Online actions have become synonymous with advocacy. But do they work to win policy debates?

Despite a tremendous increase of communications to Congress in the last decade – led by Internet channels — a recent study by Shayna Englin and Stefan Hankin explores what they call the Advocacy Gap, a disconnect between how activists are mobilizing, and how Washington insiders and decision-makers say they should mobilize to move a policy issue.

The study adds to a chorus of voices including Jake Brewer’s “The Tragedy of Online Advocacy” and Matt Browner-Hamlin’s “Contact Information vs. Commitment: Building Power Through Membership” that are urging organizations to re-think their advocacy tactics to meaningfully engage their activists in efforts that can win.

Two major highlights from the report include:

  • Most activists know that offline advocacy is more influential, but many stick to the safety and ease of the Internet.
  • Quality trumps quantity on the Hill. Insiders are unanimous in saying a few personal emails beat hundreds of form emails. Calls from a few constituents able to articulate on the phone why they care about an issue and how it affects them are better than calls from hundreds of constituents parroting a talking point. And constituents showing up in person is best.

So what’s an organization to do? Break out of the online advocacy bubble.

That’s exactly what National Audubon Society did last spring. In an effort to help pass the RESTORE Act, legislation that would direct as much as $20 billion in BP fines to repair and rebuild Gulf State habitats, Audubon – with strategic guidance from Sea Change Strategies — undertook a an advocacy makeover.

Audubon organizes themselves by Flyways – four North/South migratory routes that cross North America. In an effort to pass the Restore Act, they brought activists together from across the interdependent Mississippi Flyway (See map) to pressure their Senators to pass the bill.

Screen-Shot-2012-09-18-at-11.24.53-AMWhat they did:

  • They reached out to chapters to identify potential recruits and encouraged them to apply to become lead volunteers with the Mississippi Flyway Action Network. Nearly 100 people applied.
  • They encouraged members of their online advocacy list to apply to attend an in-person training in New Orleans. We were concerned to see that no one from the e-list applied, even those who are among the most dependable online action takers.
  • They chose 30 applicants – representing swing states and districts – to serve as lead volunteers.
  • They conducted a 3-day training workshop in New Orleans for the 30 lead volunteers – Thanks to grants and chapter money, Audubon was able to provide scholarships to attendees.
  • The training covered RESTORE Act 101, effective in-person advocacy tactics as well media relations.
  • The leads connected with each other and built bonds across the Mississippi Flyway region.
  • The leads committed to a certain number of advocacy-related actions around RESTORE within a certain period of time including mobilizing their local chapter members to get more involved through in district visits.
  • The leads stayed connected through a vibrant listserv – communicating their individual successes and disappointments.

The Mississippi Flyway Action Network was indeed a small part of a major coalition effort to pass the RESTORE ACT – one of the few measures to actually pass Congress 2012.

And it is a phenomenal example of a national advocacy organization breaking out of the online advocacy bubble and focusing their efforts on depth rather than breadth – on quality rather than quantity, and winning.