Knowing How to Let Them Know


Nonprofit Marketing and Outreach Lessons From the "Get Out the Vote" Movement

Many of us remember a certain type of TV spot from the late '80s and onward. Someone famous from the NBC television lineup—or another notable face, such as an American president—would come on the screen and extoll the virtues of parents reading with their children, or the benefits of a vegetable-rich diet. Then a star with a rainbow tail would streak across the screen. The more you know.

Those of us born just before the Reagan years, a time that aligned us with the mid-1980s G.I. Joe cartoon fandom, probably also remember the similarly named Knowing is half the battle public service campaign. At the end of the show, we'd see a kid learning the virtues of telling the truth, or what to do when stranger danger arises. One of the show's heroes—like Duke, Lady Jaye, or Sgt. Slaughter—would then show up, pat the kid on the shoulder, and say that phrase. It wasn't quite like fighting Cobra, but we could be heroes in our own life struggles.

Generations of humankind have talked about the power of knowledge. But even in our hyperconnected modern world, there are certain important aspects of our lives where a huge chunk of the population doesn't know what they need to know.

Let's take voting as an example. The most recent U.S. presidential election had our largest voter turnout yet. But that didn't just happen; there were many feet on the ground working to inform people not just of the importance of voting, but how to vote. For some people in a small town, it may seem simple: the polling station in the place where I grew up has always been in the same place. But for people in other locations, it may not be so easy. What polling precinct am I in? Where is the polling station? Did they move it or shut it down since last year? (A troubling trend is the closing down of polling places in urban areas, often in minority enclaves.) If I don't have a driver's license, what ID will suffice? How long will it take to acquire that ID if I don't already have it? How early do I need to register? Do I qualify for an absentee ballot, and if so, how do I do that? If there is an issue (such as if I registered, but the poll worker says I'm not on the list), how do I cast a provisional ballot? And equally as important, how do I recognize scams or false information?

That's a lot of questions. And for some people, it can be overwhelming, particularly for those without easy access to the information—such as people who lack internet service at home—or those who have recently moved to a location with completely different rules and processes.

For certain populations, the process can be even more labyrinthine. Last year, the BBC looked at imprisoned populations. As they note, a large portion of individuals in local jails haven't been convicted of a crime; they may be unable to afford bail or facing other issues affecting their release. But they still have a right to vote. But to do so is an intricate process, as explained by Jen Dean, deputy director of the nonprofit group Chicago Votes:

A person has to ask a guard to register to vote; the guard has to go and get a voter registration form; the person has to fill out the voter registration form; get it somehow back to the board of elections; fill out a ballot application form, then send that back to the board of elections. And then somehow find their ballot. All within jail, where you don't have access to money—you don't have access to pretty much anything. So that process, those seven steps, are a nightmare for somebody in jail.

Groups of volunteers work hard to ensure that these populations understand the process to exercise their rights. Without their efforts, this group of citizens would be effectively disenfranchised.

Similarly, nonprofit organizations can't just assume that the populations they serve will know about the organization, or how to access their services. Outreach is necessary. And in both cases, voting and need of services, there are population overlaps, such as groups with a lack of time or resources to find the information on their own.

A little over a year ago, part of my local community was ravaged by forest fires. Many people lost their homes; it was a massive tragedy for this town. In the aftermath, support sprung up in many forms and from many sources: clothing and meals for those without a place to live, cleanup services for the damaged properties, a furniture share for folks after they managed to rebuild, government aid programs, and more. Without diligent outreach from volunteers and others, these people reeling in the wake of tragedy would have likely been unaware of many of the avenues of available assistance.

But to call back to the crew of G.I. Joe, knowing is only half the battle. The volunteers couldn't just make people in need aware of the services; they would need to help them navigate the processes. Yes, government aid was available. But what forms would be needed? What was the timeframe? Was there a helpline to call? The furniture share exists, sure, but if I lost my truck in the fire, is there a way to have the items delivered? How do I do that? In times of stress and crisis, a guiding hand is more necessary than ever.

A huge majority of the population knows that voting is important. Outreach in that regard can only go so far. After that, it's a matter of helping people overcome any obstacles to achieving that task. With voting, we're talking about guiding people to help decide on a better path forward for our country, states, counties, and towns. With nonprofit services, we are talking about improving the quality of life for our families and communities. Both paths are less daunting when we have someone who can help us along the way.

In December, the Chronicle of Philanthropy looked at a troubling paradox: marketing outreach helps make people aware of crucial services, but funders and donors don't like to provide the money to do it. In the midst of the pandemic, the author's public health nonprofit worked to bring healthcare services to low-income people. They received some grant funding, but none earmarked for marketing. After deciding to mount a marketing campaign using other available funds, they found that visits to their website's "Find Services" page increased by 500%. The organization was able to help numerous people who would have otherwise fallen through the cracks.

For organizations looking to fund marketing and outreach initiatives, there is some hope. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, more funders started offering general operating support. So far, many funders have continued to do so.

Beyond general support, organizations can work to tie their marketing request to program outcomes. How, specifically, will marketing help the program? How many new clients will such funding help your organization reach? How will the outreach help your organization serve previously underserved populations? The marketing aspect has to somehow improve your ability to deliver your program services. If not, the request might be a hard sell to potential funders.

The next step is to reach out to media companies in your area. While some places may not be able to make a monetary donation, an in-kind donation may be just what your organization needs. Services like free printing or airtime or advertising space can help you spread the word about your organization's offerings.

If your organization has enough volunteers with the capacity to do so, you can take a cue from the "get out the vote" movement and hit the streets. In certain communities, the word-of-mouth buzz created by a door-to-door campaign may be just what your program needs.

The call to get out and vote is one that has become stronger and stronger in recent years. Transferring that same energy to spreading the word on nonprofit programs, and working to acquire the resources to do so, will help to further the quality of life for those in need.

Action steps you can take today
  • Explore general operating support options. There are many more than in previous years.
  • Reach out to local media organizations for in-kind support.
  • Learn how to create a digital advocacy campaign.