No Instruction Manual? Adopt a Start-Up Attitude

Denise McMahan is a guest contributor for Nonprofit Hub, and is the founder and publisher of where nonprofit leaders devour Page to Practice™ book summaries, author interviews and sticky applications from the must-read books they recommend.

The online world is changing the way we live, work and engage with our communities. Nonprofits that raise more and leverage new heights in advocacy relate with their constituents through a variety of online channels in tandem, meeting each group where it already is: on the Internet.

Social Change Anytime EverywhereSocial Change Anytime Everywhere coauthors, Allyson Kapin and Amy Sample Ward, establish beyond a doubt and with inspiring sector examples just how much a multichannel approach can help meet your goals.

If 78 percent of the U.S. population uses the Internet, nonprofit leaders must embrace not just one or two online channels, but launch a coordinated effort that incorporates simultaneous online platforms, mobile devices and offline efforts.

One of the many stories Allyson and Amy highlight was the harrowing challenge faced by the National Wildlife Federation. The U.S. had just undergone the largest oil spill in its history on April 20, 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig.

Organizing a Multichannel Fundraising and Advocacy Campaign

The Federation responded with a multichannel disaster response campaign. Its two goals were to organize a multichannel advocacy and fundraising campaign to protect the wildlife impacted by the spill and to channel the community’s concern for the oiled animals toward the Federation’s campaign actions to make a real impact.

To meet these goals, the Federation spread information by creating a microsite to share data and impact and a Flickr group to feature photos. It recruited volunteers to help monitor rescue efforts, asked for donated supplies and urged people to advocate for legislation where needed. It focused on fixing the immediate damage and helping people cope by using social media as an emotional support.

Then, the National Wildlife Federation transitioned to a long-term goal of restoration, which involved more advocacy efforts, mainly the RESTORE Act that directly allocated BP fines to efforts to fix the damage. Through multichannels, the Federation not only shared information, but also ways to help and it “even filed a Freedom of Information Act request to make sure the oiled wildlife totals were made public.”

Here are some ways the Federation used multichannels to meet their advocacy and fundraising goals:

1) Website: Shared adult and child-friendly content and set up campaign action pages for advocacy.

2) Facebook and Twitter: Planned and adapted messages for each from the beginning and tested them along the way. The Federation shared a couple of links a day, thanked people who posted fundraising efforts, encouraged people to reshare information, and used these channels as stories of the day for reporters. They were sure to balance messaging between sharing valuable information and making “the ask.”

3) Flickr: Posted photos and made uploading easy for community posts.

4) Email: Sent updates and direct mail appeals to donate to a restricted fund specific to the oil disaster.

5) Causes: Supporters started fundraising on a page the National Wildlife Federation set up on

6) Text-to-give: Set up a first-time text-to-give program and promoted it through the heightened media exposure and other channels (website, Twitter, Facebook).

7) Ads: Secured donated ads and travel.

So what did all of these channel efforts amount to?

It was difficult to measure all the relief efforts due to the urgency of this disaster, but the Federation did track how people were responding to its appeals using source codes in its emails. Additionally, they raised $120,000 from the fundraising effort on It mostly tracked the impact on the ground (number of volunteers trained, number of news reports, number of sea turtle nests saved, the RESTORE Act, etc.). Internally, the Federation learned to identify point people from all departments who could meet daily to share information, brief staff so it could talk with the media, and streamline its website processes to make the website the main source of updated information. More specifically, Federation efforts resulted in:

  • 250 wildlife surveillance volunteers to monitor more than 2,500 miles of coastline.

  • 400 volunteers helping with events that included restoring fragile nesting habitats.

  • Generated media attention by showing reporters the spill impacts in remote areas.

  • Relocated more than 250 sea turtle nests (each nest has about 100 eggs).

  • Directly impacted the passage of the RESTORE Act in Congress, ensuring that BP fines go toward restoring the damaged habitat.

Lessons Learned

“We had no instruction manual on the shelf called ‘What to do when an oil rig explodes in the Gulf.’ It was written page by page, on the fly in the weeks and months after,” said senior manager for online integration, Kristin Johnson. Identifying a point person from each department to focus on the campaign and communicate regularly was essential. Additionally, we learned that having a streamlined internal web process for updating the site regularly was critical. Otherwise, our other channels working in tandem with the site would have provided duplicative or conflicting information.

Adopt a Start-Up Attitude

Kapin and Sample Ward encourage readers to adopt a start-up mentality when launching a multichannel effort. I asked the authors in our CausePlanet interview, “What are some of the behaviors you admire about startups that nonprofits should consider?” Kapin answered:

Startups prefer to fail fast and iterate. This gives them an opportunity to experiment with new ideas that they think have potential. Plus there is a lot to be learned from failing: It can lead to much better products, programs and initiatives. But in order for nonprofits to adapt this mindset, they must stop being so risk-averse and develop a plan to communicate with their funders, donors and board about learning from failure. One of the organizations we work with–Ask Big Questions at Hillel International–lists specific questions they are asking themselves about their programs, which they share with their funders. They talk about what they have learned and the exciting journey ahead of them.

See also:
Networked Nonprofit
Content Marketing for Nonprofits
Measuring the Networked Nonprofit
Twitter for Good
No Instruction Manual? Adopt a Start-Up Attitude

Denise McMahan

Denise McMahan is a guest contributor for Nonprofit Hub, and is the founder and publisher of Cause Planet, where nonprofit leaders devour Page to Practice™ book summaries, author interviews and sticky applications from the must-read books they recommend.

March 13, 2014

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