Colorado Education Advocates Unveil New Tactic

By Tim Hoover of the Denver Post….

Supporters of an initiative that would ask voters in November to raise taxes for education are using an online, grassroots strategy to gather signatures that could revolutionize the petition process.

“It is the first time that I have seen this kind of tactic,” said veteran ballot-issue consultant Rick Reiter. “I’m watching it closely because I could learn a lot.”

Great Education Colorado Action is the political arm of Great Education Colorado, a group that urges more spending on education, and it has sent e-mails to supporters and turned to social networking to jump-start a signature-gathering drive for Initiative 25.

That proposal would, for five years, raise state sales taxes from 2.9 percent to 3 percent and hike the state’s income tax from 4.63 percent to 5 percent. If voters approved it, the proposal would generate an estimated $3 billion for K-12 and higher education.

Supporters say the tax hikes are needed to offset three years of deep cuts to education spending.

Critics say Coloradans are in no mood for a tax increase and the proposal would kill jobs during an economic recovery. Republicans have been the most vocal critics, but many Democrats have been silent on the proposal, and Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, has repeatedly said Coloradans have “no appetite” for a tax increase.

The initiative filed by state Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, doesn’t have the support so far of the state’s major business or education groups. That means the six-figure sums that are usually required to hire companies to conduct petition drives may not be forthcoming.

So supporters are trying a strategy that uses social network websites to ask people to sign the petitions. Supporters have set up a website that allows people to download petitions and then volunteer to gather signatures.

The kit includes instructions on how to gather 50 signatures to fill each petition and even how to properly staple the pages. It instructs volunteers to seek out a notary after gathering the signatures and then to return the signed petitions to supporters in Denver.

Every petition must bear an individual number, and the website where they can be downloaded assigns each one a unique number.

“The conventional wisdom is you need a lot of money to get something on the ballot,” said Lisa Weil, spokeswoman for Great Education Colorado. “Well, we don’t have that. What we’ve got is tens of thousands of education supporters who care about schools and affordable higher education.”

Instead of standing outside a supermarket, Weil said, volunteers can seek signatures on a more personal level. This closer-knit connection also will allow volunteers to better educate others about funding cuts for schools and colleges.

The hurdle to get an initiative on the ballot isn’t small. Supporters will have to gather the valid signatures of 86,105 registered Colorado voters, a benchmark that usually means circulators aim for as many as twice that number of signatures just to be safe.

“I think that the structure of what they’re doing has potential here,” said Reiter, the consultant, “but like all these things, when you need 11,000 people engaged in it, the management and the direct contact with those people will dictate whether this works or not.”

He added: “Hopefully 11,000 people have staplers. Because if you don’t staple it right, you’re done.”

OR Voters Reject School Bond…Lessons Learned

Last week we wrote about a Portland, Oregon ballot initiative to better fund public schools.  The measure was defeated by a narrow margin on Tuesday.  The following article by Susan Nielsen appeared in the May 16 edition of the Oregonian….

Portland isn’t the kind of city to have nail-biting elections over school taxes. Levies “coast to victory” in the news headlines here. A special income tax will “pass easily by wide margins,” even during an economic downturn.

Bonds pass, too — until this week, when Portland voters narrowly rejected a $548 million capital bond and upended conventional wisdom about their loyalties and limits. This man-bites-dog result provides some invaluable lessons for the district and its campaign team as they regroup for the next bond effort.

Starting with this lesson: Never take voters for granted. Listen to what they’re saying now — not what they’ve said in the past.

Early polling suggested broad support for a bond measure for Portland Public Schools. Election history also pointed to victory, with 58 percent of voters approving the last bond, more than 60 percent approving a special income tax and 63 percent approving the last levy. Portland appeared unstoppable, even as many other Oregon districts struggled with multiple rejections of more modest local tax measures.

The pro-schools track record may have dulled the district’s senses. (Of course voters will come through. Of course Portlanders will make sacrifices for school kids, once they see enough of those homespun yellow signs that say, “Portland (heart) Schools.” Of course the public will trust the district to work out the details later.)

School leaders and campaigners didn’t quite fathom the opposition brewing in pro-schools strongholds, including neighborhoods near Grant High and parent groups in the Sylvan Hills. They wrote off the grumblings as isolated complaints rather than major red flags.

They won’t do that again. Continue reading

The Big Flea Thrives on Word of Mouth

The fifth annual MV Big Flea was held last weekend in Alexandria, Virginia.  This year the annual flea market raised an impressive $30,619 from nearly 2,000 attendees.

Since 2007, the MV Big Flea has raised $93,481 for the Mount Vernon Community School PTA. Not bad for a public elementary school where 2/3rds of the kids qualify for free and reduced-price lunches.

But what’s even more surprising is the role word-of-mouth communications have  played in the Big Flea’s success.

“We don’t have a big advertising budget,” said MV Big Flea spokesperson Maria Getoff.  “We’ve spent less than $1,000 on advertising, and about $7,500 total, to organize and promote the event since 2007.  Instead, we’ve relied on inexpensive grassroots and word of mouth communications tactics to spread the word.”

Local community listservs are the MV Big Flea’s primary means for reaching thousands of potential donors and event attendees.  Organizers do their best to to make the messages “sticky” so they have staying power and spread throughout the community (see here and here).

