At a time when we are all casting our eyes on different parts of the world to learn what's happening with the human rights, the economy, natural disasters and foreign aid, I decided to sit down with Michael Whybrew, Director of Development for the International Campaign for Tibet, to learn more about what his organization does and a few keys tactics it implements to further its mission - both online and offline.
Share with us a little about the mission of The International Campaign for Tibet and how your organization is involved with international human rights issues.
ICT’s primary mission is to promote human rights and democratic freedoms for the people of Tibet. That work is expressed through a broad range of activities, such as monitoring and reporting on human rights, environmental and socio-economic conditions inside Tibet; advocating for Tibetans imprisoned for their political or religious beliefs; and securing humanitarian and development assistance for Tibetans. ICT also helps promote self-determination for the Tibetan people by supporting the negotiation process between the Dalai Lama and Chinese government
What projects are you currently working on (or have you worked on in the past) to support or advocate for your cause? Tell us a little about the International Campaign for Tibet’s goal(s) here and possible plans and projects we may see from you in the future.
So much of what we do is dependent on the larger context of world events and international politics. The current situation inside Tibet has put the next round of talks between the Tibetan Government-in-Exile and Beijing on much more of a fast track then we were anticipating earlier this year. We are also deliberately leveraging the heightened awareness of the Tibetan issue (and the larger human rights issues within China) between now and the Olympics to keep the pressure on China and world governments that are supportive of what the Dalai Lama is trying to accomplish.
Last year was in many respects a year of celebration after many years of hard work. ICT and our many supporters were key in getting the U.S. Congress to award the Congressional Gold Medal to His Holiness last October. Equally as important was the fact that President Bush made the award. It was the first time a U.S. President appeared with the Dalai Lama in an official, public setting. It was a very powerful gesture of support for the cause as well as a strong message to China.
What is your organization doing online to communicate, market or advocate to your constituents? And what specific tactics and/or tools have you used to help with these online efforts?
What we have been doing until very recently is what I’d characterize as very “strategic and practical” communications with our constituents . . . primarily because we are a small organization and staff are almost always wearing multiple hats. Of course, we promote our Web site wherever and whenever we can and encourage people to sign up for our email list. ICT generates a lot of original news and reporting content and that is a big draw for frequent visitors to our site.
Our email communications have tended to be very focused on specific advocacy actions we really need our supporters to take (e.g., sign a petition, contact their congressional representatives) or to publicize ICT events. From a fundraising perspective, we’ve had the most experience and success with email appeals tied to very concrete, immediate needs with a looming deadline. For example, we were in a position last fall where we suddenly needed to raise an unexpected $200,000 to cover the expense of staging a Tibetan cultural celebration on the west lawn of the Capitol. The venue also provided a large, video projection screen and audio so people could watch the Gold Medal ceremony remotely. We were able to raise almost half of our goal online and we started with only about three weeks to go before the event. I think all of us were surprised at the results. Thankfully, this allowed about 10,000 people to watch the ceremony on the west lawn in addition to almost 50,000 worldwide who watched a live webcast of the proceedings.
This year, we are moving toward being more systematic with our communications. We will be launching a regular Tibet news update email soon and are working on an online version of our hard copy member newsletter, Tibet Press Watch, that we will also promote by email. On the fundraising front, we are going to be more deliberate and strategic by crafting email versions of some of our direct mail appeals . . . when it makes sense and only if the message lends itself to the immediacy of email. It’s important to ask for support, but it’s equally important to know how often to do that. The last thing I want do is numb down our supporters by sending email appeals too frequently. I don’t want ICT to become just another drip of noise in people’s bloated inboxes.
What results are you seeing online? And how have these helped augment and/or exceed offline efforts?
I am thankful that we have very strong open rates, typically at or above 30%. That’s the first, most important hurdle. In general ICT tends to have high average gifts off line and we are seeing that with our online donations as well.
I know there is a lot of talk about how, one day, email will certainly (or hopefully) replace snail mail. I don’t know what the reality will be except to say it will be interesting to watch it continue to evolve. Right now, online is an important part of the overall mix. It’s part of the whole working together whether that takes the form of a direct mail appeal, a member newsletter, a one on one conversation . . . or an email..
The International Campaign for Tibet’s work includes not only communicating with constituents, but also asking them to advocate on issues of importance with elected officials and asking them to support the organizations financially; how do you balance those needs between fundraising and advocacy and are you seeing your constituents both advocate and donate?
Keeping it balanced is a struggle for all organizations. I think one of the things that makes that a little easier for ICT is that we keep our advocacy asks focused on those few things people can do that really will make a difference. We are very conscious of how many emails are going out in any one week, to what part of the file, as well as what they just received, and what we might be sending them two weeks from now. In addition to being mindful of the ongoing context of communications, we also try to keep every email, regardless of the content, focused on as few things as possible. Most of my career has been in direct marketing. If I’ve learned anything besides test test test, it’s to keep it simple. Less is more. Ideally, we try to keep the spotlight on the one thing we want people to do.
If you could give one single piece of advice to another nonprofit looking to use the Internet in their outreach or communications strategy, what would it be?
That’s easy. Be very respectful of the fact that someone is trusting you with their email address. Sure, they won’t be surprised if you abuse the privilege . . . whether that’s too many emails, too many empty advocacy asks, too many donation requests without a solid need behind it. But they just might be surprised if you honor their trust by only communicating when you really have something of substance to say.
Expanding on Sally’s post last month, Online Advocacy - Using Petitions for List Building, here are a few of my favorite nonprofit pledges. Unlike petitions, which are specifically political, pledges can promote any kind of action or invite general participation. Pledges can be a very effective outreach tool and the lists tend to be of a very high quality.
