Crowdfunding Case Study: The Fight Against Gerrymandering


The CrowdJustice Team

posted on 01 May 2017

Cultivating public support around a specific legal issue requires finding the right audience and telling your story in a way that feels urgent and universal. But how do you do that with an issue that is highly technical in nature and limited in scope in terms of who is directly impacted? Rather than focusing on perceived limitations, the team behind the Redistricting Reform in Virginia case got creative in crafting a message that struck a nerve – and built a community of supporters that extended far beyond the reach of the Virginia state lines. In the process, they added significant numbers of donors to their list, with whom they will continue to engage in the future. Here, we detail how this "local" nonprofit was successful – far beyond the team's original expectations – in crowdfunding an important legal challenge.

The issue: Virginia's Political Redistricting

Gerrymandering – the manipulation of electoral district boundaries designed to favor a particular group – has surfaced as a resonant issue at the core of what is increasingly seen as a US political system out of sync with its constituency. Virginia is ranked as the 5th worst offender among US states based on a lack of compactness and contiguity of its districts. The results are predictable: in 2013, 56 of 59 candidates in Virginia’s state legislature faced no real competition in the general election because of the heavily partisan design of its political districts. Only two seats in the entire state changed parties in that election. The system seems to be intensely flawed, with partisan gerrymandering embedded as a persistent player in its structure.

A new census scheduled for 2020 will form a foundation upon which new district boundaries will be drawn. OneVirginia2021 is determined to ensure that the 2020 redistricting uses fairer criteria than has been used in the past. To do that, they need the legal system to invalidate the system that entrenched interests have developed to protect themselves. They also want Virginia’s citizens to realize they’re being deprived of a meaningful vote – gerrymandering affects almost everyone who votes in Virginia, but while people may have a sense that incumbents almost never lose, they may not know that it’s because those very incumbents get to draw their own districts to ensure they win.

The Case Owner

OneVirginia2021 is a grassroots organization fighting for voting districts in their state to be defined by the makeup of the citizenry, rather than the whims of political parties or politicians. At the head of their fight is a case arguing that political gerrymandering has been given precedence over Virginia’s constitutional requirements that political districts be compact and contiguous. Its Executive Director, Brian Cannon, is a respected lawyer and outspoken longtime proponent of political redistricting reform.

The CrowdJustice Case

The OneVirginia2021 team came to CrowdJustice in February 2017 knowing the legal costs for its suit would almost certainly exceed $150,000. Nevertheless, not having crowdfunded for a legal case before, the team decided to set a modest funding target of $5,000. In the days leading up to the launch, Brian and his team concentrated on identifying their most effective outreach resources, organizing their narrative around the legal case and studying previously successful CrowdJustice cases. Early in the morning of February 23, the team emailed its donor list and posted its launch message to Facebook:

At 11:42 that morning, the case hit $5,050, passing its all-or-nothing threshold less than 6 hours after launching. The OneVirginia2021 team was blown away by the speed of the response.  They realized that what they had thought of as an important, but local, fight  was actually attracting support from a much larger community. To ensure it was made clear to the public that they were only getting started, the team reengaged using CrowdJustice’s tools and their own social media with messages about their new, much higher stretch target of $20,000.  They also set up a Facebook Live session scheduled for the following day to discuss the lawsuit.

30 days,

5 emails,

31 Facebook posts (and countless comments),

24 tweets,

1 stretch goal,

1 funding match commitment if they reached $50,000,

and 6 case page updates later…

…the OneVirginia2021 team landed on a final total of $51,423 from 1,068 supporters. Having reached more than 10x their original goal, the team closed their case looking back at a wild and well-organized effort, with a great deal of knowledge that can easily be applied by future case owners.

Strategic Storytelling

The Redistricting Reform in Virginia case’s path to success relied on activating lots of people to care about the fight for fair political districting – mobilizing them early and keeping them engaged. Below we focus on 4 strategies employed to achieve this goal:

  1. Organizing resources
  2. Leveraging technology
  3. Engaging consistently
  4. Speaking with an authentic voice

1. The revolution will be organized

By the day their case was ready to launch, Brian’s small team had prepared their email list; they had a core group of supporters committed to pledging on the first day; they had pre-drafted numerous social media posts; and they were ready to glue themselves to their laptops to engage during those crucial first hours. Just as importantly, they were ready to experiment with different types of engagement and quickly iterate as they went.

While the team was not made up of social media specialists, they recognized that tone and messaging needed to be tailored to each outreach channel. They planned to keep a fairly constant conversation going through social media, but only to send email or case page updates to notify supporters about more significant milestones (i.e. surpassing major funding milestones, trial updates, etc.). To effectively monitor message effectiveness and iterate on it, they knew they would need to dedicate specific time and resources to the process throughout the 30 days it was live on CrowdJustice.

