Watch this webinar recording to learn how a small nonprofit law center used a few thousand dollars in Facebook ads and conference calls to build a movement to expand Medicaid in Tennessee.

You’ll get the inside story of what worked and what didn’t and get ideas for tactics to try in your own work.

How a small nonprofit recruited thousands of people online to participate in offline action

by Ted Fickes

By mid-January, 2015, the Tennessee Justice Center (TJC) and other supporters of Insure Tennessee knew they had to make a strong case in the state legislature’s upcoming healthcare-focused special session. Support from the Governor and business interests as well as doctors and hospitals hadn’t been enough to support previous efforts to fill a health insurance gap that leaves 200,000 citizens unable to afford insurance. 

Katie Alexander of TJC describes the situation: “TJC is a nonprofit law firm with just four lawyers and six client advocates but we knew we had to find a way to turn people out in support of Insure Tennessee.” 

Time was running short with just a few weeks until the special session in February. TJC looked to social media as a way to reach people fast and hoped to find someone that could help use Facebook to raise awareness. 

In January, Katie and her team sat down for the first time with Randall Smith of PowerLabs to talk about Facebook.

Frenetic (and strategic)

It’s not an uncommon situation: A group has an opportunity to get a critical bill passed but it faces a big hurdle to get legislators to change their position. And fast. 

It’s high-pressure, high-stakes work at any level. Want to pass a healthcare funding bill in a conservative southern state? Impossible, many would say. You have to build power, do it quickly and do it with a tight budget -- all the while competing with interests funded by the Koch brothers and other outsiders. 

Power, speed and efficiency. TJC needed all three from PowerLabs when Katie Alexander first got Randall Smith, PowerLabs founder, on the phone the evening of January 21, 2015. The special session was set to start on February 2nd, 12 days later and TJC’s funding for a proposed (but undefined) campaign to support Insure Tennessee had just been approved that day. 

At the end of that first call, Randall decided to catch the 5am flight to D.C. the next morning. Katie and others from TJC would be at a conference there. That was the first indicator TJC had that PowerLabs would go all in on a project. 

Randall and Katie met the afternoon of January 22nd and were joined by TJC’s Executive Director, Michele Johnson and two other members of the TJC team. TJC thought they would be talking through the social media strategy that PowerLabs would use to help pressure state legislators. More awareness in targeted districts seemed appropriate. 

Randall recommended a bigger mobilization effort. “There’s a ton TJC could do online to create better, more effective Facebook ads and tweak their email outreach which, to that point, had been just a monthly newsletter,” says Smith. “But they needed to create tangible pressure on conservative legislators who, frankly, had little to lose politically by continuing to oppose expanded healthcare access and funding.” 

Passing Insure Tennessee needed an organizing strategy, Randall believed. “We suggested that it would take a lot of pressure- including phone calls, people coming to meetings, people holding signs, people talking to their social media networks and directly to their family and neighbors. Nobody else was doing this to support the bill.”

Tennesseans demand lawmakers expand Medicaid

72 hours

A two-hour initial check-in on January 22nd turned into a seven-hour strategy session. And the next three days were a frenzy of activity. PowerLabs built out an email your lawmaker tool so people could get messages to state legislators. They made online forms and donation pages mobile responsive so people could take action on their phones. PowerLabs also began setting up Revere Calling, a “call your legislator” tool from Revolution Messaging. 

Randall and Cristina Moon from PowerLabs recognized that TJC’s email list was an underutilized asset yet one of the best ways to reach people about upcoming actions and events. They began working with Katie on TJC’s email strategy, interviewed her and other staff so they could begin writing (and rewriting) email messages, and taught TJC to create more engaging, action-driven emails.  

On Monday, January 26th, over 300 people participated in a webinar for supporters of Insure Tennessee hosted by TJC. 

The TJC team had never done anything like this. Before this weekend, TJC had 2,500 email subscribers that received monthly updates. They used Facebook for basic updates to 2000 followers. PowerLabs helped them get emails out over the weekend and targeted Facebook ads to let people know about the webinar. 

Three weeks

PowerLabs had just under three weeks to work with TJC from the first call with Katie Alexander in January to the end of the special session on February 4th. 

The first hard choice was how to target messaging and organizing. 

“We were hoping to do polling so we could ID likely supporters and target advertising. But we didn’t have the budget, voter file or time for it,” says Randall. 

PowerLabs turned to some recent statewide polling on similar healthcare funding questions and targeted Facebook advertising accordingly. They set up eight ad variations and to quickly find winning messaging and images. That testing then informed messaging across email, phones and other channels. 

Here’s how Katie Alexander describes what happened in the first few days: “By the first week, they set us up with a call tool that made it possible for people to call their legislator by entering a zip code. We were able to know who made the calls and call them back to find out what they heard. This made calls easier for our supporters, most of whom hadn’t done this kind of thing before, helped us identify active citizens and quickly let us know what legislators were saying.” 

Randall and Katie were checking in by phone three times a day and team members were constantly in touch through email and text messages. TJC was emailing their list daily with messages created by PowerLabs. 

All these tools were put to the test during the special session when TJC organized a lobby day. Nearly 1,000 people sent emails to key legislators and over 500 calls of more than three minutes were placed to legislators by Insure Tennessee supporters in one day. 

TJC also sent a fundraising email on lobby day asking people to pitch in so they could run more ads. That one message raised over $2,000 and the advertising moved forward. 

“The flexibility of Randall’s team was crazy impressive,” says Katie. We talked on the phone every day about shifting strategy because things were constantly changing as far as targets and what we could say.” 

Woman walks 70 miles across East Tennessee

An infrastructure for the future

The magnitude of what Tennessee Justice Center was able to do by the end of the special session wasn’t lost on Alexander, her colleagues and Insure Tennessee supporters. 

The email list more than doubled to 6,000 subscribers despite daily messages, Facebook and Twitter audiences grew and hundreds of people were participating in open calls and webinars about the campaign. 

But the strategy was about creating space for regular people to take control of their future, not building a list or a Facebook page. Over three weeks of working together, PowerLabs and TJC created the strategy and tools that could connect a network of newfound activists - people that discovered they had a voice and a partner in TJC that could channel that voice for maximum impact. 

“People stepped up statewide,” Katie says describing how people took leadership without being asked. “A woman in rural East Tennessee organized a 70 mile, 5 day walk to support Insure Tennessee. A university student in Nashville organized Moral Monday rallies. People went door to door with petitions. We didn’t run these actions -- people stepped up on their own.” 

Insure Tennessee didn’t pass in the February, 2015, special session. But the network, tactics and strategy shaped by PowerLabs in those few weeks became the backbone for a bigger effort to support Insure Tennessee in the Tennessee Legislature’s regular session.