Pairing Advocacy and Fundraising: The Peas and Carrots of Digital Engagement
Why leveraging different calls-to-action actually deepens relationships with your constituents and supporters.
Advocates aren’t donors. Donors aren’t advocates.
Or so says the urban myth.
501c3’s can’t do advocacy, it’s not allowed.
Let’s go straight to the source of this oft-misunderstood rule. According to the IRS, “no organization may qualify for section 501(c)(3) status if a substantial part of its activities is attempting to influence legislation (commonly known as lobbying). A 501(c)(3) organization may engage in some lobbying, but too much lobbying activity risks loss of tax-exempt status.”
In other words, not all advocacy is lobbying — and not all lobbying is prohibited. In fact, depending on a 501c3’s annual expenses, a nonprofit could spend 5% – 20% of it’s annual resources on direct advocacy or lobbying.
That means advocacy can play a critical role in supporter engagement and prospect acquisition to drive individual giving gains and grow donor lifetime value — even if your organization is a nonpartisan 501(c)(3).
Pursuing advocacy is more than simply “allowed” — it’s a tried-and-true method of activating your supporter file and bringing them closer to your mission. In other words, you don’t need to choose between advocacy and fundraising. In fact, when paired together, they can become critical pillars of both an individual giving program and broader organization goals. Some people might even call them the peas and carrots of digital engagement. (Yes, those people are us).
Over the last year, we’ve seen this perfect pairing pay high dividends in our work with Pathfinder International, a 501(c)(3) non-profit that focuses on global reproductive health. We helped Pathfinder leverage advocacy to great effect, connecting their audience to issues that resonate — and driving considerable growth in their individual giving program.
In June of 2020, as Congress considered a critical COVID relief bill, we launched Pathfinder’s first petition action, calling on US leaders to approve funds for the global response effort. We leveraged organic social, paid media, email, and a website lightbox to drive over 2,000 petition signatures and raise over $2,500 in supporter donations post-action. What’s more, this campaign cultivated recent donors and primed others for an impactful fiscal year end fundraising campaign.
After this advocacy engagement, we worked with Pathfinder to launch an Action Center on their website, deploying a full suite of advocacy and actions to empower new and returning supporters to engage, take action, and ultimately feel closer to Pathfinder’s mission. In 2020, Action Center actions drove over 5,700 supporter signatures, at least 700 new email addresses, and over $5,000 in direct revenue post-action.
Introducing advocacy and engagement campaigns contributed to a 64% increase in one-time donors in 2020, and a record-setting January 2021 (more than doubling January 2020 revenue).
Daisy Chains and linked actions
It’s usually good fundraising practice to be direct in your asks — and you should be, when you’re running a fundraising campaign. When running an engagement campaign, such as an advocacy action, this is not the primary purpose: though don’t underestimate passive fundraising potential.
In the world of digital marketing, action begets action, making recent activists excellent prospects for a potential donation. One simple way to extend the option is through “daisy chain” fundraising, done by automatically redirecting an action taker to a donate page.
This passive approach upends many tenets of online fundraising, which prize directness — but it works.
Just consider a recent Pathfinder campaign in which we asked their audience to take an advocacy action for International Women’s Day. After the user signed the petition to permanently end the Global Gag Rule, they were redirected to a donate page thanking them and asking them to start a monthly gift.
This passive approach yielded more monthly 2,705 petition signers — and more new monthly gifts than their direct sustainer acquisition in January.
Direct fundraising asks are part of a well-rounded digital calendar. So is “daisy chain” fundraising, as discussed above. But even setting aside passive fundraising, advocacy has a key role to play in your program.
If you’ve ever tried stacking hard ask, after hard ask, you’ve seen the diminishing returns yourself. That’s because no email list is an ATM: It’s a place to build a relationship and help your supporters find their place in your organization.
