The Virtual Activist

A Training Course


Part 3A: Web-based Advocacy and Outreach Tools -- Basic Strategies

The length of time it takes to download a Web site to your browser depends on the amount of information placed in the page. The more information the page holds, the longer it takes to view it. For this reason, when it comes to Web sites, "less is more" is often the best strategy. Beware of large graphics and software plug-ins, such as Macromedia Shockwave and Java applets, that allow flashy animation and sound. While they may help brighten your Web site, they will also drastically lengthen the amount of time needed to download it. Although there is much hoopla about DSL and cable broadband, the vast majority of Internet users are still using dial-up Internet service providers. Extensive use of graphics could make your Web site difficult to reach.

The key to building a useful Web site is to identify your organization's core competency and build your Web site around that core so visitors will have fewer things to choose from and fewer choices. Do less, but do it better. The less you do on your Web page, the easier it will be to keep it updated and fresh.

Think about how interactive tools are going to work on the Web site. Will you use a "mailto:" form, a fax server or a CGI script (a small programming application)? How will you manage the communications that will result from your Web prescence? Will someone on staff be responsible for answering email? Who will keep the content up-to-date?

You'll need to make a decision about how you will build and maintain your Web site. Will a staff member or volunteer be responsible, or will you hire a consultant? (See our mini-trainer on Web design for more on this topic.)

Avoid Web centrism, the tendency to focus on your Web site and ignore text-only technologies like email, mailing lists and news groups. Text is still far more popular, and has the advantage of being an active "push" technology. Keep in mind that most people check their email first. Bring people to your Web site with targeted, content-rich email announcements and reminders.

Monitor your email box on a regular basis. People will contact you from your Web site and will expect a quick reply. Create standard reply files for easy email management. Compile a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page to reduce the need to respond to common questions. (As people email you with repeat questions, add them to the FAQ.) Periodically revise your Web site so that it addresses the concerns and questions of your audience.

Integration of email and Web tools

An important aspect of conducting successful activism using the Internet is to integrate email and Web tools to create a comprehensive online campaign. Your organization's Web site should be fully operational to conduct the online activism campaign of your choice. In addition, you should use email outreach and publicity through other Web sites to drive traffic to your Web site activism tools.

Work with other Web sites and portals to publicize your online activism campaign. Web sites such as eActivist, Idealist, HandsNet, and IGC's Internet Progressive Gateway will be supportive of your efforts and will list you free of charge. Surf the Web periodically to find sites likely to assist you in your campaign.

Newsletter sign-up

As we discussed in Part Two, collecting email addresses from your supporters and signing them up to receive your email newsletter is an essential component of your online activism efforts. Your Web site is an important part of this effort. Include your newsletter sign-up form on as many pages of your Web site as possible to make it easy for people to sign up. Keep in mind that some people will find your Web site through search engines and may not even see your Home Page. Make sure that each page has a newsletter sign-up form or a link to the sign-up form.

Publicizing your URL and email list

Think "cross medium" in your effort to publicize your Web site address and any email addresses that are important to your online activism campaign. Your print newsletters, reports, press releases, brochures and business cards should include all of this information. Consider printing up a small flyer or bookmark that you drop into all outgoing mail from your office. We've already mentioned adding this type of information to your email signature files. Add your URL to your voice mail message, particularly on phone numbers used for incoming calls from the general public.

Consider adding a "tell-a-friend" script on your Web site. Visitors can type in the email addresses of friends to email them a brief message recommending that they visit your site. See the American Association of Retired Person (AARP)'s "Tell a Friend!" page at http://legislators.com/cgi-bin/friend.pl?dir=aarp.

Whenever possible, make your Web site and email references specific to the content. Saying: "Visit our Web site at www.childrensdefense.org" is good. Saying "Sign the online petition to protect access to child care at www.childrensdefense.org" is even better. Get creative!

If you're using email outreach to announce an upcoming campaign and keep supporters informed as the campaign progresses, include a hyperlink to the campaign page on your Web site. This hyperlink is a vital component of your effort to get people involved quickly and with a minimal time commitment. If your goal is to send 250 faxes to a targeted decision maker, or to collect 5,000 names on a Web site petition, keep your supporters informed, and appeal for their support, with a notice on your Web site. Finally, when an online campaign is complete, report back to your supporters on how you made use of their signature or their faxes. Close the activism loop through this feedback.

Here are some examples to show you how much variety there is in the tools activists are using on Web sites.

Fax server sites: Online petitions:

(We discussed the problems with email petitions in Lesson 2A. Web-based petitions are less problematic, so we've included some examples here.)

