Web Tools Give Small Advocacy Groups Big Presence

By Rhea R. Borja — May 02, 2006 6 min read

Over the next year, Aaron Tang and Ethan Hutt, the energetic founders of a new education advocacy group, aim to get 1 million middle school, high school, and college students to sign a petition calling for high-quality public education for all students, not just those in suburban and middle-class neighborhoods.

Since the start of their campaign in late February, they’ve gathered 4,000 signatures. So a million seems like a tall order—especially when the two constitute the entire staff of Our Education, their Arlington, Va.-based nonprofit group. The group receives corporate and nonprofit funding.

But the two 22-year-olds are using a tool that allows small groups to spread their messages just as quickly and widely as large organizations: the Internet. On, for example, students can sign the petition, volunteer to become petition-drive directors, and click a link to invite five friends to sign the petition. Mr. Tang and Mr. Hutt will present the signatures to national leaders at the group’s “Student Bill of Rights” conference in 2007.

They’re also raising Our Education’s online profile on the social-networking site, and linking to other youth-oriented social-justice sites in the hope of reaching tech-savvy Generation Y.

“We want kids to get turned on through the Web site,” said Mr. Tang. “The online piece is a constituency-building campaign to build a youth movement for better schools.”

The Internet and tools such as e-mail and blogs are becoming prominent advocacy weapons because of their speed, reach, and relatively modest costs, said Fred Waugh, the vice president of marketing for Convio Inc. The Austin, Texas-based technology company develops and provides “constituent-relationship management” software for nonprofit organizations and colleges and universities.

Political and public-affairs organizations such as and environmental groups led the online-advocacy charge in the late 1990s, Mr. Waugh said. Since then, a small but increasing number of nonprofit groups in health care, international aid, and other fields are complementing their traditional advocacy campaigns with online efforts.

Education is no different.

Organizations ranging from small upstarts such as Our Education to prominent groups such as the Washington-based Public Education Network (with its, have online-advocacy campaigns. Other groups that work to bring their messages to supporters online include the Washington-based Youth Policy Action Center ( and the San Francisco-based Youth Noise (

High school students, individually or in ad hoc groups, are also getting into the game. A number of recent protests over a proposed federal crackdown on illegal immigration were organized by students who spread the word through cellphone text messages and

“Online activism is entering its growth phase,” Mr. Waugh said.

Click to Send

Established organizations have launched some of the most visible efforts.

PEN moved part of its advocacy efforts to the Internet five years ago, said Howie Schaffer, the public-outreach director for the national network of public education funds. Direct-mail campaigns are expensive and slow, he explained. And after the post-9/11 anthrax scare in the fall of 2001, “people stopped opening their mail if it came from strangers,” he said.

Ripple Effect

Youth Noise is a Web-based resource that encourages young people to get involved in social issues and provides contact information on a variety of topics.

● Gun violence
● Curfews
● Youth rights
● Child exploitation
● Hunger
● Homelessness
● Child abuse
● Hate crimes and intolerance
● Global warming
● Rain forests
● Animal rights
● Substance abuse
● Body image
● Education
● Politics
● The arts

Civil Rights:
National Youth Rights Association (NYRA)
Its Mission: To defend the civil and human rights of young people in the United States through education, policy changes, and youth empowerment.

Youth and Civil Liberties Council (YCLC)
Its Mission: To place young people in decisionmaking positions to ensure that no question about youth liberties goes unanswered.

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“So we took a leap of faith,” Mr. Schaffer said. “The online piece would be a longer-term strategy.”

Since then, the group’s online activists have grown from 15,000 to 90,000. Collectively, those members have completed 260,000 “online actions”—either by sending customized e-mail letters to lawmakers via a button on PEN’s campaign site or by signing petitions on issues such as after-school funding or teacher quality.

PEN uses Democracy in Action, a Washington-based advocacy-software nonprofit group that works only with other nonprofit groups.

“The Internet has allowed us to do what’s been labor-intensive and expensive offline. And that’s to mobilize people and let their voices to be heard,” Mr. Schaffer said. “We can mobilize them instantly. They’re our online army.”

But the Internet works best, perhaps, for smaller groups by helping them get established quickly and expand in an instant. One of the greatest assets of such advocacy, observers of the trend say, is that online campaigns avoid the need for a large staff.

The cost can be fairly low. Democracy in Action, for instance, charges a $500 set-up fee and $100 in monthly maintenance costs for a nonprofit with fewer than 3,000 supporters. For-profit companies, such as Convio and Berkeley, Calif.-based Get Active Inc., charge more for their software, which can be customized.

The software solutions usually include fund-raising tools as well, which make it simple for supporters to donate money—with just a click of a button.

The Sacramento-based Edvoice, which was founded in 2001, has a staff of only five employees and two interns. But it has more than 25,000 members in its grassroots network ( Last year, Edvoice sent more than 14,000 e-mail or fax letters to state lawmakers on a variety of issues, such as funding for the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

“Also, yesterday, we had thousands of letters going to the Senate and the General Assembly right before they went to vote,” said Steve O’Mara, EdVoice’s communications associate. “Our advocacy is almost exclusively online.”

Passion Into Action

Students are also becoming more receptive to online advocacy.

At Youth Noise, students can look up information on issues they’re interested in—written by 150 Youth Noise volunteers in high schools and colleges around the world. Or they can read about actions they can take on those issues and connect with other students via blogs or message boards on the Youth Noise site, which logs up to 700,000 visits a month.

The Web site can also be the catalyst for students to take their activism offline, said Ginger Thomson, the executive director of Youth Noise, which is a project of the Tides Center, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization that provides administrative services to charitable organizations.

One high school student in upstate New York organized a school blood drive, which netted 1,000 pints. He posted information about the project on the Youth Noise site, inspiring 18 other students around the nation to organize their own blood drives, Ms. Thomson said.

Students can also raise money for their causes through the Web site’s “1 Click Campaign.” In one instance, students interested in combating youth violence raised almost $3,500 by clicking on a button that took them to a Web page on youth-violence prevention.

The more “clicks” the students gave the Web page, the more money they “raised.” The money, donated by an insurance company, was given to anti-violence groups that worked in schools.

“We invite a young person to come in with a passion, and translate that passion into something they want to do,” Ms. Thomson said.

The Youth Policy Action Center’s Web site looks like a one-stop shopping center for student activists. They can look up issues by topic, state, or organization. They can also find their elected officials, track bills, read talking points on their causes, and look up volunteer opportunities.

Spurred by the Web site, for example, youth activists sent hundreds of e-mails and made hundreds of phone calls to their lawmakers to help pass the federal Public Lands Corps Healthy Forests Restoration Act, which offers low-income young people job training, said Thaddeus Ferber, the executive director of the Youth Policy Action Network.

The bill passed unanimously in the U.S. Senate in November, but has not been acted on by the U.S. House of Representatives.

“It’s difficult to get even supportive members of Congress to move on a piece of legislation. It’s hard to get their attention,” Mr. Ferber said. “So the online advocacy campaign is critical.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 03, 2006 edition of Education Week as Web Tools Give Small Advocacy Groups Big Presence

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