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For many people a typical weekday morning begins by seeking out that first cup of coffee and settling in to check email or voice messages from the previous day. For Will Keyser, such missives can amount to hundreds of pieces of mail being spit Out of the fax machine.

As press secretary for Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), Keyser is one of many staffers affected by advocacy campaigns designed to connect constituents with their elected officials.

Nonprofits have recently been placed squarely in the middle of the online advocacy front as the Washington, D.C.-based organization Independent Sector and the National Council of Nonprofit Associations (NCNA) have joined together to launch The Web site allows nonprofit leaders to communicate their campaigns via the Internet and to express their concerns through email and fax messages to their appropriate officials on a state or national level.

"The purpose of this site is to engage associations in more advocacy in allowing them to reach their networks and other people who might not be in their network by putting their piece on the Web," explained Sherry Brady, project director of public policy at NCNA. "It's easy ... and it's not a lot of maintenance from the sense of an administrative standpoint. The goal is to get them to use the Internet to continue to improve their advocacy efforts with their legislators."

GiveVoice is unique in that it is both an educational and response tool. Associations list their positions on proposed legislation and provide a pre-written form letter that can be signed and sent directly to the appropriate official - all by simply supplying one's name and address. The site automatically sends the message to the proper representative based on the address information given.

Ultimately, it is up to the user to decide how involved to become in the letter-writing process. The basic form letter can be sent, but Independent Sector advises users to take advantage of the message-editing feature to add a more personal touch.

"We absolutely encourage people to edit the letter because that is what really makes it most effective from an advocacy point of view," said Avi Schaeffer, Internet advocacy associate at Independent Sector. "The site is targeted toward people who work at nonprofits, so we'd like for them to add to the letter and say, 'This would affect my organization' in a specific way."

Schaeffer's push to elicit personal letters is well warranted. In contacting representatives of both the United States House of Representatives and the United States Senate, The Non-Profit Times found that almost all the staffers interviewed extolled the benefits of a personal response as opposed to a form letter.

"With the amount of mail we get for Senator Kennedy, I would say that's (the form letter) probably not as effective as writing a personal letter," Keyser admitted. He explained that a mass mailing of form letters is generally separated from the other responses with a sample of the letter and a final count passed on to the senator. "Nothing beats a well thought-out personal letter. If an individual puts forward his or her ideas in a well thought-out argument, then it's more likely to grab our attention," he said.

Brady is also quick to point out that while there was some concern that the site would be used as a form letter dispatch, there are significant differences with the messages sent out via GiveVoice.

"It has their (the representative's) name on it - it doesn't come to them like this bulk thing," she said. "It has the sender's name and address on it so they can see that it's a constituent of theirs."

Software that tracks user information and manipulation of the site has yielded some impressive numbers. Some 40 percent of people responding to issues are editing the letters - a number with which Schaeffer is very pleased.

"In talking to LocusPocus, the company that developed the site for us, in their experience the average number (of people utilizing the editing feature) in grassroots is somewhere between 15 and 20 percent, and we've actually exceeded that," Schaeffer said.

He attributed the success to the fact that most grassroots sites on the Internet are targeted toward cause-specific individuals, while GiveVoice rallies the nonprofit professional.

"They're the people who are familiar with the issues and concerns of the sector - and its challenges," Schaeffer said. "We feel that they're really able to relate to the issues that we present, and they want to get their message across to their elected officials about how specifically a piece of legislation would affect their organization."

According to one representative's spokesperson it's a tool that benefits both sides.

"When we receive mail it gets divided into two piles, with our constituents being the more important," said Christian Brill, press secretary for Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.). "We get hundreds of pieces of mail a week, and only about one-third are from Arkansas. We don't have the resources to deal with mail that should be addressed elsewhere, so I do think a site like this is effective."

The long-term value of GiveVoice has yet to be determined as it is still in its infancy. Launched in January, it contains approximately a dozen organizations, and its numbers are growing. Each association, once properly trained, will be able to track how their specific members are using it, NCNA's Brady said.

"We have a two-year grant and we've already trained 20 state organizations on the system," explained IS's Schaeffer. "About eight or nine are using it right now, and we hope to have all 41 state associations that are part of NCNA trained and using the system in those two years."
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Title Annotation:Sen. Edward Kennedy's press secretary Will Keyser on Web site enabling communication between nonprofit leaders and public officials
Author:Causer, Craig
Publication:The Non-profit Times
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 15, 2001
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