potential advocates, such as making the park cleaner and more accessible for all individuals in that county -cleaning up the soil of the park may be one of multiple demands, including hiring more BIPOC individuals, advocating for a bus route modification ot make it easier for people without vehicles to visit the park, and ensuring all buildings and trails in the park can be accessible by individuals with various disabilities.
So, ask yourself, who is your coalition?
There are many ways to answer this question, and no single method that works best. But, taking a hypothetical example, suppose that a group of advocates want to aid efforts to combat legislation that they believe would undermine trade union membership. In order to reach the right people with the message they want to deliver about the legislation, they need to first identify their coalition and determine who is persuadable, and to what degree supporters might get involved. The advocates would likely want to start with households that have a history of union membership, current members of trade unions, and then work out from there to people who have a looser connection to unions but are likely to support them. Then, they may list out some characteristics that people who support unions tend to exhibit: middle class incomes; people living in certain neighborhoods known to have high union membership, affiliation, or support; any past initiatives or publicly available voting data that would illustrate where your coalition resides; etc. Don’t let social, political, and demographic characteristics limit the audiences that you try to reach, either. Recognizing intersectionalities of social, environmental, political, racial, and economic issues will help you build diverse coalitions of support. If you can recognize the economic and environmental intersectionalities of a residential solar rebate program, for example, then you could form a strong, bipartisan support base of utility companies, low-income homeowners, and solar installers.
This is not a strictly empirical process. If you have started organizing events to educate the public about your issue, you can look back and analyze the characteristics of the people who showed up. Did your event attract a lot of women, or men? Of what age, generally, were your attendees? Also consider whether the way in which you advertised for your event affected who turned out for it. If you only submitted an op-ed in the small local newspaper, for example, you likely didn’t reach a broad section of the public. Conversely, if you only formed a Facebook group and asked your followers to share your information, you may have missed anyone not on Facebook and may have not gotten a precise idea of where your attendees live and how they came to be connected to you.
Bottom line: the process of identifying your coalition can, and probably should, take some time. It is an evolving process and most likely is not a static or completely predictable list. Try thinking about who might support your cause or empathize with your goals in terms of personal/demographic characteristics, past advocacy or political activity, and geographic location.
Then, determine how your group can best reach prospective members of your coalition. You are recruiting people and asking them to not only join a cause they may have just heard of for the first time, but also to give of their personal time and money (most likely) so remember that this is a time for persuasion, for passion, for dialogue, and for enticement.
There are likely common motivations that would bind together members of your coalition and any prospective members of your group, but try tailoring your pitch in the early stages to new people you would like to join your group with a reason that you suspect, know, or believe through research that they will likely identify with.
For example, some folks might be persuaded to join the effort simply because they perceive that your group is well-organized, looks good, or seems strong; in short, keep in mind that everybody wants to win and that this is not always a base instinct. You probably want to win, and to make change. As a lead organizer, your job is to build the strongest grassroots organization you possibly can, one that fits to the goals laid out beforehand, and that will be able to effectively apply pressure when mobilized. Including people in your group who have diverse motivations for being involved will probably result in a stronger effort.
b. Organizing your organizers
During the process of organizing and recruiting volunteers, if you intend to recruit, train, and mobilize a larger number of volunteers, or if it becomes apparent that the organizing process is too much for the main leaders of an organization to handle themselves, it may be time to organize your organizing.
Consider delegating responsibilities to your most motivated and reliable volunteers and making them “captains” or volunteer team leaders. One logical way to do this is to assign a captain to a specific region and any volunteers who live within this region can be managed directly by those captains. That allows for one relatable basis for your organizers and the volunteers they will interact with to form a relationship or bond over. It also could make the most sense to use geography and location if volunteer activities take place in different regions or in areas not very close to each other.
It might also make sense to either hire or allow a volunteer with organizing experience and time to serve as a volunteer director or coordinator. That way, there is a more centralized structure for captains and volunteers to channel concerns and questions as your group picks up steam.
