The Virtual Activist

A Training Course

Part 2A: Using Email for Outreach, Organizing, and Advocacy -- The Fundamentals

When should you use the Internet as part of your organizing and advocacy work? When you need an immediate response, want to contact a lot of people as quickly as possible, and don't have a lot of money to spend on printing and postage. Virtually all of the written materials that your organization produces can be adapted for electronic distribution via email, the Web, or both. If you're not already using email as part of your advocacy work, here are some tips to help you get started.

Although our focus in this lesson is on email activism, once you get started you'll discover that there are many other ways in which technology can enhance your organization's communications. Many people prefer to receive information electronically because it reduces the amount of paper they accumulate. (See Tips for Effective Online Media for more on using email for public relations and media advocacy.)

Suppose you wanted to design an Internet outreach effort to supplement your traditional techniques. To get the word out, your organization has planned a press conference and written a press release. You have plans to write an article for your newsletter, and you are actively preparing a list of talking points for staff and volunteers to use in communicating with the media. What Internet tools can you use to enhance the effectiveness of your effort? You can publish a copy of your press release on your Web site, distribute an email version of your newsletter, and/or post an electronic copy of the newsletter on your Web site.

Elements of email advocacy

Think of email advocacy as an extension of your grassroots organizing efforts. Email action alerts are typically used for strategic purposes in conjunction with issue campaigns that have clearly defined goals. Let's take a look at a real action alert that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a national nonprofit constitutional liberties advocacy organization, sent out:

Subject: ACLU Action List: Defend the Rights of People with Disabilities!

Defend the Rights of People with Disabilities: Ironically enough, on the ten- year anniversary of the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the House of Representatives is considering legislation proposed by Rep. Mark Foley (R-FL) that would circumvent the goal and meaning of the ADA.

Entitled the "ADA Notification Act" (HR 3590), this legislation would sanction individuals who did not first notify a business of an ADA violation and then wait three months before filing a lawsuit. Supporters of this bill claim that it would ensure that businesses are given adequate notice, ignoring the fact that the ADA has been in effect for ten years.

The U.S. Justice department provides ample information and training for businesses to make sure that they are in compliance, including a toll-free ADA information line that handles more than 100,000 calls a year. There is no need for to provide businesses more time to discriminate against people with disabilities.

Take Action! You can read more about this legislation and send a FREE FAX to your Representative from our action alert at:

ACLU Freedom Network Web Page:
America Online: keyword ACLU
ACLU Newsfeed
American Civil Liberties Union National Office
125 Broad Street
New York, New York 10004

In sending out this message, the ACLU achieved its goal of reaching out to gear up opposition to the ADA Notification Act. The action alert also served the secondary purpose of publicizing the ACLU's website and contact information.

Let's see how another organization uses email action alerts. This alert comes from CARAL (California Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League):

Subject: CARAL email action list

Dear Friends,

As the November election quickly approaches, it becomes more and more urgent for CARAL to reach as many pro-choice individuals as possible with information about key reproductive rights information.

We need your help!

Please COPY the message below, paste it into an email message, and send it to all your pro-choice friends, family and colleagues. Feel free to add or change anything to the message to personalize it. (Please be sure to list them in the "bcc" field when you are addressing your email message!)

And if you are not on the CARAL action alert list yourself, please use the handy link below to sign up today.

Thank you for your help protecting reproductive rights.

Yours for Choice

Dear Friends,

As you know, protecting women's reproductive rights is very important to me. And with the upcoming elections, I believe that it's more important than ever for pro-choice individuals like us to be informed and able to take action.

I am a member of the CARAL email action alert list, and I want to ask you to join this list too. You will get email updates with essential information and quick, easy action items that you can take to protect and promote Choice.

All you have to do is click on this link:

Please do this today!

Thank you.

This is an excellent example of how email can be used strategically to build your organization's base of support. The message is short and simple: CARAL needs to reach more pro-choice voters before the election. The requested action is easy to accomplish: copy the message, paste it into an email message form, and send it to everyone you know who shares your pro-choice sentiments. CARAL also makes it as easy as possible for your friends and colleagues to subscribe to the action alert list by including a "mailto" hyperlink. We'll discuss "mailto" hyperlinks in more detail later.

Preparing an email action alert

Before the Internet was widely used, activists and advocacy organizations distributed action alerts by mail and fax. Preparing an email action alert is similar. But since email has the potential to reach a significantly larger audience, there are some special considerations. NetAction has prepared a simple checklist to help you determine if your action alert is ready to circulate in cyberspace:

Distributing an email action alert

When your action alert is ready, you'll be distributing it to the people who subscribed to your alert list. (We will review the tools that you can use to set up your action alert list later.) But your organization's subscriber list isn't your only option. There are thousands of email discussion lists and news groups on the Internet.

When you post the same action alert to several discussion lists or news groups, it's called cross-posting. This can be a very effective way to expand the universe of Internet users who receive your alert. But be careful to target only appropriate lists. If you plan to cross-post your action alerts, you'll have to identify and subscribe to the lists and news groups ahead of time to become familiar with the topics they address.

See What is Usenet, The USENET FAQ, and Another View for a more detailed discussion of newsgroups.

