Risky Business

Aspiring rock ‘n’ roll bands, minor league baseball teams and former football commentator John Madden are some of the folks you might expect would travel the nation by bus. Now you can add the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), which works to achieve equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans.

To meet its 2010 strategic plan of growing members and supporters, the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit needed to expand its reach and engage more broadly in areas that it previously had not, according to Ann Crowley, director of membership and online strategy. And so, HRC in August 2011 launched “On The Road to Equality,” a bus tour visiting 19 cities.

“The idea was to drive equality across America and create a way for all Americans to engage with HRC by literally and figuratively ‘getting on the bus’ with our vision for equality,” said Crowley. “The mobile tour morphed into a full organizational commitment to bring HRC’s work to everyday people, especially in places where we don’t have either volunteer communities or strength in numbers,” she said.

HRC set up an open house at each stop, featuring large interactive panels where people could learn more about the organization and buy merchandize. Meanwhile, staff would ask visitors to join HRC, sign a petition, or craft a blog post from the road. Supporters who signed petitions received follow-up emails asking them to become a member, including a link to a blog post about the tour stop in their city. It asked for continued involvement, said Crowley, who presented the HRC campaign in a session entitled Five Risky Stunts – Did They Pay Off? during the DMA Nonprofit Federation’s annual conference in Washington, D.C.

Four weeks prior to arrival in a city, and again two weeks before the bus reached its destination, emails would be sent to anyone on HRC’s list within a designated geographic parameter, depending on the city, she said.

The tour aimed to empower and engage folks on the ground but in transit as well, even if people couldn’t stop for a visit. The bus was branded with tour dates and cities, as well as HRC’s Facebook, Twitter, website and mobile texting (Text “road” to 30664).

The interactive panels also were available online, essentially creating a virtual tour for people who were not in a city that was toured or didn’t feel safe visiting the bus, Crowley said.

The “On The Road to Equality” tour targeted pockets of the U.S. where there’s a dearth of volunteers and steering committees. The tour visited 19 cities in 12 states, mainly the Midwest and Southeast, from August 2011 through October 2012. Among the visits were Birmingham, Ala.; Nashville, Tenn.; Little Rock, Ark.; Lawrence, Kan.; Omaha, Neb., and Salt Lake City, Utah.

The cost of the bus tour was not cheap – approximately $1 million — and required board approval and a special budget, Crowley said. But, HRC is talking about doing it again.

The tour resulted in 2,800 online actions (people downloading information), 700,000 social media interactions, 12,000 web hits and 5,000 supporters who signed petitions. Crowley estimated that there were 350,000 “brand impressions,” of people who saw the HRC logo or the HRC bus (whether parked overnight, driving or on site at an open house). More than one million people were reached via stories in daily newspapers in each of the 19 tour cities. Most importantly, HRC collected 1,500 new members.

“Obviously, not everyone can have bus a tour. Whatever your big idea is, make sure to incorporate all components of your organization: engagement, online, whatever the big idea, make the most of it,” said Crowley.  NPT