Measuring and evaluating your advocacy efforts is the best way to understand what is working and what is not so you can adjust your strategy and optimize your campaigns for success. Also, building an informed, fully up-to-date, briefing or report on your successes that is likely to get shared around your organization, is one of the most visible parts of your job to higher-ups and peers. An effective report helps show your department’s value and the ROI behind your team’s work.
Eighty-one percent of public affairs professionals have to create reports or briefs for internal stakeholders every month, according to our 2020 State of Public Affairs Industry Survey. Still, almost 20 percent said one of their biggest challenges is the lack of ability to quantify and report on their value.
Challenges in Measuring Advocacy
Measuring advocacy success is very different from the way we would measure sales or profits. Advocacy requires a different approach and way of thinking because it is less linear and it depends on sometimes unpredictable political forces.
“Advocacy evaluation should be seen as a form of trained judgment, rather than a method. That judgment requires a deep knowledge of and feel for the politics of the issues, strong networks of trust to the key players, an ability to assess organizational quality, and a sense for the right time horizon against which to measure accomplishments,” write Steven Teles, professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University, and Mark Schmitt, director of program on political reform at New America Foundation, in their article The Elusive Craft of Evaluating Advocacy.
Needless to say, measuring the impact of advocacy can be difficult, and many organizations struggle to do so effectively. Some of the most common challenges are:
Many advocacy campaigns have a long duration, and the life of a particular legislative issue can span several years, making it difficult to determine the success of specific efforts in the short term.
“[Our Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act], which allowed for tax-free savings for people with disabilities, took 10 years to pass. So we had to go through a couple of different Congresses',” says Nicole Patton, manager of grassroots advocacy at National Down Syndrome Society (NDSS).
Think of all the things that can change in a decade. Not only lawmakers but also complete government cabinets, internal staff, natural disasters, economic downturns … global pandemics, anyone? The sometimes long lifespan of legislation from introduction to enactment can be the biggest challenge in advocacy.
“The lead co-sponsor on our sub-minimum wage bill last session was Gregg Harper out of Mississippi and he retired. That was really hard where it was like ‘okay well our key co-sponsor on this bill is retiring out of Congress, now what?’” adds Patton.
With so many moving parts in a campaign and so many ways to reach and influence your stakeholders, it can be difficult to directly attribute certain actions to specific outcomes, especially when advocacy efforts can go on for years.
“When NASSP seeks to measure our advocacy initiatives, the question we always ask ourselves is “will this make a real difference?” says Amanda N. Karhuse, director of advocacy at the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP). “Even when we have quantifiable metrics we can track, like how many meetings our members and stakeholders have conducted with legislators, how many messages we sent to their offices, and how many new advocates we brought into the fold, we don’t always know if we’ve successfully made the case for schools with officials who may be on the fence about a particular issue. They don’t check a box when we leave a meeting that says, ‘Yes, you’ve convinced me. I’ll support the policy you advocated.’”
Advocacy occurs in a dynamic and fast-changing environment and sometimes strategies and milestones can shift. With much of advocacy being influenced by external events, plans may have to be adjusted often to account for circumstances beyond your control. 2020 has been a perfect example of this.
“Given the pandemic and everything going on, we shifted in our legislative priorities … and we started pushing things related to COVID-19,” says Patton. But it’s a balancing act — you can’t completely stop all your efforts when something else shows up. You have overall goals you must still meet and you don’t want to risk losing some of the groundwork you’ve laid out so far. “We never stopped advocating for other legislative priorities … but everybody focused on COVID-19, then everybody was focused on the Supreme Court, and then the election, but we still have these priorities we wanted to bring to your attention because they're still important.”
Tips for Evaluating Advocacy Success
Advocacy success looks different for every organization. If you’re at a corporation, tying your wins to economic dollars — both the profits realized or saved from legislation or regulations passed or stopped, plus the potential costs had you not won — and showing that with hard metrics will resonate with your C-suite. If you’re at an association, explaining how your impact has aided in growing or engaging membership will make an impression higher up the chain. And if you’re at a nonprofit relying on subsidies or pushing forward a single issue agenda, correlating your successes to victories in funding are going to be noticed.
Measuring and reporting on your advocacy efforts usually focuses on the advocacy journey rather than just the destination. Besides helping you demonstrate progress, this approach reduces the risk of deeming your whole effort as a failure if advocacy goals are not achieved within the report’s time frame.
Here are steps you can take at the start of a campaign that give you the best chance to effectively evaluate your efforts.
