Friday, December 23, 2005


The resource question

I had the pleasure recently of speaking on a panel about web-based organizing to a group of people advocating against the death penalty. I immediately lost my audience when I began to talk about message testing--and I really lost them when I hit the topic of online promotion.

It took me a moment to realize what had happened. My audience thought that all this sounded like a lot of money and staff time, and these were mainly folks from small organizations with neither. Many of the people in the room were dedicated volunteers, or the sole staff person supporting all the organization's work.

Small organizations can benefit from web organizing as much or more than large organizations, and the size of the direct benefit depends on the amount of money the organization already spends on direct communication to its members. But gaining that benefit does require some committment of time, and ideally a small committment of money. Its important not to tune out at this moment!

Most people think the internet is free. Email is so cheap to send that spammers make money even if only an infinitesimal share of people actually fall for their scams. People know they can put up a website using any number of helpful online services and a simple template. Blogspot lets us all blog away for free! And yet, soon after we put up our website or start our blog, we realize that someone has to actually have something to say on a regular basis and someone to say it to (readers!! what a great idea!!).

Small organizations sometimes spend considerable time worrying about their web content--how to keep it fresh and interesting, and what kinds of reports and documents to post. Clearly you must have something there for your readers, but the web really isn't a static roadmap of places that are interesting or uninteresting--nor are nonprofits small cities competing with each other for highway traffic.

That common metaphor for the internet doesn't capture some key truths about its invisible motion. The internet is a giant, instant communication system where millions of people can share ideas and direct others to new information in seconds. And the invisible flow of information on the internet is largely driven by email (and instant messaging, which is starting to supplant email for some users). So even a generally static website that seems way off the highway can have its day if a particularly interesting post is linked through an email to many people who forward it to many more.

Most people who would like to see a more fair death penalty -- people who get a pang of conscience when they read about an innocent person on death row -- will never actively seek out a nonprofit website on the death penalty. But if a friend sends them an email about a particularly egregious case that has a link to a page on that website, they might click through and read. In fact, its likely that the readership on that day due to that single email will surpass the website's entire readership over several days or a month.

With the exception of the very most popular blogs, the very most popular national media websites, and the very most popular search engine sites--web traffic is largely driven by email. Today, people increasingly get their information by email, and they select lists they wish to be on in order to get the kinds of information they want delivered to them directly. If you have ever taken action after a friend forwarded you an email from an organization you don't usually think about, then you have directly participated in this instant mass information sharing phenomenon.

You can start sending compelling email (I'll have to save some discussion of compelling email -- and message testing -- for another day) if you have only a few supporters' email addresses. Give your supporters an action they can take to help the cause, and remind them that their most important job is to forward your compelling messages to others. Those new people get information they wouldn't otherwise learn, and hopefully a way to agree to get your email in the future.

At that moment, you have just a few seconds to convince most people to give you permission to communicate with them again through email. In today's world "attention" is a precious thing and you won't keep their attention for long. Most of these folks are not going to wander around your website for thirty minutes or read your last opus on death penalty law and policy. They want to see that you are credible (more on that later too) and that you have a good strategy to fix the problem you presented in your compelling email. Now of course, I'm speaking in generalities here, and lots of people don't fit this description. But you can start building your email list on this model and then adjust as you get to know your own new audience better over time.

This simple approach to email communication can be started by any small organization with just a small investment in a few tools. Democracy in Action provides a good starting tool for action alerts and simple email communication for a small organization. They even offer a good "letters-to-the-editor" tool for campaigns directed at your local media. offers an easy to use, free action alert tool that lets you connect people to policymakers, but it doesn't provide a way for new people (the friends of your constituents) to sign up for email when they take action. offers basic action alerts with more robust list development for $50 per month plus a penny per email sent to your constituents. Tides has invested in GroundSpring, which offers email and fundraising but not action alerts for small to medium size nonprofits for a very low monthly fee. Eventually there may be far more options. Jeff Patrick has noted that the small nonprofit market for good email tools is essentially untapped.

As you move forward, you can post questions and start some dialog about the tools you are considering at TechSoup, on their community-building board. I find that the discussion is dominated by site developement discussion with far less about building a good email list, but there are some very good people there who respond to questions. The folks blogging over at IdealWare have also put together some good information about the tools that are out there for small nonprofits.

I hope some of the good activists in my audience at the death penalty conference, and any one else trying to do more with less at a small nonprofit, will comment here about getting their action and email system started.

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