Finally, having a few paid staffers or volunteers who receive some form of compensation can help make sure actions are taken and time-sensitive work is completed. Many organizations won’t need this, but it can be helpful for some.
c. Mobilizing your volunteers
When it is time to begin activating volunteers, be strategic about your asks for action (to avoid burnout). Targeted, specific activities are better than anything that could be perceived as “make-work” or without a well-defined purpose.
The following are some tips for getting the most out of your volunteers:
- Be specific about how volunteers and prospective volunteers can help by explaining how particular forms of action make an impact;
- Make volunteering as convenient as possible; for example, try to avoid seeming inflexible by:
- Offering a broad range of activities volunteers can engage in;
- Allowing variable times for people to help and avoid asking only for volunteering very early in the morning or late at night;
- Not requiring volunteers to spend a lot of their own time or money or give up entire weekends for very little personal reward…generally, people want to help but are not altruistic robots.
- Try to make volunteering as fun and rewarding as possible, by:
- Helping volunteers learn new skills;
- Empowering them to build their own schedules to take action;
- Soliciting feedback and opinions for future action;
- Providing food, drinks, and transportation when feasible; and
- Keeping everything upbeat, optimistic, fun, and focused on the mission/impact.
C. Political Advertising
When considering whether or how to promote your message in the political sphere, think through the following basic steps to determine the type of message that you think would be most effective, whether formalizing your group as a nonprofit is necessary, and the parameters of your advertising.
Step 1: Issues or political advocacy?
- Political advocacy
- Speech—including financial expenditures—that “expressly calls for the election or defeat of a candidate for public office” is electoral/political advocacy.
- 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations are prohibited from engaging in electoral advocacy of any kind. But if you believe the problem your group aims to solve would be best served by engaging in political activity, then you have two other options:
- Form a 501(c)(4) organization. For activities like extensive lobbying, running ads about candidates or issues in an election cycle, or influencing the political dynamic around your issue, form a 501(c)(4) organization. (See below)
- Consider something other than nonprofit status, like a 527 Political Action Committee (PAC). This is a good option if you are interested in supporting candidates for office directly with financial donations. If you are interested in this type of political advocacy, you may want to hire professional political consultants to talk through how this would work, and most likely you would need to form what is known as a “527 political action” group, referring to section 527 of IRS Code. PACs donate directly to candidates with certain limitations established by the Federal Election Committee (FEC).
- 501(c)(4) nonprofits can engage in limited political activity—social welfare organizations can legally participate in political activity in support of or opposition to candidates for office; can engage in unlimited lobbying as long as the lobbying activity is “related to its tax-exempt purpose.”
- Limitations on 501(c)(4) political activity:
- Cannot donate money directly to candidates
- Political campaign activity must advance the organization’s social welfare purpose (for example, an organization formed to advance a solution to an environmental problem could support political candidates who agree with its positions or proposed solutions)
- Political activity may not be a social welfare organization’s primary activity (generally thought to be less than half of activity or resources, but this is not a clear area of law)
- Issues advocacy
- Expressing a viewpoint on an issue that may be relevant in a political context or campaign.
- Can 501(c)(3) organizations spend money to advocate for issues? Yes, but they cannot be political activities, so 501(c)(3) organizations should always avoid talking about an election, candidates, or votes. These ads should focus on the problem, and if there is a legislative solution it can train attention on the legislation and not on the legislators.
- Voter registration and “Get out the Vote” activities
Activities “intended to encourage people to participate in the electoral process, such as voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives, are not prohibited political campaign activity” for 501(c)(3) organizations if conducted in a non-partisan manner.
Step 2: Form a new group or partner with an existing group? Is fiscal sponsorship right for you?
- Many larger groups look for opportunities to form partnerships with smaller community groups to take up their cause as part of their mission or even just to provide grants and seed funding to support advocates and help with the needs that a formal organization would require. Existing non-profits can often serve as a fiscal sponsor for smaller groups or short-term campaigns by offering their 501(c)(3) status to collect and spend funds. Groups acting as fiscal sponsors often charge a percentage of the funds collected to cover their administrative costs, which can include staff time and expenses associated with insurance, audits, and other costs associated with running the umbrella organization.
