digital activism

Interview: Protecting what we love through Digital Activism

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The Oregon Environmental Council safeguards what Oregonians love about Oregon Through Digital Activism 

Founded in 1968, the Oregon Environmental Council (OEC) is a nonprofit, non-partisan, membership-based organization aimed at protecting the health of Oregon. As such, their work champions clean air and water, a healthy climate, unpolluted landscapes, and sustainable food and farms.

Recently we had the pleasure of sitting down with Simon Tam and Michelle McGrath of OEC to ask them about their digital strategy.

Simon Tam is the current Marketing Director at OEC, and a prominent figure in the worlds of social media and digital activism. His approach to activism through the arts has been highlighted in thousands of media features such as BBC World News, NPR, TIME Magazine, TED talks, NBC, and the New York Times. He also designed one of the first college-accredited social media certificate programs in the United States.

Michelle McGrath is the Membership & Engagement Manager. She is a passionate advocate for conservation, climate action and food justice. Her diverse strengths include community engagement, outreach, direct marketing, fundraising, design, content development and digital strategy. She also sits on the board of directors for the Montavilla Farmers’ Market.

Here’s what they had to say about using Facebook for nonprofits, moving supporters to action, and maintaining reach with a changing algorithm.

ActionSprout (AS): How long have you managed social media communications and where did you get your start?

Simon Tam: I often tell people that even though I have a few degrees in business and marketing, everything I learned about the subject comes from being a rockstar. I’ve been managing social media communications for nearly 20 years now, especially if you consider the first type of online communities through America Online channels. I began writing code for sites like Geocities and Angelfire, mainly to develop websites for local nonprofits and artists. When digital marketing shifted into “social media”—at the onset of Friendster, Xanga, and Myspace—I immediately began using those sites to market my music. Social was a great way to learn key concepts like storytelling, online engagement, and brand awareness without a budget.

A few years ago, I began running social media for higher education institutions and started writing on the subject for sites and magazines like Huffington Post, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, and the National Council on Marketing and Public Relations. As I began doing freelance work for organizations, I could gather data at a much larger level and used that information to develop one of the first accredited social media and digital marketing certificate programs in the country.

Michelle McGrath: In 2011, I started learning about social media as a tool for non-profit marketing—frankly, because I love social media. I’m an outgoing person with an aptitude for sales, outreach and relationship-building, and when I saw that brands and organizations were able to meet goals in these areas via Facebook, I wanted to achieve that too. During a three-year tenure at a small, local food non-profit organization, I was able to use Facebook as a space for online dialogue and to harness co-marketing opportunities. Our brand reach in the community was significantly amplified as a result. Since then, I’ve been helping small farmers’ markets, farmers, and food justice groups to improve their Facebook strategy on lean budgets.

As my passion for social media has grown, I’ve taken courses in digital marketing, and I am earning my graduate certificate in digital engagement from Oregon State University. I seek learning opportunities in this field whenever and wherever I can.

Today, I’m focused more on engagement and conversion rates than brand awareness per se. I know people care about making the world a better place, and I’m looking at how to get them to engage with a post or an email so we can help empower them to be that change they want to see in the world.

(AS): Tell us a bit about where you work. Why did you want to work with the Oregon Environmental Council?

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Simon: I heard about OEC some time ago, when they were a key partner in bringing the Dalai Lama to Portland. Since then, I began developing an interest in the intersection of people-focused environmentalism and social justice work. OEC was one of the first organizations in the state to take environmental justice seriously—and as an activist, this was extremely meaningful to me.

Michelle: In December 2010, I dropped out of a PhD program in Biology. A high-profile professor tried to woo me back. I was tempted, but that same day I had a beer with a former OEC employee. She offered me an unpaid volunteer position. I chose OEC over going back to my PhD, and it was the best snap judgment I’ve ever made. I learned more about how an effective, collaborative organization should run in my three-month volunteer stint with OEC than I could have ever imagined. A year and half later, I found myself running a non-profit. The only reason I was able to make that leap so quickly and successfully was because of what I learned at OEC.

I became a member of OEC after volunteering with them because I saw how large their impact was. I love Oregon, and I know OEC is working to protect my home. I stayed engaged with OEC over the years, and when there was an open position in a role I was passionate about, I joined the staff team!

(AS): What do you wish other people knew about your organization?