Decide on Your Priority Issues
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While your organization may have multiple advocacy goals, it is helpful to narrow your focus on those that need to take priority. You need to allow the flexibility to shift as circumstances change but having decided your priority issues will allow you to keep the course even when unexpected issues arise.
This can come from not only your internal goals and mission, of course, but also from knowing who your stakeholders are and what upcoming legislation and discussions you should be prepared for. A stakeholder management tool and congressional directory can prove invaluable.
Divij Pandya, associate director of policy at the Chamber of Digital Commerce, says his team uses FiscalNote to identify points of contact in each office and create talking points for the Chamber’s membership. “FiscalNote allows us to see the total life cycle of legislation,” he says. “We don’t have to worry about missing something because it does the work for us, so we don’t have to spend as much time tracking legislation manually, helping us be more efficient.”
Determine What to Measure and How You Will Collect Data
For Thao Nguyen, vice president of advocacy at Feeding America, evaluating and reporting advocacy efforts from the 200+ food banks in its networks can be an uphill battle. This is why identifying the main areas everyone should be measuring is vital.
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“We have five pillars to our advocacy, that we encourage our network of food banks to participate in,” she says. “These metrics include contacts with lawmakers; coalition's built or coalition interactions; actions with grassroots; actions with grasstops; and media. Off of those five pillars, all food banks take a mandatory survey once a year to report all of the work that they're doing. Through that survey, they show us how many times they're interacting or doing each of the types of advocacy. All of that is then tabulated together and then each food bank gets a score between 0.0 and 3.0, and we use that to see how proficient and how much advocacy they're doing so we can target where training needs to take place.”
The tools you use will determine what type of data you can collect and how easily. FiscalNote’s advocacy solutions offer a complete approach to grassroots and grasstops advocacy that includes media advertising directly to Congressional stakeholders, stakeholder mapping in FiscalNote, and the largest, most revered grassroots advocacy platform, VoterVoice.
“VoterVoice and FiscalNote have been a tremendous help because it's so much easier to be able to track those numbers that we're looking for,” says Patton. “If you have the money to invest in one of these platforms, you absolutely should. It makes it a lot easier than trying to manually keep up.”
Choose Regular Intervals for Measuring Results
“I suggest determining your top five evaluation factors and measure them as frequently as possible to best determine causation — what worked, what didn’t, and what made the change!” says Katelyn Moga Gesing, senior manager of national advocacy at Nurse-Family Partnership
Measuring the progress of your advocacy campaigns as you go allows you to optimize and make adjustments to optimize and improve your results. If you see a particular subject line or call to action is doing well, how can you do more of that? Evaluating during the campaign instead of waiting until the end allows you to better focus your efforts on the strategies that will yield the best outcomes.
Additionally, most advocacy professionals are expected to report on their efforts regularly. For Patton, for example, it’s every two weeks during internal policy calls, monthly to NDSS’ president, and quarterly to their board of directors. For Moga Gesing, it’s weekly for internal staff and quarterly for the board of directors. So, keeping up with your advocacy metrics is vital to meet the expected cadence of reporting — the tools you use can make the difference between this being a painstaking process or smooth sailing.
“[FiscalNote] helps us identify key issue movements across a region, proactively address them as an organization, and document our efforts. I can easily and quickly get a 30,000-foot look at what’s going on and pull reports to send to our CEO and senior management team," says Justin Wiley, vice president of government relations for the International Code Council (ICC), which uses FiscalNote to stay on top of the 1,500 issues per year they track.
Make it Fun — A Little Competition can go a Long Way
If you have a team of advocacy experts or manage different chapters with their own advocacy teams, reporting can sometimes feel like herding cats. To get people motivated to engage in timely reporting and keep track of their efforts in real-time, friendly competition can sometimes help.
Nguyen gets the 200+ food banks in their networks to keep track of their advocacy metrics and report with a “hall of fame” designation for having done so many advocacy actions.
“They have to submit all of the meetings that they're doing, and all of the interactions that they've had on the different pillars, and then they send that to us,” she says. Nguyen’s team tabulates all the results in their database and then calculates what they call the advocacy index score at the end of the year. “And then at the end of the year, if they get the hall of fame designation, they get a certificate they can use to report in any competitive grant that we're doing, so folks are incentivized in multiple ways to participate,” she adds.
Examples of Advocacy Metrics to Track
While measuring advocacy is not a particularly easy or straightforward task, seasoned professionals have a few key advocacy metrics they constantly keep track of not only for reporting but also for evaluating and optimizing their advocacy efforts.