Advocacy email campaigns, and all engagements, give your audience a chance to support your mission in a non-financial way, increasing their emotional investment in what you do. It’s a chance to educate your audience and demonstrate your responsiveness to the news around you.
When it comes time to ask for funds, you’ll likely find that your most reliable activists are also your most reliable donors. Engagement calls to action build this affinity and produce supporters who see themselves not just as donors but as members of your team. Plus, these non-financial asks will get your email list in the habit of opening and reading your sends, not just deleting them from their inbox — and that includes the hard asks on Giving Tuesday.
Relevant Calls to Actions
In 2020, as a global pandemic put the communities Pathfinder serves at heightened risk, new priorities emerged. We continued to test and learn what messaging and content resonated across audiences, while introducing advocacy and engagement campaigns via the Action Center, launching SMS as a new channel for cultivation and impact, and capturing new subscribers and donors through paid and organic channels.
We saw strong gains at all parts of Pathfinder’s communications funnel through a fully integrated strategy – driving a 49% increase in net new social media followers, 49% more website traffic, over 600 new SMS subscribers, and over 5,000 new advocacy actions from engaged supporters. As a result, we are 80% of the way to reaching FY20’s total revenue with six months to go, and expect a sizable increase before the fiscal year closes.
This momentum is grounded in our cross-channel and fully integrated strategy, with a few highlights:
- Our June 2020 Congress advocacy campaign was the first effort of its kind for Pathfinder, highlighting the urgent need for Congress to pass global pandemic relief, and building on our spring-time COVID messaging around program and client impact. In addition to generating nearly 2,300 supporter signatures, this campaign raised an additional $2,540 from action takers and set us up for a successful fiscal year end campaign that brought in an additional $8,000 in revenue.
- The Gender-Based Violence letter campaign, launched during October’s Domestic Violence Awareness month, connected with a US audience ahead of a fraught and stressful election. To fit into the national mood and tone, our campaign invited people to sign a letter to both candidates urging them to prioritize gender-based violence as a “shadow pandemic” that escalated alongside COVID-19. This campaign generated another 1,500 supporter signatures and $600 from action takers, setting us up for a flash appeal that generated an additional $6,000 in revenue. This was also the soft launch of our SMS program, which now has over 600 subscribers.
During the 2020 End of Year Campaign period (November and December), Pathfinder raised 24% more revenue compared to 2019. And it wasn’t just the same people, giving more: Both months saw a commensurate increase in the number of gifts by 65% and 19% respectively.
Introducing advocacy messaging and campaigns directly into Pathfinder’s communications streams did more than drive actions, cultivate donors, and lift overall fundraising results. It also helped educate supporters on their behind-the-scenes advocacy work – and opened opportunities to connect with a broader audience of potential donors and supporters in the US.
Now in 2021, we are already seeing a strong response from Pathfinder’s audience as we engage them on a new set of global health priorities, including safe abortion work.
On social media, our global gag rule repeal rapid response effort was grounded in a cross-platform strategy centered around timeliness and engaging content. It generated the most in-platform engagement of any content Pathfinder has shared on Twitter to-date – and was a top driver of shares on Instagram. These metrics demonstrate that this action was crucial to community growth and exposed Pathfinder to new audiences of passionate advocates.
As advocacy becomes an even greater focus for Pathfinder, communications and fundraising efforts will remain intertwined with a close eye to their advocacy priorities and action calendar. In the first half of FY21, we saw the power and potential of investing in advocacy to engage existing supporters and reach and engage with new audiences.
Part of the upside to this strategy rests in the advocacy itself: We know it’s important for citizens to raise their voices on issues of reproductive health, both in the U.S. and abroad. But as fundraisers, we also know it’s our charge to keep audiences invested in, engaged with and supportive of missions. Used as a strategic element of your digital calendar, advocacy checks each of these boxes.
So raise your organization’s voice as you raise your organization’s funds — and watch as your supporters grow closer and more loyal to your mission and work.