15 research backed Advocacy Strategies that actually work

Take a look at the biggest movements of the past year.

The Women’s March, #MeToo, March For Our Lives, the movement to protect Dreamers, the progressive wave sweeping the US and others.

On the surface, we see a group of passionate supporters raising their voice against injustice; on the streets, on social media, and on every imaginable platform.

But dig deeper, and we find the smaller core group of organizers who work day and night to bring an issue to the collective attention of millions. The people who plan, strategize and mobilize around an issue they believe in.

And that’s how it starts…

…with a cause; feeling strongly about an issue and then going out into the community to effect change around it.

Your nonprofit advocacy strategy may be aimed at enabling policy change, forcing a vote through a ballot initiative or simply to raise awareness. But the journey from a decision to act, to an advocate, to seeing the cause through to the final goal requires careful planning and strategy.

This article covers fifteen advocacy strategies that will help you achieve your goal in the smartest way possible:

1. Create a plan (and keep revising it)
2. Take supporters through an engagement funnel
3. Tell stories not statements
4. Go digital
5. Run a distributed organizing campaign
6. Leverage established relationships
7. Target your outreach
8. Persuade through open-ended conversations
9. Keep it personal (even at scale)
10. Drive meaningful actions
11. Connect voters to lawmakers
12. Partner up
13. Stay on top of the latest updates
14. Follow multi-channel engagement
15. Gamify supporter actions

1. Create a plan (and keep revising it)

We like to think of plans as though they’re set in stone. Once they’re laid out, they’re not up for debate. But studies have proved that humans are terrible at estimating long-term plans. So, have an overarching goal that you want to reach. And then break down your journey into smaller tasks that can be achieved week over week. Rather than thinking of time as a linear path to your goal, consider every week or a period of two weeks, as a cyclical journey where you learn from your mistakes and modify your plan to reflect any new learnings.

Maybe you thought voter lists from the state election office were the best way to identify supporters. But then you tried calling those numbers and realized that a major portion of the list is outdated or that the list only has landline numbers while your audience is mainly mobile users. The plan has to change to accommodate this learning by incorporating a better way to collect mobile numbers or looking at data vendors who can get you the right information.

Takeaway: Your plan shouldn’t be set in stone. Change with any new learnings.

2. Take supporters through an engagement funnel

Most supporters giving their email on your website aren’t totally sold on your cause. They may become donors and volunteers down the lane, but as of now, it is curiosity rather than passion that drives them. Nurture that curiosity by guiding people through a series of asks that increase in the level of commitment required.

Start people of with low barrier asks like sharing on social media or filling in a simple survey. With every completed action pave the way for a higher-barrier ask. The next step can be an ask for a petition signature followed by a request to donate, an event invite or an ask to contact their rep. By subtly nudging people along the engagement funnel, you avoid the risk of putting people off by asking for too much too early.

Takeaway: Take supporters along an engagement funnel with a series of tasks that increase in the level of commitment required.

3. Tell stories not statements

Humans empathize with narratives; stories that take us through the highs and lows of the protagonist and immerse us in their conflict. Every piece of content you put out should attempt to tell the stories behind your cause. If you want people to care about cleaning up the local lake, don’t (just) tell them that the water has elevated levels of lead, tell them stories about the kids whose futures were destroyed because of mental impediments caused by lead poisoning.

Takeaway: Advertise your advocacy through stories that people can relate to and empathize with.

4. Go digital

Digital communities are as much a part of people’s lives as real relationships. They inform and mold opinions, and can get people around the world rooting for your cause.

A decade ago, nonprofit advocacy organizations used rallies and meetups to inform the public and gather petition signatures. Today, an effective social campaign can be enough to garner the signatures you need and force a vote through a ballot initiative. Organizing, voter outreach, fundraising, crowdfunding and event management all fall into the realm of digital, with analytics to provide insights on every aspect of your campaign.

You can download the whitepaper on the influence of digital and the tools that will help your digital strategy, here.

Takeaway: You should be leveraging digital tools in every aspect of your nonprofit advocacy campaign.

5. Run a distributed organizing campaign

We saw this bottom-up approach to campaigning put to work in the Bernie Sanders primary campaign and the 2012 Obama presidential campaign. With distributed organizing, volunteer leaders are assigned autonomy of local campaigning efforts.

Identify volunteers from each locality who are passionate about your cause and are willing to take up organizational efforts on their own. The central campaign office then advices on strategy while local chapter leaders take care of the best way to implement it to reach the overarching goal. This approach admittedly takes away some level of control from the central campaign office, but it makes up for it by affording campaigns scalability, grassroots support and empowered volunteers who take up the job of paid staffers.

We wrote a detailed strategy guide on Distributed Organizing. Check it out here.

Takeaway: Distributed campaigning can help you make the most of existing resources and scale up outreach efforts.

6. Leverage established relationships

‘Relational Organizing’ works on the principle that asks to people you already know are far more effective than asking a stranger to make a donation, volunteer, or get out to vote. Tools like VoterCircle let you automatically match contact lists to voter files to identify your target audience and reach out to them with personalized messages. It’s also easier to get volunteers to work from the comfort of their homes than getting them to wake up on the weekend and go knocking on doors.

Takeaway: Ask people within your social circle to take action.

7. Target your outreach

As much as you’d like to strike an emotional chord with everyone on your list, it’s a small number who’ll actually follow through on their commitment to support the campaign. It’s critical that you communicate effectively with those people who are willing to support you and get them to be active participants during the duration of your campaign.

With every phone banking, text messaging or general outreach effort you run, make sure to collect data on supporter interests and issues, and tailor follow-ups based on those responses. Your supporters shouldn’t be receiving the same communication as people on the fence about the issue, and donation requests shouldn’t go out to opponents before persuasion campaigns.

