Friday, March 23, 2018

Advocacy Made Easy: Outreach Events



For me, one of the most challenging advocacy actions is the Outreach Event. An in-person gathering to bring people to any group or cause is going to individually challenge everyone involved to step out of their comfort zones. Reaching out to like-minded others is inherently exciting, but it's important for us to also recognize that it isn't so easy for the average person. Every participant has to give up some personal time, go to a physical place that might be out of their way, and be open to new ideas and new personalities. As organizers, it's our job to remove as many barriers as possible, so that new folks find our events to be compelling enough to overcome hangups and hesitations.

In this post, I'll propose a few considerations to make your event more appealing to brand new prospective members and then give a sample agenda and tips that can be used for any organization!

Location: Who is your audience and where will they be most comfortable? Is your meeting place centrally located or easy to find? I just went to a school board candidate forum last night, mainly because it happened to be located at a place where my kids often have activities. I knew it was familiar and not too out of my way.  Even though our own homes and houses of worship are inexpensive and convenient for organizers, some people don't like going to private residences of strangers or feel out of place in churches, temples, and mosques. My favorite venues are restaurants that have back rooms that can be used for community events for free. When they have audio/visual hookups, that's even better! In St. Louis, that means Schafly's Bottleworks and "The Egg and I" restaurant chain. I'm always on the prowl for more venues. I've had feedback that some friends liked coming to my home because they were my friends who liked the familiar, relaxed atmosphere. I've also had feedback from strangers who joined my group that they liked our public library event because they felt it was safe, neutral territory for them. Consider your audience and pick the best place for them, not you!

Marketing: Let's face it. People don't really like to leave their houses anymore for something called an "Informational Meeting" My teenage daughter says, "I've been going to informational meetings for years, but I like them better when they're not called that." People DO like to go to a party, learn a new skill, or hear a speaker who they think is rare or special in some way. My events tend to have titles like "Action Workshop," "Celebration of Child Health Success," or "An Evening with ______." (fill in name of special speaker...or maybe "An Evening with Bundt Cakes"...you decide)

Child Friendliness: Are parents within your target audience? If yes, then you'd better think of some ways to keep those kids occupied and let parents know the kids are welcome. A coloring table in back with goldfish crackers? A separate room with a babysitter and a children's movie playing?

Once you've solidified your plan, you need to show up prepared. Here's my outreach meeting packing list. I've gotten to the point where I have a bag that's always packed with most of these things, so I don't have to scramble around every time.
  • Nametags
  • A/V equipment if necessary (laptop, speaker, projector, cables, microphone)
  • Extension cord
  • Snacks/coffee if needed
  • Sign-in sheet and pen for attendees
  • If writing letters to Congress: paper, pens, sample text for letters, clipboards if no tables
  • Camera for pictures to share on social media
  • Organization banner if you have one
  • Handouts
    • Overview of organization
    • Fact sheet about issue
    • Future ways to engage with your organization and contact info
    • Donation envelopes
Lastly, here's a very general sample agenda for the program portion of your event. Of course, you'll want to customize for your own organization and audience, but this will cover the basics!

Introduction: Who are you? What does your organization do?

Set Expectations: How long will your event presentation last? What are you going to cover? Any "norms" of the group to mention? For example: remaining non-partisan and not making jokes or disparaging remarks about other political parties.

Featured Speaker or Video: Show an inspirational video about what your organization does or highlighting the issue you are talking about. If you have one, it makes a nice break from just talking.

Small Group Discussion (if appropriate): Give small groups a question to tackle together and report back to the group. Consider: "Why is this issue personally important to you?" or "What kind of advocate would you like to be and what skills do you need to get there?"

Story from a Volunteer: Have one of your local volunteers share a story about what inspired them to take action and how it made them feel.

Explain Legislation: What is the specific piece of legislation that you are working to pass? How will it address your issue? How will real people benefit from it?

Action Training: Why does the type of action you are taking (phone call, letter to the editor, letter writing) matter? How do you do it? Demonstrate how to call Congress in front of people or show them written examples of letters to the editor. Allow time for them to complete the action and ask one person to call in front of everyone or to read what they have written.

Well, that's the bare bones of it. Now, go out and think about how to customize your event toward your audience and your organization. Feel free to share how it goes in the comment section. It's always great to learn from each other!