In March 2020, the digital advocacy team at United Way Worldwide faced the same tough realization that many other organizations faced at that time. After careful planning for their annual outreach goals and activities, the pandemic completely upended their strategy. Suddenly, a new priority dominated their work: supporting COVID-19 relief in alignment with their policy priorities. Everyone had to adapt — and fast.
“It’s kind of a blur,” admits Lindsay Torrico, senior director of public policy and advocacy for United Way Worldwide. “Given the state of the world and the pressing needs that we were hearing from local United Ways, we made it work.”
A globally recognized advocacy brand, United Way advances the common good in communities across the world with a focus on health, education, and financial stability. That focus proved especially critical as school closures, job losses, and a deadly pandemic generated an unprecedented demand for critical support services.
Within a few weeks, the advocacy team at United Way had launched their Fight for America’s Recovery campaign, specifically focused on COVID-19 relief for communities and families in need.
Pivoting On The Fly
There are nearly 1,100 local United Way organizations, with one located in every U.S. congressional district. A key component of centralizing communications and aligning messages is in using a single platform, FiscalNote Advocacy, to activate supporters via e-mail and drive actions that influence policy.
Our United Way team was relentless in accelerating our advocacy work in record time. We are grateful that FiscalNote enabled us to quickly harness the power of the United Way Network to fight for America’s recovery.Steve Taylor, Senior Vice President and Counsel for Public Policy
United Way Worldwide
Because of their own agility and the capabilities of FiscalNote Advocacy, the United Way team was able to spin up the start of their COVID-19-focused campaign within just a few weeks of the first wide-scale stay-at-home orders. During those early stages of the crisis, when there was so much uncertainty — and frankly, so much free time — advocates were especially engaged and eager to do something to help.
“They felt like they were doing something good and productive, while they were also feeling very lost, unsure, and scared,” said Sarah Yergeau, director of digital advocacy at United Way.
As a result, the last three weeks of March 2020 alone doubled the total number of engaged advocates for all of the previous year. By year’s end, more than 3,350 individual advocates had contacted Congress, a 265 percent increase in individual advocates engaged. These advocates sent 11,500 e-mails and made 400 phone calls, while a sign-on letter gained signatures from 460 different United Way CEOs — the largest such letter United Way has ever sent.
FiscalNote Advocacy provided the platform for sending messages to United Way’s audience of advocates, with tools that simplified the process of finding one’s representative and composing a message or reaching out via phone. With just an advocate’s address, FiscalNote Advocacy can instantly connect them with their congressperson, along with a template email provided. Advocates just have to click “send” to engage with United Way’s policy issues.
“Without FiscalNote Advocacy, we wouldn’t be able to engage individuals effectively,” said Yergeau. “Everyone was overwhelmed, so the ease of use was critical — they could just input their address, and all the info was there.”
Without FiscalNote Advocacy, we wouldn’t be able to engage individuals effectively. Everyone was overwhelmed, so the ease of use was critical.Sarah Yergeau, Director of Digital Advocacy
United Way Worldwide
Come (Virtually) Fly With Me
Another opportunity to quickly pivot came in the form of their annual congressional fly-in day. Because of the pandemic, it was impossible for the United Way team and its advocates to visit Congress for meetings. Instead, with the help of FiscalNote Advocacy, they built out capabilities to support a national “virtual Hill day.” Buoyed by the positive response to their campaign in the spring, they scheduled the event for June, the same month when they’d usually descend upon Capitol Hill in person. The response was overwhelming.
“Usually we have to cap it at 90 because of our space; this year, we ended up getting 250 registered,” said Yergeau. “In Maine, for example, where we usually have one United Way representative, we were able to engage eight CEOs from United Way of Maine to join. Because board members didn’t have to commit days for a trip to D.C., they were much more open to taking an hour for training and then another 30 to 60 minutes for meetings.”
Designing a virtual fly-in day required a distinct set of considerations in contrast to the traditional plans for an in-person day of meetings. The United Way team scaled back their messaging to focus on just the most important information, whittling down two to three days’ worth of content into just a few hour-long webinar sessions. Training for advocates focused on adapting to a virtual Hill day, in addition to key priorities for legislative conversations. Finally, a kickoff meeting on the morning of the Hill day helped drum up enthusiasm, and an end-of-day debrief webinar allowed for advocates to share their experiences.
Delivering Results with FiscalNote’s Digital Advocacy Solution
“Our shift to virtual was seemingly overnight. United Way’s focus was always on what we needed to make happen to support our communities as they all grappled with the impact of COVID-19,” said Steve Taylor, senior vice president and counsel for public policy at United Way Worldwide. “Our United Way team was relentless in accelerating our advocacy work in record time. We are grateful that FiscalNote enabled us to quickly harness the power of the United Way Network to fight for America’s recovery.”
As a result of the digital fly-in and sustained advocacy campaigns in spring 2020, United Way successfully secured a $300 universal charitable deduction and critical emergency COVID-19 relief funding for nonprofits, individuals, and families in the CARES Act; supported local United Way chapters in securing over $140 million of Paycheck Protection Program loans to help them continue their work at a critical time; and built critical support and momentum for additional relief for nonprofits and communities. In addition, they were able to host a virtual voter education and census awareness campaign, “United We Count, United We Vote” in May featuring U.S. Women’s Soccer Champion Megan Rapinoe.
Ultimately, the key to United Way’s success in an unforgettable year was finding a balance between pushing for engagement but avoiding fatigue and maintaining momentum through careful use of messaging through FiscalNote Advocacy. And it all began with that all-important pivot.
“It was prudent to make that critical shift in our policy priorities,” said Torrico. “It was an assessment of the climate, where our United Way network was, and how best we were positioned to respond.”
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