How do you identify the news groups and discussion lists that might be appropriate places to cross-post your action alert? One way is to ask your own subscribers, as well as your friends and colleagues, for suggestions. Or you can locate appropriate lists by surfing other organizations' Web sites to see if they have lists focused on similar issues. For example, if your organization is concerned with welfare issues, you might try posting your alert to news groups that deal with poverty and homelessness. There are also search tools available for a more systematic approach. For email discussion lists try the Liszt directory of mailing lists at For news groups try It's also possible to search the commercial list service Web sites, like Topica

CAUTION: Take care to understand fully the topic and the "environment" of a news group. It's a bad idea under any circumstances to post your alert to a news group you haven't been reading, or an email list you aren't already subscribed to. You need to be familiar with the news group or list to make sure that your action alert is appropriate to post. Otherwise, it could be considered spam (an Internet term for unsolicited junk email) and result in complaints from other subscribers to the list owner, or to your ISP.

There may also be complaints if you post your email action alert to several lists with overlapping subscribers, since people might wind up with three or four copies of the same action alert. If you get a lot of complaints from people who receive multiple copies, reduce the number of lists and news groups that you cross-post to.

There is no hard and fast rule about how often an organization should distribute action alerts. Send them out when there is a specific action you want people to take, such as writing to Congress or attending a rally. Try not to send them more frequently than once a week, but don't feel obligated to send them every week if there isn't anything you want people to do, and don't avoid sending more than one per week if the requested action is timely. If the need for action is infrequent, consider sending an update on the issue once a month just to keep the list active.

Forwarding an email action alert

Along with distributing your own action alerts, you may want to forward alerts written and circulated by other activists or organizations. When you do, delete any unnecessary information, such as address lists in the header, and eliminate the quote marks that indicate the message has been forwarded. To avoid inserting new quote marks when you forward the message, copy and paste the text into a new email message form, or create a copy with the "Send Again" options rather than using the "Forward" option in your software.

Do's and Don'ts

The key to success in distributing email action alerts is as much in knowing what NOT to do as in knowing what to do. Here is NetAction's quick reference list of Do's and Don'ts for email action alerts:



NOTE: NetAction is frequently asked why we recommend not sending email to decision makers. At this time, email is not an effective way to communicate with most decision makers because few of them read it and they have no way of knowing whether the messages they receive are from constituents. It's more effective to phone or write a letter and either mail it or fax it.

Cyberspace Networking

Because of the borderless nature of the Internet, it can be a powerful tool for networking. Organizations with similar concerns can form coalitions and alliances that literally span the globe. The following sites are sponsored by coalitions that developed as a result of cyberspace networking.

Forming Cyberspace coalitions:

Example: Coalition for Networked Information
Example: Global Internet Liberty Campaign
Example: People's Global Action
Example: Internet Free Expression Alliance
Example: Internet Democracy Project

Intranets and electronic networks

Intranets and electronic networks are common in workplaces. They enable a specific group of computer users to communicate online, but they are not part of the larger Internet. America Online is an example of a commercial intranet. If you subscribe to AOL, you have access to a variety of forums, discussion groups, and online services that are not accessible to the general public. Non-profit organizations and grassroots groups can also set up these types of networks.

Example: Institute for Global Communications Internet
See IDM Intranet FAQ

Collaborative Discussion Tools

The hotword of the day is "community" -- everyone wants to build or be part of an online "community." Non-profits are their own community with common interests: fundraising, advocacy, membership, and others. Your membership is another community, and your organization is representing and addressing their interests. We have seen many ways (above) to reach out to your members. However, some organizations want to be a little more interactive.

There are two forms of interactivity: immediate, no archives, often referred to as chat or chat rooms, and nearly-immediate, sometimes archived for later reference and participation, often called Web forums, bulletin boards, or online conferences.

Example: E-groups (a commercial service--check their privacy policy!)

Chat and IRC

Chat is a form of communication which allows immediate interaction on the Internet. The earliest form was Internet Relay Chat (IRC), a text-based communications network. Now, there are newer Internet technologies which make it possible for a group of people to meet and converse online. With chat technology, all conversations take place in real time. That's why IRC has been used extensively for live coverage of world events, news, sports commentary, etc. For activists, it can be a useful tool for convening online meetings, debates, conferences, and town halls.

As a communication tool, chat is somewhere between a personal phone call and an announcement over the radio. Yahoo's Chat Help file has some useful tips for using chat appropriately.

Example: TalkCity (also commercial, uses java software)

Instant Messaging

Another collaborative tool, which is growing in popularity, is instant messaging. Instant messaging applications require users to select their friends, so activists can use them to identify colleagues they might want to be in contact with when both are online at the same time. In addition to sending instant text messages, some services make it possible for activists to send files and pictures instantly, and to conduct audio and/or video conferences. Users should be aware that not all instant messanging services are inter-operable. For example, if you are using Yahoo's messanger, you will not be able to send instant messages to someone using AOL's instant messanger. Hopefully, this won't always be the case.

Examples of instant messaging services include Yahoo's Messenger, AOL's Instant Messenger, and ICQ (I Seek You). See how ICQ works at:

Example: Yahoo's Messanger

Next: Part 2B: Using Email for Outreach, Organizing, and Advocacy -- Mailing Lists