Open and Action Rates
Consider for a minute that the average person gets more than 150 emails a day, and a good percentage of those have an “ask” — buy this, read that, take this action. That number includes your advocacy emails.
Tracking the percentage of recipients who received your emails in their inboxes and opened them, regardless of whether they had a call-to-action or not, can be an important digital advocacy metric to understand if your messaging needs some tweaking or if perhaps your email lists need updating.
Once you get people to open your messages, the percentage of recipients who followed through by taking the action you requested of them is another vital advocacy metric to understand how effective you are at relaying a sense of urgency and moving people to take action.
Tracking these numbers will also allow you to create internal benchmarks and compare those with your overall industry’s advocacy benchmarks.
Outreach to Legislators
Naturally, the main goal to measure is how many messages are your supporters sending to legislators to help you show the urgency of your issues. Be it email, phone calls, or social media posts, when it comes to lawmakers hearing from their constituents on a specific issue, volume counts.
“We have a grassroots program of supporters and what we do is we set metrics each year on the number of actual actions that take place by our grassroots supporters: calls to Congress, emails to lawmakers, and petitions signed,” Nguyen says. “Depending on what kind of legislation we're working on and how busy we think we're going to be, we set a different number for what we think we will need to achieve. We try to be outcomes-based and so we look at a number of legislators that should be working on our issues each or actively speaking out on our issues every year and taking positions on our issues.”
Keeping track of the outreach to legislators from a 200+ food banks network can be a real challenge, though. Nguyen’s team has devised a workflow that allows the staff from the individual food banks to log their interactions quickly and efficiently.
“We have a reporting system that they can use every single time they have an interaction or a meeting with a lawmaker,” she says. “There are three or four different questions and they can use that every single time to report.”
At the end of the day, the best way to know if your advocacy efforts are paying off with legislators is hearing directly from them.
“We want to know if we’re moving the needle, so our ultimate goal is feedback from the Hill. The best is when we receive a call from Hill staff, saying ‘we’re hearing from a lot of principals about XYZ,’” says Karhuse.
Total Number of Engaged Advocates
To make sure you have that volume of outreach to legislators, you must keep a close look at the number of engaged advocates sending messages. This can help you address issues early on in your campaigns, allowing you to pivot and try to maximize engagement or set out to acquire new advocates.
“How many members of Congress have received these messages, how many people have sent out messages, and then, what are the total number of messages sent out so far. Those are the three key numbers that we report,” says Patton.
Social Media Engagement
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In our 2020 Advocacy Benchmark Report, we saw a jump in traffic from social media. In 2018, about 8.7 percent of people came to our client’s action centers via a link shared on social media while in 2019 the number reached 13.3 percent — and we expect it to continue to grow as more platforms emerge.
“We put out a TikTok and it garnered over 3.6 million views and with that came thousands of more messages going out,” Patton says.
The ultimate metric you’ll want to track is click-through rates, but also monitor views, reach, and shares to see what resonates more with your audience and how you can optimize your social media strategy. Also, keep an eye out for where your advocates are sharing your campaigns and create content and messages specifically for those to meet people where they are and make it easy for them to share your message.
Keywords Used by Legislators on Social Media
Beyond measuring your advocates’ engagement, social media is also an important data source to help you determine where legislation is trending and how lawmakers are thinking. Monitoring who is saying what should be a part of your reporting workflow and your strategy-building process.
Using a stakeholder management platform with a social media monitoring tool can simplify this process and save you time. FiscalNote provides powerful filtering options that let you drill down quickly to find posts from the legislators that matter most to you. Search by person, handle, hashtag, keyword, government branch, jurisdiction, or political party to find the data that matches your criteria. Each social media profile links directly to their FiscalNote stakeholder page, so you can get even more insight into the individual, including voting history and legislator effectiveness, informing better strategy decisions.
Amount of Funds Raised
Of course, when it comes to raising funds, numbers do the talking. Advocacy alerts receive six-plus times more responses than fundraising solicitations. That’s because they add urgency, and appeal to new audiences as well as those advocates already on your contact list.
Using a tool like VoterVoice that allows you to tie your fundraising efforts to your advocacy outreach can help you increase engagement and streamline your reporting process by having all the data in one place.
Naturally, you want to always be growing your supporters and donors list but keeping track of repeat donors should also be an important part of your reporting. Those loyal members can provide a secure source of funding to your organization and understanding who they are and what motivates them can help you strategically target them in your communications.
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