- If you’ve discovered a unique problem or would like to have more control over how your issue is addressed or how your community is involved, then a new organization might be the right move. Keep in mind that there are many costs associated with starting a new non-profit from the filing and organization fees to the infrastructure costs of maintaining an office and staff, if you have them. There are regularly reporting and filing requirements for organized non-profits so it is important to consider all of these aspects before deciding whether to start a new group or partner with an existing one.
Step 2a: Decide what kind of tax-exempt organization to form:
- 501(c)(3) charitable organization
- Pros: donations are tax-deductible; credibility as a charitable group with a charitable mission is easier to establish;
- Cons: significant limitations on political activity—can lobby, but only for a very small percentage of staff time or resources; cannot engage in political issue advertising.
- 501(c)(4) ‘social welfare’ organization
- Pros: can engage in issues advocacy and political activity (excluding express electoral advocacy) up to 49% of total activity, or any amount of time and resources that does not constitute a “primary purpose” (this is not clearly defined in IRS Code or regulations, and thus is completely open to interpretation); are not required to disclose the name and address of any contributor to the organization (could also be classified as a con, depending on your org’s position on this issue and on disclosure/transparency);
- Cons: donations are NOT tax-deductible; “social welfare” is not a well-defined term, and so any core mission must be clearly defined for credibility; new social welfare groups pop up often, and many are not legitimate for their stated purposes, which can make fundraising and a media strategy more difficult at first.
Step 3: Where, When, and How to launch political and/or issue-oriented ads
Facebook is the hub for most political advertising, especially issue-oriented ads. Once your page is set up and Facebook has verified your nonprofit status (either charitable or social welfare, c3 or c4), you can boost posts to a targeted audience; develop and manage ads through Facebook’s Ad Center; and dive into the analytics of your advertising. Facebook also has an extensive database of political ads that can be explored for creative inspiration or to see what other groups are saying and how they package their ads.
Instagram is a useful tool to illustrate your mission, organize people, and drive engagement; while Instagram has limited fundraising tools, ads on Instagram can in some cases be successful and help drive traffic to your website or whatever platform you are using to collect donations. Twitter is the same way, although it is much easier to include links directly on tweets/posts on Twitter than it is on Instagram. Politically savvy audiences are more responsive to issue advertising and viewing environmental problems as a political (not necessarily partisan) issue on Twitter than on Instagram.
Other platforms like TikTok or Snapchat may be useful for engagement and youth participation in understanding your group’s issue/mission, but are untested in terms of fundraising capabilities. They may also be useful for organizing; most nonprofits stick with using Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter in general so you could in fact be a trailblazer if your group can strategically utilize social media platforms like TikTok, Snapchat, and others.
(*Note on TikTok: there has been an uptick of interest and creative use of TikTok videos to promote political messages. The conventional wisdom of who uses such newer platforms and how is likely wrong, and the consensus could be shifting. For example, if you know of some audio that is relevant to your environmental issue, like say someone speaking at a press conference or legislative meeting, you might think “we can creatively and interestingly spread the message about this event with a TikTok video.” If you have the time, bandwidth, and creative approach to pull this off, by all means do it.)
The decision of where to run your ads, that is in either print or digital sources, and on what platforms or publications, depends largely on the objectives you set for your advertising. Other factors that would influence such decisions include demographics—the age, race/ethnicity, or occupation of your intended audience—cost, and the design of your ad (for instance, does it have a lot of color? Is it interactive? Is it mostly text or graphic?).
Some sources of advertising:
- Targeted display ads and videos on Facebook
- Display ads through Google
- Video ads on YouTube
- Taking an ad out in a print newspaper
- Display ads on print media websites
Issue-oriented ads can be timed to best benefit your organization’s internal goals, since issues advertising done by charitable nonprofits is by definition not electoral advocacy.
For social welfare organizations, issues ads as well as any political advertising should probably be attuned to the campaign election cycle.
D. Raising Money
Political engagement, lobbying (for c3 or c4 nonprofit organizations), paid outreach to targeted members of the public, organizing volunteers, and generally “getting the word out” about your organization will likely cost money. In most cases, these needs will require raising money from diverse sources.