Letter sign-ons:
  • Planned Parenthood Letter to Support Contraceptive Equity Legislation & Choice. Visit: http://www.plannedparenthood.org/rchoices/lac/.
  • Center for Food Safety Letter to Take Genetically Engineered Bovine Growth Hormone Off the Market. Visit: http://www.foodsafetynow.org/send.asp?cam_id=57.
  • Council for A Livable World Letter to Tell the President to delay a decision on deploying a national missile defense. Visit: http://congress.nw.dc.us/cgi-bin/alertpr_oracle.pl?dir=clw&alert=14
  • . Postcards:

    Let's think a moment for how your organization could use these Web tools. Which Web tools would be useful for an advocacy campaign supporting a particular bill? How should your organization keep its supporters up-to-date on the campaign's progress and finish?

    Web Outreach

    Relatively new services on the Web are allowing organizations to find and communicate with other organizations and interested people that may be concerned with similar issues. These outreach services are provided through online forums, web-portals, or other outreach services.

    Web Forums

    Web Forums are areas on the Web where you can post and respond to messages. It's likely that in the future, many businesses, government offices, schools and non-profit organizations will have forums on their Web sites.

    Web forums are similar to "usenet" in that both forums and usenet allow users to post and respond to messages. The difference is that Web forums are based on the Web (rather than a separate Internet system like usenet), and are considerably more flexible than usenet (especially with respect to customization, security, and advertising). Web forums are also similar to "chat" in that both forums and chat allow users to gather and interact on the web. The main difference is that forums do not require all participates to be online at the same time.

    Since conventional search services are not designed to efficiently index forum discussions, Forum One Communications Corporation has made its Forum One index available to the public at no charge.

    Examples of non-profits using open source and shareware tools to create forums:

    Example: Environmental Defense Fund http://plaza.edf.org/discussion.nsf/
    Example: Multicultural Education Discussion Board http://curry.edschool.virginia.edu/go/multicultural/pavboard/pavboard.html
     
    An example of a site using Web forums:
    Alternet's message boards provide a number of Web forums on widely varying topics.

    Other forms of online forums allow users to connect to discussions about any number of topics related to the site by connecting the user to a newsgroup,allowing them to sign up to listserves, or providing them with chat connections.

    Web Portals

    Web Portals are services that connect people and organizations to many different networks and Internet resources through one site. They connect any number of organizations around the world through their sites and thus help promote coalitions between organizations that otherwise may have never contacted each other.

    Some of these Portals only provide the network links for organizations to utilize. These portals facilitate in the organization and disbursement of information throughout the web.

    Other portals are more actively involved in helping organizations make connections and link with others of similar goals an interests. These portals provide search mechanisms and other services that allow organizations to actively search out other groups with similar goals.

    Finding Volunteers

    Nonprofit organizations can find volunteers online through web services that match volunteers with organizations. Nonprofits can find volunteers in their area or volunteers who want to work at home. Virtual volunteering is work that is done over the internet from a home or work computer. Virtual volunteers give nonprofit groups more freedom in finding help; they are no longer limited to volunteers in the area. See the Virtual Volunteering Project for more information.

    Example: http://www.servenet.org
    Example: Points of Light Foundation (List of Volunteer Centers by U.S. State)
    Example: http://www.idealist.org (Allows prospective volunteers to find you through a search on organizations indexed by subject, date, location, skills, or language)

    Also see Web Sites to Find Volunteer Opportunities.

    Job Opportunities

    In addition to volunteers, nonprofit organizations can also find paid employees on the internet. Many websites help users find jobs with nonprofit groups and let nonprofit organizations list their job opportunities.

     

    Web-Based Services for Nonprofits

    Many Web companies and organizations offer services, like management or research tools, specifically designed to assist nonprofit organizations.

    Management

    Many nonprofit organizations are interested in improving efficiency within their organization. There are online services that have information on how to manage organizations.

    Research

    The Internet makes it very easy to do research on almost any topic. Instead of spending hours at the library, people can do research from their home computers. Research about nonprofit organizations can be found online.

    There are a number of media sites and online portals that allow organizations to access the information they have in their archives and databases. These include both free and paid sites.

    Some sites will provide searchable databases of information that they have collected. Most of these sites are free.

    Other sites may offer access to their databases for a fee.

    Additional Resources

    There are many other services available on the world wide Web for nonprofit organizations. Many other websites have information about different services for nonprofit groups. Some sites allow users to search for specific services.

    Here are some additional information sources on the World Wide Web.

    Next: Part 3B: Web-based Advocacy and Outreach Tools -- Web Site Mini-Trainer