Advocacy in the Time of Coronavirus

By Laura Walling, Senior Director of Government Relations, Goodwill Industries International

Nonprofits are typically agile and innovative. Often when trying to meet a large need with limited resources, we have no other choice than to make it work. During the pandemic we’ve seen the entrepreneurial spirt of local Goodwill organizations shine more than ever before. Not only did they shift from providing in-person career services and job training resources to virtual classrooms and platforms, they have also been strong partners in their communities, lending their trucks (that are typically used to transport donations) to food pantries. They not only gathered PPE, but some took advantage of an increase in donations and made face masks and other PPE from them. They’ve allocated resources to other areas of community need as well, including housing and child care, all while facing their own financial struggles.

Our advocacy tactics have had to shift as well. It has been nearly a year since I last attended an in-person meeting, hearing, briefing or other event on the Hill. In the beginning of the pandemic, many Hill offices were reluctant to take video calls, making it challenging to read their body language or to see when they started checking their phones instead of listening — often the cue that your time is up. Group calls over Zoom or other platforms sometimes led to uninvited guests crashing the conversations. After a while, we’ve become more accustomed to the new normal. We’ve figured out security controls to prevent “Zoom bombs” and Hill staff seem to be more willing to hop on camera for a quick check-in.

Office closures and social distancing has not stopped Congress from their ability to conduct their business, nor should it preclude advocates from being able to engage with lawmakers and staff. In fact, it’s more important now that constituents be able to contact elected officials and share the impact that the pandemic is having on individuals, families, communities and employers.

Below are some helpful tips on conducting remote advocacy.

Leverage Social Media

Be sure to follow your lawmakers on their Facebook and/or Twitter channels. They may also have newsletters to which you can subscribe via their websites. Many lawmakers use these platforms to share their positions on legislation, post upcoming events, and amplify community outreach efforts. The platforms also include a way for you to provide comments and ask questions.

Send Emails

While some are away from their physical offices or their district offices are closed, email has become a more preferable way for Hill staffers to hear from advocates. Our Legislative Action Center allows advocates to send emails that will reach the correct lawmakers based on the advocate’s zip code.

Virtual Fly-ins

Many organizations host Capitol Hill days, during which advocates fly in to meet with lawmakers in DC and in state capitals. These events can also take place virtually. Organizations may schedule meetings as they normally would, but request either a conference call or video chat appointment. Be sure to keep your meetings short and topical (20 minutes for one-on-one calls and 50 minutes for larger groups).

Telephone Town Halls

In lieu of in-person community forums, many lawmakers are hosting regular town hall calls with constituents on a wide variety of topics. Callers can typically ask questions in a moderated forum.

Letters to the Editor

This advocacy tactic should not be overlooked. Letters to the editor provide an opportunity to raise awareness of an issue, and there are many ways you can then share the letter, hence amplifying the exposure.

Virtual Site Tours and 360-Degree Videos

Local Goodwill organizations can utilize virtual site tours as an alternative to inviting a member of Congress, their staff or other officials to visit their facility and see the mission in action.

Video Testimonials

Advocate video testimonials are a great way to capture stories of impact. Recorded messages can then be shared on social media (be sure to tag lawmakers). Be empowered to share your personal stories and connections, which will resonate strongly with lawmakers.

If you have utilized any of these virtual or remote tactics successfully or are planning to give them a try over the next few months, please add your feedback. We’d also welcome other virtual advocacy ideas that groups can adapt.

Much of our grassroots advocacy has taken place virtually over the last several years, leveraging the tactics above, and we hope that our advocates will continue to help Goodwill strengthen our public policy influence for years to come.