Advocacy Tools

Application Service Providers

A number of for-profit companies provide readymade software systems for activists, non-profits, or political campaigns to manage their activist database online.

The systems have different feature sets, but each provide a combination of Web page management, email list management, and member database management. The systems often include ready-to-go, updated contact information for U.S. state or national officials. Some systems can also synchronize with an organizations donor database to allow targeted email messages to donors who match certain criteria.

When users input your zip code, their elected officials are identified, you can fax or email the text of a sample letter, or customize it.

In my opinion, the most powerful feature is the ability to email users based on their zip code. Using this, one can target key Congressional districts before a vote.

These systems are maintained on the companies’ own servers, and can be managed and customized via a Web based interface. While some services may be available to very small non-profits at little or no cost, set-up and monthly fees often add up to tens of thousands of dollars per year.

Companies offering these services in the U.S. include:

Each provides a different feature set and data set. Most specialize in Congressional lobbying, while some maintain lists of State and local officials and media contacts. Some companies may be more willing than others to customize their services to your campaign’s specific needs.

At this time, none of these systems offer much multi-lingual support — particularly of non-Latin scripts. The generally do not maintain lists of foreign officials.

Free Tools

Included here are a mix of software tools that are ‘free’ — some at no financial cost to the user, others ‘free’ to share and modify — and a few that are both.

The Organizers Database is a membership database program for Windows designed for small organizations to keep track of activist members or donors.

Congress.org is a public service offered by Capitol Advantage useful for lobbying members of Congress by fax or email via a Web interface.

The Petition Site and Petition Online offer free electronic petition hosting to anyone with an email address. The latter currently hosts petitions in a variety of languages.

mySociety has developed several free, open source applications enabling citizens to lobby and track their elected officials:

The site FaxYourMP.org lets Britons fax their Members of Parliament for free. The site was instrumental in killing the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act of 2000 and the national ID card campaign. The site was set up by volunteers because Parliament did not offer such a service. It is run by a private citizen on a shoestring out of a spare bedroom. Blogger Corey Doctorow sums it up: “Some code, a good meme, DSL, and a few hundred bucks’ worth of hardware adds up to a tool that moves governments. I am agog.”

http://writetothem.com is an extension of http://www.faxyourmp.com which includes additional local and national officials, and sends an email or fax depending on the targeted official’s preference.

http://publicwhip.org.uk data-mines the voting records of Members of Parliament to help citizens hold them accountable.

Online Community Building

There are several free content management systems suitable for Web campaigns. AMP is a system design specifically with activists in mind. It integrates basic Web publishing with email list management.

Activists and organizations are using other tools to coordinate offline actions. The AMP system includes a ride-sharing module to match drivers with passengers. Supporters of Howard Dean’s presidential campaign made headlines with their use of Meetup.com. Amnesty International USA gives its membership the option to broadcast notice of local events to other email subscribers in neighboring zip codes.

Another software tool used to foster collaboration and coordination online is CivicSpace, a free distribution of the Drupal open source content management system.

GroupServer is an open source replacement for Yahoo! Groups, a Web and email application that enables people to share files and conversations in groups and communities online.

Caveats

Still, a tool does not make a campaign. An online campaign, like any other, requires planning and labor. While online tools help automate some processes, keeping track of campaign activities and responding to an online constituency of hundreds, thousands, or millions is obviously labor intensive.

Too many organizations send out action alert after action alert using the same template, with little variation and little feedback to their users. Too many online petitions continue to circulate and gather signatures targeting officials who have long since left office.

In the U.S., members of Congress are slowly learning to adapt to the onslaught of email messages generated by the tools listed above. Congressional staff sort and assign weight to the messages they receive by email, fax, and phone. Needless to say, thousands of identical emails carry less weight.

Some campaigns coordinators are adapting their strategies, for instance, varying the subject lines of the messages they send out, and encouraging users to cut-and-paste from a list of talking points (or write their own) rather than send thousands of identical messages.

Nonetheless, such email lobbying should not necessarily be the beginning and end of a campaign because a tool makes it easy to use. Electronic lobbying should be considered within the broader arc of the campaign strategy and goals.

Given your target audience, what will they find compelling and meaningful about the action you are asking them to take? You may not need high technology to encourage them to do so.

Easy email lobbying may also have the unintended effect of reducing additional or offline action if users feel like they have taken sufficient action online.

(See the sections on cell phones and examples for additional notes on tools.)

Last modified on July 3, 2006 12:16 PM

Additional Resources

Comments


CapitolAdvantage is definitely not progressive (think Swift Boat Veterans), nor is their data (on congress.org) "free". There are some movements afoot to build a truly open media and congressional contact database, with an underlying assumption that the data would extend beyond American borders. See http://wiki.advocacydev.org/cgi-bin/wiki.pl?OpenDatabases

It's being largely drawn up by contributors from Groundspring, Green Media Toolshed, and others.

Also, in the list of ASPs, it might be worthwhile to scan the advocacydev pages, since that gathering was a pretty comprehensive one.

Posted by: blaine at February 3, 2005 09:25 PM

Also, I'd suggest adding our little firm - MandateMedia.com. We do internet strategy for progressive campaigns and causes.

Also, be sure to check out our blog, PoliticsAndTechnology.com.

Posted by: Kari Chisholm at February 8, 2005 04:13 AM

Other advocacy tools include: CitizenSpeak (www.citizenspeak.org) - a free email advocacy for small grassroots organizations.

For slightley more sophisticated users, Democracy in Action (www.democracyinaction.org)and Civic Space (www.civicspacelabs.org) are powerful, full featured, open source and extremely affordable.

Care2 (www.care2.org) also has a number of features for a large community of activists.

Posted by: Jo Lee at February 8, 2005 09:46 AM

I wonder if there's a place to put something about training opportunities for grassroots advocates on the Internet? I have an online learning center called the Advocacy Classroom (www.advocacyclassroom.com) where people can take a free course on effective communication with elected officials.

Posted by: Stephanie Vance at February 11, 2005 10:48 AM

We've been actively developing a CMS with an integrated ePetition & eAction (fax/email) capability. Back-End.org's latest release will allow you to set up multiple, multi-lingual petitions and actions for your site. The sub-site capability also makes it useful for organizations who want to give local chapters a way to publish content to the web. All designed with Open Source PHP/MySQL tools. The latest install can be found at http://action.clc-ctc.ca/

Posted by: Mike Gifford at March 2, 2005 12:26 PM

CampusActivism.org has innovative features and is for non-campus activists too. It has people, groups, networks, issues, campaigns, email lists, resources, schools - all related - mostly controlled by the people who added them.

Posted by: Aaron Kreider at March 15, 2005 03:13 AM

The organizers database is done by the Organizer's Collaborative, who are some of the more fervent advocates of free software and open source development. I do not believe that they would base anything on Microsoft Access.

Posted by: Ted at December 25, 2005 11:05 PM