How the ACLU’s Digital Team Uses Collaboration for Successful Fundraising and Advocacy

The ACLU takes a WebOps approach to their digital operations, maintaining a laser-focus on the goals of each campaign and how it fits into the organization’s mission. Here, we dig into the tools the ACLU uses for communication and cross-functional collaboration, following an event hosted by Pantheon partner, Advomatic.

ACLU Collaraboratino

Most people tend to think the corporate world and the nonprofit world exist in two completely different galaxies, but they’re more alike than you think. Teams on both sides use the same collaboration tools, the same web team frameworks, and similar measurements for success. 

Successful nonprofits are a great example of how marketing departments should run—they need to be extremely aligned with other departments and the organization's mission, and every single campaign must have a clearly defined purpose and plan. A WebOps approach can help nonprofits increase awareness and better meet their fundraising goals. 

When it comes to nonprofits taking a modern approach to digital teams, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is an excellent example. Not only do they incorporate a WebOps mindset into their digital operations, but they have a laser-focus on the goals of each campaign and how it fits into the organization’s mission.

Sarah Durham, CEO of Advomatic, a digital agency for mission-driven organizations, recently hosted a chat with Joe Coakley, Director of Digital Campaigns at the ACLU, about the organization’s work, how their team is structured, and the tools and technologies they use to fulfill their mission. Here are some key takeaways from their discussion.

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The ACLU’s Work and Mission

The mission of the ACLU is to “defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties that the Constitution and laws of the United States guarantee everyone in this country.” This means protecting the civil liberties of those who are often denied those rights, including LGBTQ+ people, Native Americans, and immigrants, just to name a few.

The ACLU is a nationwide organization with more than 50 affiliates across the country. The nonprofit focuses on issues like free speech, voting rights, and racial justice through advocacy and the court system. 

The digital team at the ACLU is primarily focused on advocacy engagement and fundraising through their owned channels, including email, SMS, organic social, and the website. In 2019, they had a Giving Tuesday goal of raising $1,000,000, which they surpassed by successfully activating all of those channels.

Read the case study: The ACLU Rises to Every Occasion with a Website that Doesn’t Fail.

How the ACLU’s Digital Team Is Structured 

The ACLU restructured about a year ago, creating a digital-only department for the first time. 

“Within the restructure, we brought together teams from communications, from our technology team, from our development team,” said Joe. “This was a really big change for the organization—it involved a lot of departments and showed the investment that the organization is making in digital and prioritizing it.”

The team is broken into two halves, each with a different focus. One half is focused on engagement and content development; the other on growth, acquisition, and retention. But both teams are dedicated to the organization’s larger goals—advocacy and fundraising—and work in concert to meet them.

Tools and Frameworks the ACLU Uses

When it comes to technologies for communicating and getting things done, the ACLU has three that they use regularly to keep things running smoothly:

  • Slack: The team uses Slack as a go-to communication tool for most things they need to get done. 

  • Springboard: The ACLU uses this SaaS platform to create advocacy forms, donation forms, email sign-ups, and surveys.

  • Sailthru: This is the email provider the team uses. Joe cites the automation, journey-building, and nonprofit-friendly price point as the reasons why they utilize it.   

When it comes to face-to-face collaboration, the team has weekly meetings, which often includes stakeholders from other areas of the organization.

“We’ve got this meeting, we do it every Wednesday at noon,” explained Joe. “And we’ve developed these messaging working groups. We pull in folks from literally every department to be within them and come together every other week and focus on, you know, immigrants rights, LGBTQ plus rights, criminal justice voting, privacy and technology. It’s a central meeting place for us to talk through what’s happening on the advocacy side, and on the legal side.”

How the ACLU Beat Their Giving Tuesday Fundraising Goal

To meet their million-dollar fundraising goal, the digital team focused on activating every channel they had. To enhance their email campaigns, they brought on Movable Ink, which allowed them to bring greater personalization. They optimized their website for mobile and added ApplePay, making it easier for users to donate. And, they put more focus into the social media channel that brings them the best conversions: Instagram. 

When it comes to online advertising, the ACLU doesn’t use Facebook or Google pixels for privacy reasons, which limits their reach. Instead, they focus on “impact placement,” like targeting existing subscribers on the NY Times. They also found success with podcast advertising and SMS.

“Believe it or not, we were not doing direct fundraising on our broadcast, on our SMS program,” said Joe. “Before this Giving Tuesday, we had used it primarily for action you know, breaking news and engaging people in the moment. This was our first time sending out a direct fundraising ask and it performed really well, far better than we thought it would.” 

In the end, they beat their fundraising goal by 25%, and they did it by testing everything and going all-in on what worked. 

A WebOps Approach Works for Nonprofits, Too

The ACLU is a great example of how a WebOps approach—creating collaborative cross-functional teams dedicated to common goals and empowered with the right technology—can help teams achieve greater success. This framework helps the ACLU’s digital team iterate quickly and create streamlined, effective user experiences that translate into awareness and donations.   

On collaboration, Joe says: “I’m listening as much as I can, especially in program situations where we’re hearing things from our legal team or our embedded team. And then I’ll come back to my team and we’ll strategize or brainstorm on something. And then eventually, I’ll get to a point where I think, this is the way that we can move forward on this, based on what we heard from legal, what we heard from IT, that we’ve heard from our comms strategists.

"Through that process, eventually, you start to just develop an instinct, and I think listening to your gut is good. And I think being willing to have your gut checked by somebody regularly is helpful. And I think the more open you are to feedback, to having conversations, that is where you’re going to get better and better information."

Collaboration is key to bring the ACLU’s mission to life. And their digital team has acquired the right tools and created the right processes to get it done.


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Topics WebOps