Takeaway: Use the data from your outreach to create targeted lists, each of which should receive tailored communications.

8. Persuade through open-ended conversations

You can tell people that the factory emissions are polluting the atmosphere, that marriage equality is a human right or that local libraries shouldn’t be shut down.

You can corroborate your stand with facts.

But you cannot convince people to change their minds.

That’s why research by the Leadership Lab of the Los Angeles LGBT Center is pivotal to understanding how humans perceive ideas that oppose previously held beliefs. The study suggests that long, open-ended conversations have the potential to change people’s minds. Next time your volunteer is talking to a swing voter about a sensitive issue, encourage them to get people to discuss the issue rather than treating the conversation as an obvious attempt at persuasion.

You can read more about the method known as ‘Deep Canvassing’ here.

Takeaway: Open-ended conversations, rather than messaging tailored around persuasion, have a higher chance of convincing someone on the fence about an issue.

9. Keep it personal (even at scale)

As your campaign grows, the pressure of keeping your communication personal grows with it. Scalable options like email, broadcast texts, and social media start to look more appealing than personal channels like door to door canvassing and phone calls. But instead of dropping the ball altogether on these channels, look to digital tools that help you leverage their advantages at scale.

Use auto dialers to contact landline numbers. They let you make 5x the numbers of calls compared to manual dialing.

Use peer to peer texting to contact mobile numbers. A single volunteer can engage in one-to-one conversations with more than 1500 contacts in the span of an hour.

Blueprints for Change has an extensive guide on phonebanking with inputs from CallHub. Check it out here.

To read more about using peer to peer texting check out our Starter Guide.

Takeaway: Make the most of the channels that facilitate individual back and forth conversations.

10. Drive meaningful actions

It’s easy to get caught up in the momentum of online activity without getting closer to your final goal. That’s why a lot of petition signatures and online lists don’t amount to any real-world value towards the end. Every action you drive through supporters should be taking you closer to your goal.

Bernie supporters were handing out flyers by the road before they were placed into the campaign structure, after which any communication they had with voters was logged into a central database, measurably bringing the campaign closer to its goal of engaging every prospective supporter.

Takeaway: Make sure every action you drive through supporters is leading you closer toward the final goal.

11. Connect voters to lawmakers

Voters by themselves mostly don’t take the trouble of exercising their right to contact their rep about an issue. It falls on the organization advocating for an issue to open up effective channels of communication between voters and their reps. The various ways you can do this include – email, direct mail, social media, phone calls, in-person meetings, messaging apps like Countable and online petitions. But each form of communication is not synonymous with the other, with some being disregarded altogether while others carry weight with lawmakers. Mediums like in-person meetings and phone calls, with their capacity for real conversations, have been consistently stated as one of the best ways to get lawmakers to hear voters.

We’ve written in detail about the best ways to connect voters to their rep here.

Takeaway: Identify and open up effective channels to connect voters with decision-makers.

12. Partner up

If you know organizations that are working towards a similar goal, it makes sense to pool your resources. It may be that you are a national organization looking to drive a local policy change. You can partner with local groups who have a better relationship with voters and can mobilize volunteers better on the ground.

A good example is how Organizing for Change, a coalition of British Columbia environmental organizations worked together with partner organizations like Dogwood, Sierra Club and STAND to mobilize voters for the B.C. provincial elections. Volunteers across partner organizations worked with OFC organizers to make calls to 60,000 B.C. voters and get them out to vote, increasing voter turnout by 7%.

Takeaway: Look for partner organizations who share similar ideologies with whom you can pool resources to achieve your goals.

13. Stay on top of the latest updates

Rapid response should form a core part of your campaign structure. For any events that unfold, be it over the news, or on social media, stay on top of the latest updates, make your stand clear and address any queries that might come up. If a sensitive issue crops up on your radar you need to put your planned outreach on hold and react immediately to the situation at hand. Social media monitoring tools like Mention lets you stay on top of social media activity, and text broadcasting tools from CallHub and email service providers like MailChimp let you reach out to your supporters with minimum delay.

Takeaway: Stay on top of any updates affecting your campaign and modify your planned outreach accordingly.

14. Follow multi-channel engagement

Much like the need for targeted engagement, don’t expect to reach all your supporters through a single channel. While millennials may be more attuned to text messages, Gen X-ers would rather you call them on the phone. Your outreach strategy should experiment with multiple channels of communication before deciding on the handful that will get you the most engagement and value for money.

Takeaway: Do not stick to one primary channel of engagement and risk isolating potential supporters from your campaign.

15. Gamify supporter actions

Gamification applies all the fun and addictive elements that you find in games to real-world scenarios and productive activities. Campaigns can give out points or in some cases stars, to get volunteers to share content on social media, sign a petition, attend a rally or a myriad of other tasks that require collective action. Even gamification in its most rudimentary form, as phone banking or text banking leaderboards, acts as a significant motivator to activate supporters into action.

Takeaway: Use gamification to encourage healthy competition and boost participation.

You may be building your advocacy campaign from the ground up or are simply looking for ways to optimize established processes. Either way, the strategies above can act as a solid foundation to guide you forward. Keep in mind that the tips mainly act as a guide and not as the final word on what you should do. There are situations when you’ll have to make affordances and tailor a strategy that aligns with your specific campaign goals. If you’re willing to change as you progress, as new learnings come your way, your advocacy campaign should do just fine.


If you are on the lookout for a personal and affordable communication tool for your nonprofit advocacy campaign, check out Collective Texting. We built it to allow campaigns to engage in personalized conversations at scale with their supporters.  Check out our guides or test it out yourself by creating a free account.