By Jennifer Wagner
Buying a domain name, launching a website and making a public announcement are the first steps toward building a grassroots network of supporters.
They also happen to be the easiest steps.
Actual grassroots activism — especially if you’re doing it outside of a political campaign — is one of the most difficult activities on the planet. Not only do you have to get people to buy into your issue or idea one time, but you have to keep them bought in and engaged over time so they are ready for action when action is required.
Few organizations are able to develop that kind of sustained involvement. Two national groups that come to mind don’t necessarily come at issues from the same perspective: Americans for Prosperity (AFP) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Though they are not active in every state, AFP has long been my go-to example for old-school grassroots outreach — both issue-based and political. They do the hard work of knocking doors and making calls and holding small community-based events, and they get people invested in their free market approach to public policy for more than one election cycle. They strive to change minds so they can change lives.
The backbone of the ACLU is their legal work, which spans decades and dozens of issues related to civil liberties and rights. Like AFP, they engage in traditional outreach and host events. They also have a phenomenal digital presence that helps them bring in new supporters. (If you ever want a fun mental exercise, go find the issue areas where AFP and the ACLU overlap. Yes, they exist.)
Both groups have something else in common: Their advocacy efforts are largely state-based. AFP in Montana may be working on completely different issues than AFP in Wisconsin. Same goes for the ACLU. That’s important because, yeah, all politics really is local.
And that brings me to the issue of school choice and my reason for penning this post: Earlier this month, a group of Florida faith leaders, community activists and parents succeeded in convincing a large national donor to that state’s tax-credit scholarship program to reconsider its decision to pull out of the program — and to announce that it will donate again.
Please note: This post has nothing to do with schools that turn away LGBTQ students and staff. We can discuss my personal views on that topic over a drink if you’re ever in the neighborhood.
Rather, this is a testament to the tens of thousands of families who have benefited from Florida’s tax-credit program lifting up their voices and being heard. That program annually enrolls more than 100,000 students; this is no small army we’re talking about.
With guidance from my friend and fellow school choice warrior Catherine Durkin Robinson and her amazing team of grassroots organizers, the folks most directly affected by these scholarships spoke up and made it clear that less funding for this program would mean fewer opportunities for their children.
They successfully shifted the narrative back to the families whose children are in need of different schooling options than they can find under a traditional model. And they did it with kindness.
From a text update sent out to activate parents:
Important: Be respectful — that’s how we win.
Do not attack the representatives personally. Just post how this scholarship has helped your child. Any angry messages will just hurt us.
It took a few days, but they were successful, and we can take some key lessons away from this case study.
- Activate when necessary. This story actually got started last summer when a few donors pulled out of the program following an initial media report about anti-LGBTQ schools. But it didn’t really take off until last month when some larger donors said they also would be ending their contributions. The story began to snowball, and it became clear that the narrative was going unanswered. It was time for families to speak up, and they did. Important takeaway: You can’t activate your grassroots army every time something small happens; they have to know that when you ask them for help, you really, really need them. And you have to tell them exactly what you need them to do.
- Keep people in the know. You can’t sign someone up as an activist, tell them nothing for months on end and then expect them to drop everything and rush to your side when times get tough. Once you’ve got them in the door, you’ve got a lot of explaining to do, and you need to make sure you’re getting information to them in the places they want to receive it. That’s why it’s so important to ask people simple questions up front: How often do you want to hear from us? What kinds of things are you interested in? What activities would you be willing to engage in? Through it all, though, you have to make sure everyone receives basic updates about your issue so they don’t feel under-appreciated when it’s time to advocate — even if they choose not to. It’s also critical that you keep people in the know after you’ve asked them to help. Win or lose, you have to keep rallying the troops if you want them to show up next time.
- Remember that you only have people for a limited time. I’d like to tell you I was personally invested in school choice before I had kids; I wouldn’t be where I am today without my parents’ sacrificing what they did so I could attend private school. But the connection wasn’t as real until I was in the driver’s seat trying to figure things out for my children — and watching other parents navigate the same struggles. Our core advocates in this movement are the people who are most affected by K-12 education: families and students. While some may become lifelong champions, many are just trying to do what’s right for their own kids during the time frame they are able to make those decisions. We need to be aware of that and understand that we might not be able to keep advocates in the fold after their kids have graduated. We always need to be out there recruiting new allies. That doesn’t mean we forget those who are fighting now or who’ve fought in the past; we just have to continue making our case to the next generation.
If you’ve ever studied why and how people join and engage with movements, you’ve seen some variation of this:
This one is designed for an online community, but the same basic principles apply to grassroots organizing: You have to get people interested and invested before you can ask them to do things.
Far too often, we assume we can change behavior with a few tweets or paid ads or emails. Maybe you’ve got the next “Ice Bucket Challenge” viral video up your sleeve. Heck, if I had a dollar for every time a political candidate told me he or she could win using the Obama 2008 organizing playbook, I’d be retired on a beach somewhere. (FWIW, many books have been written about the incredible data infrastructure that supported Obama’s 2008 victory — and how other political campaigns had to play catchup in the years afterward.)
Truth is, it takes a whole lot of time and effort to substantively change the way people view an issue. You have to have the right message, messengers, funding, coalition partners, political landscape and myriad more factors — and it still might not all come together perfectly.
Which is why you have to build a solid foundation to try, try again.
Jennifer Wagner is a mom, a recovering political hack and the Vice President of Communications for EdChoice, a national nonprofit that supports and promotes universal school choice.