Half of Congress Doesn't Believe Your Members Signed that Petition

Posted on Thu, Feb 17, 2011

Tags: advocacy

Two weeks ago, Ahlam Said and I trained organizers from a variety of civic engagement groups in the art and science of fundraising by email.

This presentation is always a little counter-intuitive to those who haven't spent much time working in online advocacy. The trainees are future and current movement leaders in the middle of an intensive four-day training on everything from managing a team to wooing foundations. But email fundraising isn't necessarily intuitive.

First, we have to convince the trainees that email is still the most effective and proven way to raise money online. With all of the "shiny new thing" attention trained on Twitter, Facebook, and recurring waves of non-profit fundraising platforms, this is no easy feat.

Then we cover open rates, unsubscribe rates, click-through rates, and conversion rates, and the trainees' hearts drop. It's one thing to know that not everyone who gets your email is going to give you money. It's another to realize that only about 0.25% (that is, one quarter of one percent) of everyone who receives your email actually manages to open it, click the link, and complete the form on the donation page. You lose large numbers of people at each step along the way. Even after you get your members to a donation page, just over 21% of them complete it (Source: M+R Strategic Services 2010 eNonprofit Benchmark Study).

It makes you pretty proud, in fact, of the people you do successfully encourage to donate. You and your online team have worked hard to inspire someone to part with their hard-earned dollars, and to remove the several technical barriers between them and their tax-deductible receipt.

Similar attrition rates apply to online petitions. And when the email list you're working with isn't the size of Obama for America or MoveOn, you work really hard to get the most signatures you can with the numbers you have. And you're rightfully proud when you amass enough citizens' names and responses to potentially direct their representatives' attention to your issue (especially when you succeed in encouraging your members to write personal notes).

Except that you may not actually get their attention. Because half of the people working for your representatives think that you, the corner-cutting advocacy group, have just appended the names of your member rolls to your petition, without their permission, to make it look more impressive.

That was my head exploding.

According to the Congressional Management Foundation's Communicating with Congress report, over half (53%) of 260 Capitol Hill staffers surveyed believe this is a common practice.

This is roughly the same rate as the 2005 version of this report. I can no longer find it online, but I do have a PDF.

In that report, CMF wrote:

Congressional staff often seriously doubt that identical form communications are actually sent by constituents. Instead, the prevalent belief expressed in our surveys, interviews and focus groups is that grassroots organizations are creating these communications from membership lists, rather than through direct constituent action. When asked whether they thought identical form communications were generated "without the knowledge or consent" of a constituent, 49% agreed or strongly agreed and an additional 25% responded "neither agree nor disagree," suggesting that they have some doubts.

So, 26% of the staffers interviewed in 2005 believed that advocacy campaign messages actually reflect constituent communication. In the six years since, this number dropped to 22% of staffers interviewed. The other 78% either agreed or weren't sure if "Most advocacy campaigns of identical form messages are sent without the constituent's knowledge or approval." This appears to be a problem of attitude moreso than technology:

Many staff appear to have formed this opinion based on a few experiences in which their offices responded to constituents who then claimed to have no knowledge or recollection of contacting them. Staff then assume that, if this occurred with one or two constituents, then most form communications probably are not authentic.

Have any of you actually seen a case where an organization disingenuously appended all of their members' names and information to a petition? I can't think of a single example. Correct me if I'm wrong. And even if examples exist, it's just not anything close to common practice for advocacy groups to cheat this way.

For what it's worth, CMF agrees, in their 2005 report:

CMF preliminary research suggests that most of the communications sent to Capitol Hill are authentic communications from constituents, or at least include the consent of the constituent at some stage in the process. There is some anecdotal evidence of groups temporarily holding communications in reserve so they can be sent en masse to an office. We also have heard of groups sending multiple messages to an office based on one interaction with a constituent, such as a constituent "signing" a single online petition which results in repeated e-mail messages or faxes sent to an office. However, our research suggests that these practices seem to be exceptions not the norm.

The Sunlight Foundation delivers a petition on Capitol Hill

There are well-documented problems with using petitions to get Congress to act (Jake Brewer's critique, the Tragedy of Advocacy, and David Karpf's response are two of the most salient I've read). We know that emails alone, especially identical emails, aren't going to sway a Congressperson. There are smart people working to improve how Congress receives constituent communication. I'm eager to find and build more tools for the advocacy groups to leverage in campaigns. And one of our core missions at NOI is to help campaigns consider the theory of change behind tactics like petitions. Your strategy has to consist of more than "Our blast email provider also has a free petition tool," or "We haven't asked our members to do anything in a while."

A woman signs a petition

Petitions and emails clearly aren't enough to sway Congress on an issue. But members of Congress and their staff should respect petitions for what they do represent: a constituent of theirs taking the time to open and read an email, and then add their name to a cause they support. The assumption that messages -- yes, even form messages -- are sent without citizens' knowledge is an insult to the intelligence of their constituents and the intentions of the advocacy groups they belong to.

Side note: The Congressional Management Foundation provides valuable insight with the Communicating With Congress reports, especially for those of us with little exposure to Capitol Hill. But the ask-a-staffer methodology can only go so far. My colleague Evan Sutton offered an interesting point: How many of the staffers interviewed in this year's report have actually worked on Capitol Hill long enough to accurately assess what impact email has had on the quality of constituent communications over time? Given the very high rate of turnover on the Hill, and the fact that MoveOn.org and similar groups have been using the web to communicate with Congress for over ten years, staffers' answers are likely based on biased opinion more than observed effect.


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