Organizers rely heavily on other online resources: Craigslist to sell items (and promote the event), Freecycle to get rid of the leftovers, a WordPress blog for a website and targeted Facebook ads to raise awareness in the week before the event.

Old fashioned tactics like personal meetings with community leaders, yard signs and photocopied flyers also help spread the word.  As a result, despite a very limited presence in the local media, the MV Big Flea is widely known in Alexandria and attended by thousands each year.

Sending the Wrong Message: Parents Protest Budget Cuts

A local grassroots collection of parents displayed concern over Florida legislature’s plan to cut education funding this morning with a march over the Granada Bridge in Ormond Beach.

A larger march is planned between 4 and 6 p.m. today, according to a report published in the Daytona Beach News Journal by staff writer Audrey Parente.

“The point is to let legislators know there is unhappiness at the local level with the idea of cutting educational funding,” said Julia Truilo of Ormond Beach.

The local mom was among a small group of bridge marchers this morning, but said the crowd after school is expected to be larger.

“It’s a parent-generated protest,” Truilo said. “My purpose is to let folks know education funding is important.

“There’s one rule when organizing a protest,” said Joe LaMountain of Sparklight Communications, “you’ve got to deliver a crowd.  If you don’t, you wind up looking weak to the politicians you’re trying to influence.”

The parents organized in a online blog at PreserveEducation.blogspot.com listing email contacts for key legislators and the Volusia County School Board. The blog site also includes suggested slogans forbridge-walkers to include on homemade signs.

“Parents are doing right by involved,” LaMountain continued.  “But a successful protest needs more than just a blog.  You need dozens of personal meetings, hundreds of phone calls and thousands of flyers for it to work.” Continue reading

Don’t Overlook the Power of the Phone

The new Broadway musical Sister Act has found its social media groove. It has more than 55,000 Facebook “likes,” 1300 Twitter followers, 30,000 YouTube views and a set of apps.

But as The New York Times reports, there’s just one problem.  “Ask Broadway insiders how many tickets have been sold as a result of all this social networking, and the look on their faces reads, ‘Server Not Found.'”

“You hope these sites generate good word of mouth,” said Sister Act director Jerry Zaks, but the the “best measure of our popularity and financial return is group sales.”

And according to the article, group sales are driven largely by the tried and true method of sales agents working the phones. The agents work from decades-old databases of church groups, schools, businesses and clubs and work these contacts to make sales.

“This is a relationship business and I can trust Stephanie [my sales Representative],” said one ticket buyer who sends 35 groups a year to Broadway. “I don’t know who is on the other end of a Twitter or Facebook account saying such-and-such a show is good.”

Though Broadway tickets sales are far removed from the nonprofit world, I think there’s a couple takeaways here for nonprofit leaders. First, it is important to have a robust social media presence in order to generate word of mouth and exposure for your cause.

But where Broadway excels, and most nonprofits fall flat, is the next step. Following up personally with potential supporters by phone and making the sales pitch. I’ve been amazed how many organizations fail to take this crucial step in their fundraising, awareness and advocacy efforts.

For example, a nonprofit with whom I work was organizing a fundraising walk. More than 4,000 people had participated in previous years, but had not registered for the 2011 event. But instead of setting up volunteer- or staff-led phone banks, or even paying someone to call, they relied exclusively on social media and email. Result: Money left on the table.

“Facebook and Twitter are great tools,” said Stephanie Lee, President of Group Sales Box Office said, “but the buzz from all these shows can be deafening.”

While decidedly unsexy – the Times calls them “version 1.0” on Broadway – the company’s communications plan is clearly working. Ticket orders were up 43% from last year, a track record of success few nonprofits or businesses can match in this economic client.

Do you need help reaching your audience?  Contact Joseph LaMountain at joseph.lamountain@gmail.com or 202.288.5124 today.

Leadership: We Need it from Teachers

I am really tired of education bloggers like Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post.

She rants on and on about the “failed” policies of the President, rather than crediting this administration for its laser-like focus on reform.

Never before has so much media attention been paid to education innovation, research, data and teacher quality and I credit “Race to the Top,” Bill Gates, and the Obama Administration.

But clearly, Valerie Strauss and I don’t agree.

In her most recent article bashing the new movie Waiting for Superman, Strauss spurns teacher evaluation and accountability, as if they have nothing to do with student achievement. And yet data shows us that student success is tied directly to the quality of the teacher in the classroom.

If she would deign to look at any of the research out of The New Teacher Project, or The Education Trust, she would see  this.  If she were to look further, she would see that these organizations, and innovative schools around the country, are working with teachers on how to be more effective in the classroom, in order to differentiate and meet student needs. Continue reading

Download Our Great Grassroots Fundraising Idea!

We’ve come up with a great grassroots fundraising idea called Let’s Change ________! Click here for the download.

Here’s the concept:  Mobilize supporters to collect (and return to you) “spare change” from friends, coworkers and neighbors.

By filling in the blank with your name, you can custom-brand the campaign.  For example, if you’re collecting money for epilepsy, call it the Let’s Change Epilepsy! campaign. The possibilities are endless.

Does it work?  A few months ago I saw a woman dumping canvas bags of change into a bank coin counter.  She’d collected more than $1,200 this way to support the Susan G. Komen Foundation. Continue reading

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