- CARE's "I Am Powerful" campaign from last year
- An "interactive monument" from the Anne Frank Museum (It’s also a nice screensaver)
- Amnesty International’s "Tear it Down" campaign against the detention facilities at Guantanamo
- "12 Months to Sustainable Good", a campaign microsite from Outreach International targeting students
Are pledges really just a smokescreen to gather emails?
I suppose they can be, but I think these examples demonstrate another possibility. Like any other nonprofit communication, your pledge has to be authentic. Just like newsletter subscriptions, these pledges act as tools to educate and engage, and serve as an entry point to broader participation.
To make your pledge work, you have to be prepared to respond to your signers' enthusiasm while it's fresh. If you have a stated goal, update them on your progress. If you can, tie the pledge into a broader campaign. But above all, make sure you're prepared to follow up signatures immediately with offers of other, deeper ways to engage with your nonprofit.
What can you genuinely ask for in a pledge, and what can you offer in return?
- Education: Elucidate the need you address and how supporters can contribute.
- Emotional Connection: Find common ground with potential supporters through your most compelling stories.
- Participation through Outreach: With a pledge, you give current supporters a reason and a means to share your mission with their friends and family, as well as a non-financial way to support your organization.
- Readiness: A pledge can help you build a base and keep your organization front of mind for the moment when a timely response is critical. Be clear in your pledge about your goals and about any communications the signer is opting in to.
Got any great pledges to share? Post them in the comments!
Hearing Heather Smith speak sparked one very clear idea for me: Peer to Peer vehicles seem to work very well for campaigns that are all about action and NOT donation. I wonder why that is?
The element of trust that is so important to making Peer to Peer work well is there for donation campaigns just as with action oriented campaigns.
The viral spread mechanisms are there since we are talking about Peer to Peer vehicles.
The only factor that seems to jump out at me is that Peer to Peer campaigns seems to be populated by more Gen Y people, and maybe they just don't see giving money as the most valuable thing they can give.
What do you think?
After a great, long dinner last night with the panelists from the “Converging Campaigns” panel line-up, I thought a bit about what I might hear today and what Internet viewers and Connection Café readers might take away from these great minds who have come together to share a little insight (and in 90 minutes they will no doubt only scratch the surface of what nonprofits, advocacy organizations and politics are currently experiencing and questioning).
Last night, we discussed the panel name – Converging Campaigns – and what exactly that connotes. I think it’s such an interesting time to be in any of these spaces because things are changing, and converging, so rapidly. The way a political campaign functions is now similar to how a nonprofit runs its seasonal fundraising campaign or advocacy efforts – and vice versa. Each of which is continuously evolving and learning from one another. And social media sites like Facebook are being used more and more as a utility to bring people and ideas together in a significant and meaningful way. Take for instance nonprofits creating Facebook applications to promote advocacy and raise funds like those of Conservation International and the Salvation Army. Or take a look at how political candidates are rallying people and events through Facebook pages and applications.
What I think we often overlook is that the essence of these new, converging efforts, campaigns and technologies are doing exactly what we all did before the Internet age – uniting people, ideas and causes. In short, it's constituent empowerment at its best.
So now it’s 8 am at the National Press Club and I’m off to absorb as much as I can from 6 true experts in their respective fields. I look forward to hearing in greater detail about how similar these seemingly diverse campaigns and communications efforts really are. And where, exactly, we should all be casting our eyes in the future.
I’ll also be taking a stab at live tweeting from the event, along with my friend and colleague Chris Bailey, so feel free to follow us live - twitter.com/jordanv (@jordanv) and twitter.com/chris_bailey (@chris_bailey).
I love 2008.
To put a finer point on it, I love this particular presidential election year in the U.S. For the first time, all of our serious commander-in-chief contenders understand that Campaign Central for the majority of American voters is their website.
What does this mean? User experience matters.
You probably know the best-and-worst of the candidate website stories: In 2004, Howard Dean’s innovation in the online world marshalled grassroots support, gave voters on-the-ground ways to mobilize and to feel connected (let’s hear it for video games!), raised some serious dollars (on the order of $40 million), and united a community of support that got the attention of every candidate on both sides of the aisle.
Both in 2004 and early in this election cycle, we also saw a host of questionable campaign website decisions. The Bush/Cheney campaign’s interactive online feature, “Make Your Own Lawn Sign,” and Jim Webb’s PAC’s “post your diatribe to our homepage” features* come to mind. Both took risks in soliciting user-generated content (hurrah for the risk-taking!) but neither managed to thoughtfully moderate that content, leading to a lot of self-sponsored candidate abuse.
Today, nearing the general election, we’re now down to three candidates who all seem to get that voters want more than an interactive brochure. As John Sutton of Navigation Arts puts it, presidential candidates are coming to see their websites as “roadmaps to permanence,” investing in “usability for victory” – the idea that an intuitive, inspiring, effective online presence will actively shape a candidate’s chances of long-term success.
This involves more than a slick design and airbrushed photos of candidates kissing babies. If JohnMcCain.com, BarackObama.com, and HillaryClinton.com represent the future of effective campaigning in the online space, they also hold a lesson for all of us nonprofit campaigners (political or no): research, innovate, test, and iterate. Whether it’s your message or your visuals or your grassroots tactics, the only way to get more effective online is to try an idea with your users/voters, carefully gauge their responses, and translate what you learn into change**.
That, after all, is the beauty of the Web, this quickly maturing, most democratic of spaces – it’s a great testbed for innovation. Watch this space in the weeks and months ahead for some play-by-plays of each candidate’s website, as they rapidly iterate towards the White House.
*Exact names of these features have been paraphrased.
**Not to be confused with “change you can count on”.
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