April 16, 2012

PopVox: How to advocate your cause in Congress

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PopVox: Get through to Congress from JD Lasica on Vimeo.

Online service offers easy way to contact members of Congress on behalf of a cause

Target audience: Nonprofits, foundations, NGOs, social enterprises, cause organizations, businesses, Web publishers, educators, journalists, general public.

JD LasicaOne of our matras here at Socialbrite is that online actions only matter if they make a difference in the real world. So we spend a lot of time working with online advocacy organizations to assess the impact they make with their legislative or fundraising campaigns.

One of the most effective tools to come along in recent years is PopVox, an online service that individuals and advocacy organizations can use to contact members of Congress on behalf of a cause.

With Congress returning from spring break today — with votes planned on the Buffett rule, gun bills and cybersecurity — it’s a good time to focus on what works, and doesn’t work, on Capitol Hill.

Marci Harris, founder and CEO of PopVox, founded the nonpartisan service based on her knowledge of how Congressional staffers interact with the public. As a former Congressional staffer, Marci said, “I was really frusteated with the way that information was coming into Congress.” She began keeping a long list of the ways that public input into legislation could be improved — and finally decided to do something about it herself.

Watch, embed or download the video on Vimeo

The most effective way to contact Congress

Being on the receiving end of the funnel, Marci said, “I have to tell you it’s too much. No staffer can possibly read every line that comes into a Congressional office.”

On PopVox, a visitor has to choose a bill on a certain topic and support or oppose it as a first step.

Professional advocates are good at mobilizing support for or against a particular bill. On the other hand, Marci said, “Grassroots advocacy is genuine and heartfelt and reflects the needs of real people across the country, but the asks that come in from people who are self-organizing are really unfocused — you know, save the environment, balance the budget, save the whales.” Congresspeople and their staffs can do little with such overtures.

“PopVox funnels these voices into very specific asks,” she said. On the site, a visitor has to choose a bill on a certain topic and support or oppose it as a first step. The site then works each day to make sure voters’ messages are delivered through something called Congressional Web forms. (There are about 541 different Congressional Web forms — a pipeline directly into Congress members’ offices.)

While an in-person visit or phone call from a constituent is still the best way to influence a member of Congress, that’s not always practicable. “Personalized messages are much better received than form letters or emails. Lowest on the list are form faxes — you might as well just throw those away.” Staffers don’t read those, she said.

Transparency is part of the PopVox formula. When you use the service, the public and news media can see the comments you send to members, “so it’s not just disappearing into the black box of a Congressional office,” she said. Citizens and advocates also have the option to share their cause, plea or rant via Facebook, Twitter and across the social Web.

A subscription-based version of PopVox gives advocacy organizations access to analytics and a rich dashboard. But for most social cause groups, the free version will do just fine.

A production note: Glitch in Adobe Premiere Elements 10

A production note: I recently bought Adobe Premiere Elements 10 and spent several weeks trying to produce this video. What I liked:

• The easy-to-use interface made it easy to add image stabilization (I didn’t bring a tripod), color correction and a brighter hue.

• But: the audio was out of sync, and a bug in Elements 10 on my Mac Pro prevented me from fixing this. So while it looked better, the out-of-sync audio ultimately forced me to scrap it after weeks of trying. And back to Final Cut Express I went.


Gov 2.0 resources: A directory from SocialbriteJD Lasica, founder and former editor of Socialbrite, is co-founder of Cruiseable. Contact JD or follow him on Twitter or Google Plus.

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Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 UnportedThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported.

5 thoughts on “PopVox: How to advocate your cause in Congress

  1. JD, good article, I’ll have to checkout this service – I was not previously familiar with them, though I do love their name. For the past few years i’ve been using OpenCongress, which I love. Looks like many of the same features like grant tracking, writing letters to members of congress, etc. These places are great ways to get a hold of members of congress, which I’ve found to be catalysts for some nonprofit programs and grant funding. Opencongress also has a sister company, opengovernment, and they’re starting to bring state level bills online. I love this interaction with nonprofits and politics. It opens up a world that was previously veiled.

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