Engaging your strongest activists: 5 strategies for advocate retention

May 24, 2023 | Jack Valor
Engaging your strongest activists: 5 strategies for advocate retention
Jack Valor is an Associate Vice President at MissionWired, a direct marketing agency for nonprofits and political campaigns.

From breaking news to unfolding emergencies, there will be key moments for your organization when you might acquire thousands (even hundreds of thousands!) of email addresses or phone numbers of new supporters, ready to take action. But what does it mean to keep those supporters active and interested in your purpose and work for the long haul?

As a wholly-integrated, digital-first direct marketing agency partnering with world-changing nonprofits and Democratic organizations, we know that the long-term retention of advocates is not without its challenges. When our partners see an influx of new supporters, joining en masse to respond to a single issue, they’re faced with questions: will someone joining with a single interest be responsive to a wider range of our legislative work? Will they be interested in supporting our broader efforts?

By implementing a few strategic best practices, you can build a sense of connection with your newly-acquired advocates, keeping them active and supporting your program’s goals. With these five strategies our partners have seen success retaining engaged activists:

1. Move quickly in key moments.

When a crisis or breaking news puts a spotlight on your organization, it’s important to be prepared with the ability to move quickly. Our nonprofit partners have found SMS to be a critical channel for rapid response messaging, so we recommend getting a head start: build your SMS list by collecting phone numbers now – on your homepage, your donation forms, or in your newsletter, so your audience is ready to hear from you in critical moments.

Having a clearly-laid plan, with systems set up in advance, to allow you to move quickly in key moments is a valuable way to keep your advocates at the forefront of your communications. (For more on this subject from our Nonprofit Advisory Board, check out our blog, Five Takeaways in Rapid Response.)

2. Keep the language accessible.

For some organizations, advocacy work can be steeped in complex policy, with legislative actions that drive real, critical change but have policy names that can be intimidating and confusing for supporters. We always encourage our nonprofit partners to lead with impact and to explain the relevance of policy challenges they may be less familiar with.

For an advocate who joined your audience in support of a major federal policy, this might mean you’ll need to spend some extra attention on the topic to get everyone up to speed. The local policy challenges your organization takes on may be working on a smaller scale than the federal issue that drew them to your email list, but helping your supporters understand the real impact those actions have can build an overarching affinity for the larger cause you’re fighting for.

3. Make it easy (like, one-click easy.)

To keep the active folks on your list engaged, and to keep your own deliverability high, we’ve helped our nonprofit partners build one-click petitions that make taking action to assert support for a cause as easy as possible.

These quick, low-bar asks will keep your active audience informed of new developments in your work and help to build momentum in their own participation and sense of connectedness to your organization. And when you target your active list of donors and audience members first with quick engagement asks, you’ll be able to maintain a greater-sized activists’ list to have at the ready for your next advocacy call to action.

4. Target closely, then build affinity.

When faced with retaining a cohort of advocates for the broader work of your organization who may have joined your audience in response to a single issue, targeting can play an influential role.

With one organization we partner with, we ran a year-long test, sending three to four targeted messages per month, beginning with a strong focus on the issue central to what brought them to their email list, then gradually moving into sharing more about their organization’s broader work, building affinity for their larger purpose. With this priming, their test audience was significantly more responsive to broader appeals to take action and converted to donors more readily than the control audience.

(For more on this approach, our friends at EveryAction, which is becoming Bonterra, share a little more about this strategy in a short explainer video!)

5. Get some name recognition.

Many nonprofits doing work in advocacy have key leadership at the front of their critical policy challenges. By building up name recognition among members of your audience with these leaders, you can create a sense of momentum during big moments. Hearing directly from a recognized member of your leadership team can dramatically increase performance and inspire your advocates to respond.

Getting started with building your digital advocacy campaign? Check out this complete campaign guide and webinar focused on building year-round advocacy relationships. And, we know retention is an ongoing challenge for our nonprofit partners, whether retaining supporters to take action or to donate. Our expert strategists shared more best practices for keeping new donors engaged for the long-term in our blog, The Art of Retention.