Simon: I’m hoping that more people can learn the depth of our organization’s work. Most people have an assumption that environmental organizations only focus on conservation, but the reality is that OEC does much more to protect the state through public policy work. This of course isn’t done in isolation; OEC collaborates and convenes with dozens of organizations, businesses, researchers and community leaders to develop innovative, comprehensive and research-backed solutions.

Michelle: I don’t think many people understand that policy change is one of the most effective tools we have to protect our environment. Personal behavior changes, recycling or biking for example, are extremely important. But policy changes can make sure those behaviors are easier for all of us to adopt. Advocacy organizations aren’t the sexiest, but they are far more important than most people realize. OEC’s theory of change relies on policy change to make our state a better place. There’s a lot of foresight in that, and it looks at the long-term picture over short-term gains. OEC is wise!

(AS): Interest in environmental conservation and protection seems to be growing. Why do you think that is?

Simon: The amount of news regarding climate change, environmentalism, shrinking rainforests and extreme weather seems to be ever-increasing. There has been noise about it for some time, but since issues seem like they are drastically worsening, a new generation that has inherited these problems seem to be speaking up. Also, as more data becomes available, we see how climate change affects more than increasing temperatures: there are substantial effects on actual communities who no longer want to be victims to the irresponsibility of polluters.

Michelle: I think there are two things going on—one is a changing of the guard. The new generations seem to care about the greater good. This hasn’t been embraced at a large scale since the 70s, and it’s nice to feel the pendulum swinging back. The second thing that’s happening is the rise of social media. Images and videos are some of the most powerful tools available for demonstrating the need for environmental protection. They can draw emotion, action and portray urgent need. Social media helps these images spread quickly and widely.

(AS): What do you think will change about the OEC over the next five years?

Simon: OEC responds to needs as they come up—the priorities may shift depending on a number of factors. Seeing how conversations about the quantity and quality of water are developing now lead me to believe that it will become an even bigger issue in the next few years, especially in the face of decreased precipitation.

Michelle: OEC has been a respected leader in engaging community leaders, business leaders and legislators in policy change for years, but now we’re looking to also engage the grassroots more and more in our work. In five years, I think OEC will be reaching a massively larger audience, and will be a much more volunteer and supporter-driven organization.

(AS): How has your strategy / options about Facebook changed over time?

Simon: Since Facebook’s IPO, there have been constant and drastic changes to the effectiveness of Pages on the site. The biggest reason is financially-driven: promoted posts are an extremely reliable source of revenue for the site, especially if marketers don’t want to run an entire keyword-based advertising campaign. Additionally, the algorithm continues to change, making it difficult to consistently engage with followers. However, several key trends persist: the lean toward mobile-friendly content and video. As Facebook continues to fight for market share, they’ll focus on technologies that increase user time—and auto-playing video is one of the most effective ways to accomplish that. For Facebook Pages, the way to capitalize on that is uploading directly to Facebook, rather than YouTube or Vimeo.

Michelle: A colleague I know summed it up nicely. Facebook lured non-profits in with hopes and dreams of amplifying their voice, and now Facebook is punching them in the gut repeatedly with the new algorithm. It’s still a tool for social change, but there is a huge cost to accessing that tool now. Small non-profits are having to develop larger marketing budgets as a result. It’s not good.

(AS): What’s something you wished you learned sooner in terms of social media?

Simon: The under appreciated but vital role of Google+. Though the site is almost useless in terms of reach or engagement, it is extremely vital in terms of search engine optimization and prioritization of YouTube content.

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Michelle: Something I’m still hoping to learn is the integration of Facebook engagement metrics with our Customer Relationship Management software. Being able to recognize and develop relationships with hand-raisers is important for grassroots engagement.

(AS): Tell us a bit about your Facebook Page (What’s the audience like, what kind of content do they enjoy, how often do you post?)

digital activism facebook

Simon: OEC’s Facebook audience is fairly active. We skew heavily toward females (nearly 80%), and the type of content that receives the most engagement tends to revolve around video or narrative-driven news. We post at least once per day, with an average of 2–3 posts per day.

Michelle: I think our audience is very similar to most environmental nonprofit audiences. They appreciate messages of urgency and outrage, messages of hope and messages that highlight a sense of place. Oregonians have pride. That is reflected in our Facebook engagement.

(AS): What organizational goals do your Facebook efforts support?

Simon: Facebook supports a number of areas: strength of the brand, online donations, membership engagement, grassroots lobbying strategy and outreach to new communities.

