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Community outreach strategies: Unstructured campaigning

You could be forgiven for thinking that the world of campaigning has continued as normal through Covid. Elections are still happening and politicians are still campaigning. Nonprofit software is still helping orgs to recruit new volunteers and do fundraising online. However, behind the scenes a fundamental shift has taken place. Quantifying this shift is difficult but, at its simplest, it can be characterised as a move from structured campaigns to unstructured campaigns. Structured campaigns are coordinated and broadcast to large groups of people in the community. Unstructured campaigns in community engagement are relational campaigns and communicate through personal relationships.

In the past community outreach and campaigning was done through a mix of door knocking, email, and social media outreach. However, these structured campaigns are now much harder to do because of Covid or they have become ineffective because of the amount of ‘noise’ online. In short, digital transformation, which has been a dominant trend in nonprofits and political organizations recently is become evident. Unstructured campaigns are using the power of local grassroots supporters and accessing the community through their micro-networks of friends, families and colleagues. Unstructured campaigns look and feel more like the way communities work through word of mouth and real relationships. Technology is finally catching up to that and making it possible to replicate local community organizing at a larger scale.

As Jay Godfrey of NationBuilder said in a recent interview, "Actually the most effective voice to get someone to go out and participate is their sister, co-worker or mum."

And when your sister sends you a link, perhaps for a Zoom town hall meeting or a petition, and you click on it, the campaign will know it was your link she clicked.

The weakness inherent in structured campaigns has been somewhat exposed by the pandemic and is making community organizations rethink their strategies for 2021.

Digital transformation in community outreach

Covid has accelerated the trend to digital transformation of parties, campaigns and nonprofits who are beginning to realise that if you want to reach the wider community you are going to have to piggyback on the micro-networks of your committed supporters and members.

Phone calls to voters, donors and potential supporters are no longer coming from robo-dialers that push out automated messaging. They are coming from your neighbor, friend or family member. Calls from familiar faces are far more effective at turning people out to vote but they are also more effective at getting you to donate money or volunteer for a cause.

This change was coming anyway with many campaigns working on relational organizing pre-Covid but Covid has made the trend concrete because events, gatherings, recruitment  drives and so on are all off-limits for now.

Unstructured campaigning

The advantages of this type of unstructured organizing are many:

1. It uses an endless supply of conversations to drive new support. When a supporter of your organization is in their daily life they are talking to people constantly. To put this type of engagement in aggregate, to count up every conversation had, would dwarf any social media campaign or email marketing effort. The change that is now happening is that community organizations are getting their supporters to download the mobile app that helps them to capture conversations. And it is not just random conversations that are being captured, it is statements of interest by citizens, agreements to donate, requests for further contact.

2. Unstructured campaigning is largely free using, as it does, the existing word of mouth conversations in the community. Structured campaigns need to be devised, costed, and rolled out with specific success/failure criteria. Unstructured campaigns follow the flow of a real community spreading the word and building on genuine community relationships and interest.

3. The support received via this channel is greater, less likely to churn out and more likely to remain long term with the organization. Where structured campaigns are time-limited and impersonal, unstructured campaigns come from real conversations that are not easily forgotten. A commitment made to a friend or acquaintance is much stronger than a signup form on a website. The long term commitment received through unstructured campaigning is something that can’t be achieved with structured campaigns.

How to do relational organizing with Ecanvasser

Ecanvasser is working with many political parties and nonprofits worldwide. We are trying  to implement the systems to make relational organizing a fundamental part of their organization. How is it done?

1. A distributed network of local offices and leaders are set up using Ecanvasser Leader which provides a chapter management dashboard for HQ  and local instance dashboards and apps for local offices.

2.  The Ecanvasser Go app is rolled out to all local operatives or members meaning the conversational campaigning can be captured wherever it happens. Donors, new volunteers, survey responses and community helpdesk are all in the pockets of every supporter instantly.


3. Training is delivered to help local members to understand the core activities required of them. Digital transformation happens quickly after this training and the simplicity of use of the mobile canvassing apps.

4. New supporters are automatically brought into the organization with a simple toggle after a conversation in the community. Donor intent or volunteer intent can be filtered out of the wider database and then be followed up with by email or text message.

5. Phone/SMS outreach is done by delivering a small group of supporters to a local area captain for direct engagement. SMS engagement needs to be done in a very personalised way as it is being overused by political and nonprofit groups for structured campaigns currently.

6. Data gathering surveys are rolled out to the entire network of supporters so they can engage the broader community for market research or new supporter onboarding. Asking for survey responses at events, on-street or in a peer network provides solid qualitative and quantitative data for further campaigns, social media posts and advanced research.

7. The entire supporter activity metrics are reviewed for insights and adjustment on an ongoing basis using the Ecanvasser insights dashboard.

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