If you’re an active person, who cares deeply about an issue, chances are you’ve crossed paths with a non-profit, and if you’ve come in contact with a non-profit then you’ve experienced public outreach. In the 21st century of non-profit work there are multitudes of tactics used to connect with greater and greater numbers of the general public. For example, most organizations today utilize the following:
- -Facebook posts
- -YouTube videos
- -Linked-in messages
Along with more tradition 20th century forms of public outreach:
- -Cold calls
These tactics are effective, relatively cheap, easy to digest, and definitely annoying at times! They’re the bread and butter of the non-profit world of communication and for good reason, they deliver a solid bang for the organization’s much needed buck.
But let’s be honest, most of the time flyers end up crumpled at the bottom of a wastebasket (or recycling bin, we hope), tweets are scanned and forgotten in a fraction of the time it took to write “Latest wetlands eco-disaster rally! March to statehouse for change! 1 pm meet at Ken’s Pizza after. See you there! #climatechange”, and cold calls are routed to old landlines that haven’t been used since the first iphone came out. Most of the time the people who do read the flyers, go to the rallies, and answer the cold calls are already drinking the koolaid (so to speak).
Real and lasting changes in an individual’s perception and beliefs come from something more, meaningful personal connections. I learned this truth through hundreds of conversations with people over the course of my four-month stay with Mass Energy Consumers Alliance. I renewed my faith in the power of person-to-person connections every time I had the chance to speak with someone.
One conversation in particular sticks out in my mind. My first real event with Mass Energy was a wind turbine festival in Gloucester (that’s pronounced gl-aah-sstah for you folks outside New England) back in September. We had fantastic weather and a great turn out. After all the sign-ins were done and the crowd of people had gathered around the base of the turbine for the talk (pastries and coffees in hand), I was standing at the check in table with my back to the parking lot as I watched the clean energy talk begin.
Several minutes into the talk a couple walked up behind me to the table and asked what was going on. I told them about the organization and how we came to be gathered below a massive 2 megawatt wind turbine that reaches a dizzying 492 feet into the north shore sky. They stood silently for a moment or two, necks craned towards the top of the turbine, then looked at me and said “ So you guys own this thing?” Not 100% clear of the meaning behind their questions I proceeded cautiously. “Nope”, I replied with trademarked pep that can only be picked up through door-to-door canvassing campaigns, “But we do buy the power!” They listened as I explained the role we play as a green power supplier working with the utility to provide ratepayers with 100% clean local energy. The entire time I was talking they managed to maintain a look that conveyed interest in what I was saying while hinting at the possibility that at any moment they might have to run to a very important meeting.
After I had finished going through all of my prepared talking points about the contribution they could make towards clean energy versus fossil fuels, and the consequences of global pollution they nodded but remained silent for a moment. I could see on their faces that the idea of paying more money each month to make the same old lights come on was a hard thing to swallow. So decided to venture out beyond the comfortable wall of prepared remarks I had built to protect myself and attempted to reach them on a personal level.
“Hey, I get it, paying more on your utility bills isn’t my favorite thing to do either” I said. “But I tell you what I hate doing more…sending a chunk of my paycheck to West Virginia and Pennsylvania.” They seemed confused for a minute by this remark. Dropping the ‘annoying idealistic peppy college student working a summer job to save the world’ tone, I explained “Most of our electricity comes from dirty fossil fuels like coal and natural gas, but Massachusetts has neither of these, so almost all of the money we spend on our electricity leaves the state and ends up invested in economies hundreds of miles away. Why shouldn’t that money go to energy developers right here in Massachusetts? In Gloucester? Why should we invest in dirty energy that blows back into our communities causing pollution and health problems when we can spend that money right here on clean energy?”
And there it was, the first thing I said in the entire conversation that actually connected. I could see it in the expressions on their faces. Our conversation lasted another ten minutes, and by then end they walked away green power converts. I walked away with the incredible feeling that I might actually have made a difference, a real difference in this fight.