Michelle: Metric-driven grassroots engagement goals are somewhat new for OEC. I’m looking at Facebook to drive action, web traffic and new fans of the organization. Most of these goals are measured with a conversation rate metric of some sort.

(AS): What kinds of social calls to action do you use?

Simon: Commenting, sharing, liking, clicking, watching, signing, retweeting. Social media is just one channel out of an overall integrated marketing and communications strategy, which involves variations of all of these calls to action.

Michelle: We’ve used many calls to action successfully (and many unsuccessfully), from hashtag campaigns to petitions and beyond. For my job, I’m most concerned with getting our audience to sign petitions, make a donation and contact legislators.

(AS): Tell us about a recent successful social campaign or series of posts.

Michelle: OEC has struggled to earn donor support through digital channels in the past. I’m not really sure why that is, but we were able to run a successful campaign for #GivingTuesday in the winter of 2014. We used email, Facebook and Twitter to distribute the campaign. We had powerful images and a fun meme—”Two Is Better Than One”—to highlight the gift match we were offering that day. The emails highlighted stories, and we took advantage of cross-promotional opportunities through our social media.

For example, we gave away prizes throughout the day and tagged the organizations providing the prize, who then reshared our posts. The most innovative gift was a custom digital playlist. When we posted about the playlist we tagged all the featured musicians, which increased the visibility of our post. A fundraising thermometer also helped us drive gifts, and we asked some of our influential social media fans to reshare. It was an experiment, but it worked for us.

(AS): What did you learn from this success more broadly? Is there anything you do differently now?

Michelle: I’m pretty concerned about the rumor that Facebook’s algorithm is punishing pictures. Engaging images were the key to this campaign’s success. We only spent $60 on the #GivingTuesday campaign. Although Facebook advertising is still pretty cheap, we’ll have to increase our budget for the next online campaign we do. We’ve done a campaign since then that had a more abstract ask (become a monthly donor), did not use a fundraising thermometer, had no matching gift and was just less intensive overall. It did not work.

(AS): What did you learn about your audience from this success?

Michelle: They appreciate deadlines and goals! It’s an old-school fundraising tool, but it’s universally successful.

(AS): How did you measure this success? What metrics did you focus on?

Michelle: This was a fundraising campaign, so we were looking at the number of first-time donors, the number of gifts and the total dollars in the door.

(AS): Do you have any advice for other nonprofits based on your success?

Simon: Don’t focus on vanity metrics like follower count; instead, focus on a more comprehensive look at what a picture of success looks like. Marketing doesn’t always have quantifiable measures of success, with some return on investment on a much longer timescale than simply the immediate aftermath of a campaign. There should also be qualitative goals and as such, strategies to support those goals as well. Goals should be SMARTER.

Nonprofits should also have better listening and brand reputation management systems in place. These kinds of tools allow for a real-time marketing strategy. I recommend 5 free tools here.

Learning the language and trends of social media can be challenging. I often tell nonprofits to treat it like learning any kind of language and applying techniques from code-switching.

Also, nonprofits should learn how to talk with personality; more like a person and less like a brand. It’s part of an important strategy.

Michelle: Don’t shy away from emotional, urgent language and images. It’s really human nature to be more engaged with that type of content. If acquisition is your goal, which it is mine, this type of content will help you reach that goal through improved engagement. Build a narrative that can embrace crisis or celebration as a unifying point in your campaign, and then when that crisis inevitably hits, be ready to strike with great posts and content!


Social media makes people care. It’s your job to move them to action.  As Michelle said, social media and digital communications is making information, images and videos readily available to more people every day. This means that more people are becoming aware and passionate about the issues that face our world. Now it’s your job to move them to action!

Supporters appreciate deadlines and goals. This strategy has been around forever for a reason. It works! Setting goals influences more people to sign, donate or take action for your cause. It’s especially effective if a progress bar is included.

Tell stories. People respond to stories in a really powerful way. Information is better remembered when presented through a story; stories provoke emotion in your supporters and they enable folks to relate to each other on a deeper level. The more you can incorporate storytelling into your strategy, the greater your connection with supporters can be.

Don’t be blinded by vanity metrics. It’s easy to get caught up in metrics that don’t move the needle for your cause. This wastes time and energy that could be better spent! The easiest to get swept up in is Page likes. The metrics you do want to focus on are engagement and reach.