Why raise money or start a formal group?
- Go Fund Me (can be set up for free)
- Blackbaud/eTapestry (generally requires a contract and is somewhat expensive)
Payment processors for small nonprofit enterprises
- Include logo/brand design in header
- Craft a pithy, relatively short title that goes to the heart of the release; position the title in slightly larger font centered at the top
- Aim for one page in length, if possible
- Include contact information for your organization either at the top above the title or beneath the body of the press release
- Send press releases to journalists who cover environmental issues or a specific beat that includes your issue; if this can’t be found, most publications have a general news desk contact
- If possible, follow up with recipients with a phone call or email to confirm that the advisory or release was received
Be sure to provide resources for more research and more information about your group (such as a website with a mission statement, the name of a Facebook group that can be accessed by a reporter, etc.) somewhere on your press release or media advisory.
Compliance & reporting
- With money comes accountability and reporting: be sure to learn about the rules of your particular jurisdiction surrounding reporting fundraising. The IRS has its own set of rules that should be given heed; don’t risk missing deadlines just because you didn’t do the research.
- Be aware of donations that seem suspicious or might even be illegal. This largely depends on what kind of organization you form.
- Many philanthropic donors care about issues but also very much want to receive the tax deductions associated with giving to a 501(c)(3) charity. You will need to keep good records of these transactions and may need to provide donors with receipts.
E. Spending Money
Before deciding to raise money and going through the required processes to comply with IRS law, advocates should ensure that they have a solid plan for spending that money—why, how, and again making sure to comply with applicable state and federal laws and regulations.
Why spend money?
- Paid media, or the ability to put your own money and investment behind a controlled message, is a helpful way to maintain some ownership and control over how your group or your issue is being talked about.
- Relying on “earned media”—a news story about your group that you do not pay for, something that the media or any other public outlet considers ‘newsworthy’—to promote your message is a gamble. Advocates cannot always control the message, quotations, or the purpose of the story. Earned media can be good, but when your message is time-sensitive or needs to get to a specific audience, it is likely better to be able to spend a little money to get it where it needs to be.
Gauging impact, or “return on investment” (ROI)
- For many paid ads, particularly on social media, data and analytics are readily available to help gauge impact and guide future advertising decisions.
- For some types of advertising, it might not be as possible to make a quantitative assessment of success; your return on investment might be more accurately gauged by informal measures of success like whether new audiences have seen and understand your mission, increased interest in your issue and/or new volunteer activity, etc.
- Value is a better measure of ROI than simple cost. If you know that your audience faithfully reads a weekly community paper, it might be worth your while to place an ad there, even though it would cost more than a Google display ad or a Facebook ad.
- Try to make sure that viewers of your advertisements are able to perform some action—include a “call to action” that can be easily taken, or a method for interested people to obtain more information and supply their contact info. This can be another way to gauge ROI—if your website gets more hits, you receive more submissions of interest or offers to volunteer, or your phone rings more with general inquiries, that could be a measure of success for your ad spending.
F. Understanding Political Campaigns
Possessing a general understanding of politics, and specifically campaigns, is a valuable asset for building public pressure to make progress on your organization’s core issue(s). Understanding the dynamics of the election cycle will better equip you to engage with elected members of the Legislature in the halls of the Capitol; mobilize your supporters to ask questions of current elected officials and candidates, attend public political and campaign events with a strategic purpose, and to know how to talk to people integrally involved in an inherently political system.
What motivates candidates
For advocates thinking about how to play a part in political campaigns (to the extent allowed by law and their particular tax-exempt status), gaining a deeper understanding of what motivates candidates and the relationship between the candidate/elected as a person and as a public figure should be a priority.
The following is a brief overview of some key characteristics of what motivates candidates in political races:
- Fundraising is viewed by the media, by donors, and by political commentators as a sign of strength or weakness; money, and “cash on hand,” also usually means the difference between winning or losing in closely contested races.
