In July 2017, FiscalNote acquired grassroots and advocacy platform VoterVoice to help clients better develop end-to-end policy strategies. Bringing over two decades of experience in the advocacy field, Sherry Whitworth, Executive Vice President at VoterVoice, has become an invaluable part of the FiscalNote team. Recently, we sat down with Sherry to discuss the state of advocacy today, and how forward-thinking organizations can be successful in the current political landscape.
FN: Thanks for sitting down with me, Sherry! To start, why do you think advocacy matters today?
SW: With social media, the internet, and a 24-hour news cycle, people are more exposed to political issues than ever before, and they want to be heard. Advocacy allows citizens to get engaged and make a real difference. Platforms like VoterVoice have made participation easier.
FN: How has advocacy changed over the past years?
SW: A lot! I was part of the team that launched the first online advocacy platform back in 1996. Before that, grassroots campaigns were based around postcards, phone calls, and multi-part mailers. One organization I worked with sent bags of sugar to every congressperson with their messaging attached–this was the pre-anthrax era of course–but it was a lot of hand delivery. These methods were expensive, which really limited the types of organizations that could run successful campaigns. They were also difficult to track–how can you measure the participation or which legislators were being contacted.
Technology has increased grassroots interactions a hundred times over. Smaller organizations can be heard. Most importantly, all of these efforts can be monitored and measured in real-time. You can constantly evaluate your efforts and make strategic adjustments: try something new in areas where you need to improve, or double down on what is working.
FN: So you think technology has been the major driver of change in the industry?
SW: Definitely. Advocacy tech started with the ability to contact congress, but now in large part due to technology, you can contact any relevant stakeholder at any time. For example, if you’re having issues with your commute, you can go straight to Metro via Twitter and get a response. Conversely, organizations can push out campaigns via social media and see an immediate reaction. It’s all instant and so easy to amplify.
FN: With technology becoming such a major part of the industry, is there anything advocacy professionals need to keep in mind?
SW: A few things. First, technology isn’t a panacea. You can’t rely on it to solve all your problems. Great advocacy professionals will always focus on messaging and targeting, getting the right message to the right person at the right time. You should use technology to do the heavy lift. It can certainly help you perform better at your job—not just to increase your volume but also to drive your strategy and next steps.
Second, don’t cry wolf. Make sure to engage your members when things really do matter to your organization. It can be tempting to jump in on the hot issue of the week, especially when technology allows you to move quickly, but make sure everything you do ties directly back to your mission.
Next, think about quality versus quantity. Technology allows you to have both, but you have to be cognizant of driving both volume and personal stories. Only about 10% of people will personalize their message, and those are the messages that will really be heard. Use your network to get the stories your campaign needs.
Finally, there are a lot of shiny objects out there in advocacy tech. Organizations need to do their homework and make sure they are using the best technology to help their missions: something foundationally strong, scalable, forward thinking, and focused on innovation.
FN: I love the point about not crying wolf. During our ReInvent Influence Summit, Mary Kusler of NEA stated “The counter to the current political unpredictability is focus”. It sounds like you agree?
SW: Yes. You can’t let what’s in the news or on social media distract you from your mission. Be judicious with your political power. Be mindful when helping a cause that isn’t yours, save your asks for what matters to your organization the most.
FN: This industry has always been about relationships. How can advocacy professionals continue to build meaningful networks and relationships in the digital age?
SW: There are a few angles to this. First, organizations should constantly interact with their stakeholders: webinars, trainings, and in-person meetings. These types of activities will help people feel empowered to reveal their stories.
Technology can enable effective storytelling too. I remember working on a campaign with an education association a few years ago around modernizing schools. Teachers got involved in supporting the legislation, but it was the photos they sent that really stick out in my mind. It’s one thing to sign a letter saying, “I want to modernize schools,” but another to send a photo of a snow drift in the middle of your classroom. It brings emotion to a vague-sounding issue, making things real and personal. When you see a powerful image, you understand what’s at stake, and technology enables that on a massive scale.
You can also use tech to uncover new relationships and networks that you may not have known existed. There are opportunities to build authentic relationships based off of what you learn from platforms like VoterVoice, FiscalNote, or LinkedIn–maybe a legislator grew up in the same town as you, or went to college with your friend. Use technology to discover this information, then build those relationships face-to-face.
Finally, technology has enabled more groups to work together towards similar goals. The power of coalitions has never been stronger.
FN: You’ve worked with thousands of organizations on their advocacy goals. Do you have any advice to help organizations stand out in the current landscape?
SW: Keep beating your drum. Stay focused on your key issues, use all platforms at your disposal, and use the feedback and insights that technology offers to keep the conversation going in a positive direction. You can’t plan your strategy today based off of things that happened six months ago: always be evaluating.
FN: Any final thoughts?
SW: Technology allows you to reward and recognize the people in your organization that are making a difference. Understand who they are and thank them. Let them know that they have made a difference.
With all the advancements in the advocacy space, being a practitioner today must be really fun. Don’t fall into the trap of accepting the status quo, if you dig in you can absolutely inspire change.
To learn how VoterVoice and FiscalNote can work for your organization, contact us here.