2. Learning to embrace technology

Designed to stoke continued engagement, digital communication tools and platforms greatly lower barriers to reaching large groups of people. Of course, the mere existence of email and Facebook don’t guarantee virality. Amplifying a message beyond one’s immediate network requires: (1) crafting a story in a way that makes people excited to share it, and (2) targeting a core audience that is likely to engage with it early.

On social media, the key is cutting through the plethora of information to get people’s attention.  Tasked with drawing people into a case replete with complex technical claims and distributed impacts, Brian’s team focused their story around a simple picture:

This visual maintained consistent message while allowing them to be flexible in their presentation in accordance with the  context at hand. Sometimes this image was accompanied by a single question: “Does this look compact to you?” Other times an impassioned call to action requested readers join this important effort before the next map becomes even further distorted. Both messages were short and punchy and, when coupled with the image, were highly effective at hooking people in quickly.

In addition to using email lists, personal and organizational social media accounts and Facebook Live videos, Brian’s team used the data they gained from CrowdJustice to better promote social media messaging. Paying to have Facebook posts amplified to specific audiences (selecting interests and locations to target) for short periods of time provided an immediate return. The team was able to quickly learn which geographical areas, age groups and interest groups were most drawn to the fight against gerrymandering. Once they had surpassed their initial funding threshold and their knowledge of effective messaging grew, they began to double down, targeting the most impactful groups for longer periods of time. With each learning and targeting iteration, they began to see more return on promotional spend. These posts initially drew more than $10 in pledges for every $1 spent on promotion. Over time the ROI diminished and eventually they stopped running the ads – but that was after they had netted the case tens of thousands of dollars in additional support.

3. Keeping it up

Below is a chart showing daily fundraising volume during the time the Redistricting Reform in Virginia case page was live.

While you might expect the initial days to experience significant energy followed by a long tail of decreasing activity over time, the OneVirginia2021 team continuously found ways to be creative throughout the life of their effort. Of their total funds raised, 31% came in during the first 48 hours. The team’s steady drumbeat of impactful messaging drove them to achieve 324% of their initial target in those first two days and more than 3 times that in the following 28 days.

Continual excitement from the OneVirginia2021 team led to successively more impactful sharing by an ever-expanding social network. The takeaway for other case owners is that consistent outreach, instead of heavy promotion of the case launch followed by relative silence, can grow pledge totals to multiples of initial funding targets. The messaging within those posts doesn’t have to be profound. Case owners need not be witty comedians nor hard-hitting journalists – they can continue to draft variations around a constant theme of “please pledge to my case.” Those who continuously engage with an audience throughout the entirety of their CrowdJustice effort can reap exponential rewards beyond those who lose momentum after the case launch.

4. Keeping it real

If you have a moment, take a look at Brian’s his Facebook Live video.

It’s an excellent example of how he not only put a clear message out to the masses, but did so in a way that favored authenticity over polish. The team’s goal throughout the campaign was to reach real people by showing themselves as real people. Here’s an example of a post the team put out midway through the month:

Sometimes the simplest, most casual message can have a profound impact by resonating with the people who read it. In fact, one could argue that in using that tone, Brian is coming across not as a person marketing to the masses through a bullhorn but a friend speaking to a supporter 1-on-1.

Conclusion

The average donation to OneVirginia2021’s case was $51 – a number that indicates an extremely successful crowdfunding effort. For many of us, giving $50+ to anything that doesn’t offer a tangible return is reserved for annual charitable contributions – it amounts to a significant commitment to support an issue for its own sake. Brian could likely have requested two wealthy patrons to contribute $25,000 and received the same financial result and very little buzz, but in convincing over 1,000 people to each give $50+ within a month, his team transformed a local lawsuit into a global movement – and a conversation that extends well beyond the confines of a single case. The newly expanded community discussing Virginia’s gerrymandering issue will continue to pay dividends.  In addition to raising money for this case, OneVirginia2021 has built a stronger base for their future, with more than 1,000 new supporters they can reach out to as they continue their fight. Following their first experiment with legal crowdfunding, Brian’s team has added hundreds of new names to their donor list and hundreds of new Facebook followers. Their brand has also been elevated on the national stage through numerous articles that were published during and immediately following their crowdfunding efforts.

Crowdfunding doesn’t just raise money.  It raises awareness.  OneVirginia2021’s crowdfunding efforts have also served to bolster similar political redistricting fights in localities around the country (see the interaction below).

By organizing their resources, embracing technology, engaging regularly, and speaking with an authentic voice, the OneVirginia2021 team stand as a model from which all future case owners may be able to learn a great deal. The power of crowdfunding for legal cases is transforming citizen-supporters into donor-activists. Through efforts like the Redistricting Reform in Virginia case, that population is growing all the time.

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