That’s the 25 million dollar question, especially for an advocacy group like Amnesty International USA (AIUSA). We’re the nonprofit group that protects people wherever justice, freedom, truth and dignity are denied. Talk about a broad mission.

It’s no surprise then that when I first joined AIUSA as the Managing Director of Internet Communications, we were sending out 2, 3 or more emails PER DAY. Yes, we segmented, but trying to build suppressions, queries and code emails to send 2 to 3 emails per day was a nightmare and not always effective. The online team at that time was primarily seen as a group of glorified tech-monkeys who would take copy and email it to our list. The quality varied from downright embarrassing to just OK, but still really wonky and dry.

I knew immediately a couple things needed to change: 1) the online team needed to be key decision makers on email; 2) our volume had to decrease; 3) the quality of the writing had to improve.

Because we had the keys to the tool that actually sent the messages, I began acting like we had the authority to do things differently. The first thing I did was rewrite email copy sent to the online team, and I asked the other online staff to do the same. Programs didn’t like us rewriting their copy, but I was persistent, and told them that we knew how best to write emails meant to mobilize online supporters. Our writing at the time primarily focused on having great hooks that were timely, and focusing on individual stories that could humanize our issues. It probably took a year before other departments got comfortable with our expanded role.

To address our email volume, I first measured how many emails our average subscribe received and compared it to other advocacy groups. We were at the very high end, sending most subscribers between 19 to 25 emails a month. Yikes!

I used this comparison, along with some research from M+R that showed reduced email volume improved response rates. Admittedly, the research wasn’t so cut and dry, but it was enough to make a case.

Then I put together a set of email guidelines that gave allotments out to the staff in charge of: fundraising (usually 2x a month), priority campaigns (up to 8x month), and non-priority programs (up to 4x a month). There were a few other emails that could get on the calendar (event invites, registrations) too.

This approach forced the individual programs and campaigns teams to go lobby their supervisor, not the online team. I remember when we proposed the new structure for email communications, there were all sorts of predictions about how we’d no longer be able to do our work, that our campaigns would fail, and the world would probably end.

A year into it, we found that most of the objections were exaggerated. However, there were some important emails that these guidelines didn’t allow, like sending super targeted actions to key targets during key moments, or thanking people after we achieved something. So we adjusted and loosened the guidelines to allows for these important types of emails.


Our first set of guidelines were probably more like a sledgehammer than a scalpel, but they were critical to changing the organization’s inaccurate view that high volume, low quality was an OK way to use this scarce resource. We’re now about to release our third iteration guidelines and these are much more strategic.

Ben Brandzel, formerly with MoveOn, Avaaz and the Edwards campaign, conducted a 5 hour training with us on what makes a great email. The gist is that email really is only effective when you can clearly articulate a crisis, an opportunity (crisitunity), and a theory of change (how taking action now will resolve the crisitunity).

Some examples of crisitunity and theory of change:

  • Good crisitunity: Monks are being killed in Burma <crises> and China has the power to stop it. <opportunity>
  • Bad crisitunity: Violence against women threatens the fabric of society.
  • Good theory of change: China is Burma’s only real ally, and if they pressure the junta, Than Shwe will have to back down. It’s up to us to call on China and make sure that they do. So we’re launching a petition today and broadcasting your signatures through an ad in the Financial Times – with a huge circulation among the power brokers of Bejing.

Bad examples of theory of change:

  • Missing: “Global poverty is terrible, and we’ve launched a petition to stop it.
  • Impossible: “George Bush has staked his presidency on privatizing social security. So we’ve launched a petition asking him to stop.”
  • Obscure: “Climate change threatens us all, and we’re working night and day to stop it. Please contribute to keep our campaign going.”

Based on this model, I am now proposing that 80% of all our email be reactive, and 20% proactive. I’m not setting specific allotments but telling campaigns and programs that if they can show me a great crisitunity and theory of change, we’ll send it to the full list.

Along with this reactive email, the programs will be able to choose about one moment a year when they can proactively push a major project via email, and we’ll send out alerts to the full list.

Anyone who responds during these moments, or during full-list reactive actions, can be considered part of that issue’s segment. This segmented list can be occasionally accessed during other non-reactive times when they really need support.

The biggest lessons we’ve learned on this journey is that emails that are highly opportunistic, that can clearly show the importance of the moment, in very specific terms, as well as a clear advocacy strategy, perform leagues ahead of other emails. My feeling is that every email needs to meet this bar, otherwise, email isn’t the right tactic to achieve the stated goal.

*This article was written by Steve Daigneault who is the Managing Director of Internet Communications for Amnesty International USA.