Cosmic

Why You Need an Activist Toolkit to Spark Widespread Change

Learn how to create the best activist toolkit for the kinds of change your supporters can take part in. Doing so will spread your nonprofit's message.

Lisa Benson
July 8, 2020
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Today’s nonprofits are in a unique position. As a large swath of the population attempts to confront society’s most pressing issues with increasing urgency, nonprofits have a clear opportunity to “rally the troops.” They have the chance to create massive structural change for a more just society. But in order to do that, they will need to create a grassroots groundswell. And that means empowering their supporters to spread their message and their impact.

If you want to transform supportive bystanders into proactive advocates, you must first ignite and direct your supporters’ engagement. The first step in making that happen is to give your supporters the tools and information necessary to act as effective brand ambassadors. And that means it’s time to build an activist toolkit.

What is an Activist Toolkit?

An activist toolkit is a collection of carefully curated materials that enable your supporters to take action. Think of an activist toolkit in terms of open-sourcing or distributing your brand and organizational efforts. By building an activist toolkit, you give your supporters the guidance, information, and tools necessary to step in and effect change on your behalf.

Activist toolkits make a great deal of sense in this present moment. The fundamentals of movement-building and organizing are being rethought from the bottom up. More and more, grassroots mobilization and distributed support are becoming the norm.

Of course, open-sourcing your nonprofit’s activities means loosening your grip on your brand. The good news is that you can choose the extent to which you want your supporters to “own” your brand. For example, your toolkit may give your supporters the power to create their own unique assets under your brand's umbrella and organize their own events. Or it may simply provide top-line talking points and branded templates that allow your supporters to create signs or memes within more tightly controlled parameters.

The Contents of Your Activist Toolkit Should Reflect Your Key Objectives

The contents of your activist toolkit will naturally reflect your organization’s unique mission and key objectives. For example, if your primary goal is to raise awareness, then your activist toolkit might consist of a downloadable zip file with a brand style guide, key talking points, and source brand files. Your supporters can then use those assets to create social media posts or signs.

On the other hand, if you want your supporters to take more complex actions, then your activist toolkit will need to reflect that. For example, if you want your supporters to set up and run their own phone banks, then you will need to give them the tools they need to make that happen. You would set up a strategy, build the technical infrastructure, market it to your supporters, and provide the necessary scripts and training for them to pull it off without a hitch.

The contents of your activist toolkit will depend on the outcomes you are trying to achieve. In that sense, your toolkit should be an ongoing project. As your strategies and core objectives evolve, so too should your toolkit. Make sure that someone at the executive level in your organization takes ownership of your activist toolkit to ensure that it remains relevant.

Activist toolkits are especially relevant for advocacy groups and other organizations that seek to spur widespread grassroots engagement or systems-level changes. However, any nonprofit organization can use an activist toolkit as a way to empower supporters to raise awareness on their behalf.

Start by asking yourself what opportunities you have to mobilize your base. Then try to think about what tools and resources they will need to make it happen.

The Benefits of Building an Activist Toolkit

When you invest in an activist toolkit, your nonprofit stands to benefit by:

  • Leveraging your supporters’ existing networks to rapidly scale up awareness and impact.
  • Creating exponentially more content as your supporters take the reins and spread your message.
  • Building community as your supporters engage more deeply with your organization and each other.
  • Uncovering innovative new approaches and solutions as you crowdsource your mission.
  • Creating a sense of ownership of your organization's mission, efforts, and results within your community of supporters.
  • Mobilizing your supporters quickly and efficiently as new opportunities arise.

Identifying the Key Elements of Your Nonprofit’s Activist Toolkit

No two nonprofits’ activist toolkits will look exactly alike. You can and should customize yours according to your organization’s unique objectives and most pressing needs. As a result, the following list of key elements is meant to be more of a springboard than a prescription. Consider how you might leverage your supporters’ involvement to achieve your goals. Then, decide which of the tools and tactics will be most effective in empowering your supporters to do just that.

As previously stated, the biggest risk in pursuing a distributed or grassroots model is that you might lose control of your brand and messaging. As a result, the tools in your activist toolkit should do more than just empower your supporters to spread your message. They should also provide much-needed guardrails so your supporters avoid unintentionally misrepresenting your brand or mission.

Brand Style Guide

If you plan to give your supporters the freedom to design their own branded assets, a visual style guide is a must. Your style guide should lay out the basics of how to visually express your brand, from colors and typefaces to any other major requirements. Don’t get too detailed. Keep in mind that many of the supporters who will create assets aren’t professional designers.

Mission Clarity

Make sure your supporters are on the same page about what you are trying to achieve. Provide clear documentation of your goals. Make sure to detail your big-picture mission as well as your current list of high-priority objectives.

Theory of Change

Your theory of change is your nonprofit’s unique blueprint. It delineates your unique approach to catalyzing change. In order for your theory of change to be meaningful to your supporters, you must work to simplify it until it is reduced down to its essence.

Code of Ethics

Another way to ensure that your brand is represented appropriately is through a code of ethics. Depending on your mission or cause, this may be more or less important to include in your toolkit. The main thing is to spell out any dos and don’ts related to how your supporters should conduct themselves when representing your brand, either online or at in-person events. For instance, if your organization sponsors protests, you might include a code of ethics related to peaceful protesting. Ask your supporters to pledge to comply with your code of ethics.

In his 2020 democratic primary campaign, Pete Buttigieg released his “Rules for the Road.” Buttigieg's code of ethics called on his supporters to be respectful, truthful, and responsible, among other characteristics.

By coming up with a similar code of conduct, you can rally people around your cause and ensure that they don’t misuse or even abuse your brand.

Top-Line Messaging and Talking Points

Top-line messaging and talking points enable your supporters to spread your message without muddying your focus or misrepresenting your values. Make sure to update your top-line messaging and talking points as the situation (and your priorities) change.

Tools for Creating Print or Digital Collateral

These might include templates, photo and video assets, graphics, social post starters, instructions for creating DIY videos, and more. If you are concerned about off-brand content, structure these tools in a way that allows your supporters to craft collateral using a collection of prepared assets. For inspiration, check out the design playground on the Donors Choose website, which allows teachers to create their own branded, custom graphics.

Advocacy-related training materials

You can’t just plop a complex activist toolkit on your website and call it a day. If you want your supporters to take action, you must provide the right level of instruction and training. To that end, advocacy groups like Sunrise Movement are increasingly spinning up training materials that teach their supporters how to effectively make change. This can include written materials, videos, webinars, and in-person training sessions.

Keep in mind that if you are encouraging your supporters to participate in protests or other actions, you need to remember to describe the risks and acknowledge the role of privilege. Whenever possible, prioritize the well-being of at-risk and racialized people as your organization works for systems change.

Deadlines for Individual Actions and Goals

Don’t forget to give your supporters a sense of timing that builds urgency. Rather than simply instructing supporters to call a local representative or organize an event, put a timeframe around your request: “Between now and May 15th, we are calling on supporters to _____.” If you are taking a phased approach to change, let your supporters in on the bigger picture plan. Rally them around your vision and inspire them to push toward each phase’s completion.

The time to drive meaningful change is now. With an activist toolkit in place, you can ride a swell of grassroots support toward a brighter future.

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