- Candidates care about money, but typically not at the expense of their core beliefs and values. It is a myth that most candidates or politicians (most often used as a pejorative) care only about money. Successful candidates know that raising money is how they promote their message, gain name recognition, demonstrate strength and viability (the ability to persuade and turnout voters to win an election in their favor), and defend themselves from attacks from the opposition.
- Name recognition (also referred to as “name ID”)
- Many voters cast ballots having no idea who they are voting for in races other than the President or a higher profile race like the U.S. Senate. So-called “low information” voters traditionally rely heavily on whether or not they have heard a candidate’s name before. If they haven’t, often many voters reflexively vote for an incumbent (who they’ve probably heard of) or simply don’t vote at all.
- Media exposure
- Reaching voters
- Championing a cause or being known as a champion for a particular cause or an influential group
- Many politicians will engage with groups, either something basic like taking a meeting, filling out a questionnaire about their positions or thoughts on a particular community issue, or attending an organization’s events. However, the extra support that could make an elected official or candidate a true ally may need some political or campaign benefit. In some cases, this could be allowing that political figure the ability to be seen as a champion for the cause or for the issue.
- Ability to speak or be recognized at a well-attended public event
- Drawing a contrast between themselves and their opponent
- Staying largely in line with their political base
- Or, at least, not upsetting their base; sustaining enthusiasm among a candidate’s political base to vote for them is an important concern in any election.
Know who you are dealing with: Some types of candidates and politicians
- Novices (first-time candidates, candidates with minimal campaign experience)
- “Also-rans” (not their first race, but may or may not have won a race at some level)
- Seasoned veterans (have likely won a race at some level before, may or may not be incumbents now, and generally know the ropes)
- Incumbents (proven winners, and have different stakes and equities than challengers and first-time candidates)
- Experts (most likely incumbents or incumbents seeking “higher” office)
- Challengers (could be any of the above categories, but do not currently hold the office they are seeking)
Political footballs and campaign “promises”
It is generally smart to be cautious around issues or processes that are widely considered by political actors and commentators as intractable, or so hyper-polarized that action on them is extremely unlikely. One of these more sensitive types of situations usually involves appropriations, budgets, and government spending. Another type could involve hotly contested polarizing issues like abortion, funding for social welfare programs, or the role of religion in society. Environmental problems probably wouldn’t touch any of these issues, but the parallel is important to make in the environmental advocacy context. Many conservatives consider climate change and the climate crisis as partisan or polarizing as abortion. Advocates should be aware of who they are speaking with, how ideological the elected or candidate might be, and whether their issue could be caught up in a political football, of sorts, in which no one ultimately wants to handle “the ball” or seeking a solution is kicked to the sidelines to be dealt with some other time.
Additionally, promises are cheap—if a politician thinks that they can make a promise and reap an electoral benefit, they will want to make them. Keeping candidates and elected officials accountable on their promises requires the ability to communicate about that promise, about the expected action or position they promised to take, and what actually happened. This is one reason why being able to engage more politically in the campaign process, but also in the legislative process, is crucial for so many groups. Putting money behind some form of public communication about a promise made or broken from a candidate or elected official is one way to deliver on keeping politicians accountable. If a politician thinks that a group has real money to dedicate to campaign cycle communications to their voters or constituents, they will be much more likely to either not make a hard promise to begin with or to follow through on the action they promised to take. Things happen, and politics and campaigns are complicated, so a promise made or broken is not always nefarious; but accountability is important regardless of intent or motivation. A functioning, strong, democratic political system turns on accountability.
Town halls can be an effective way to reach both voters and the general public; to inform and educate people on the issues, but also on where political candidates stand; and to organize public participation around the important and complex ways in which an issue is affected by the political process.
Town halls are frequently hosted and conducted by nonpartisan charitable organizations, like the League of Women Voters (which is a nonpartisan 501(c)(3) organization). So long as candidates of both parties are invited, and that the organization does not express a viewpoint about any of the candidates in the race, this would likely be considered as educational or as promoting civic engagement.
Town halls focused on one type of issue, or on a singular problem, can be most effective at bringing attention to the community’s needs and your organization’s goals.