Brad Schenk Interview

Brad Schenck is the digital director for the Rainforest Action Network, and he previously spearheaded digital strategy at Organizing for Action, the Obama 2012 campaign, and Barack Obama’s Presidential Inauguration Committee. He’s been a leading figure when it comes to digital campaigns for NGOs, political campaigns, and nonprofits, and his teams have used Sprout Social to accomplish their objectives.

We spoke with him about how different kinds of not-for-profit and activism organizations have different sorts of needs, what makes for a smooth-running organization, and how Sprout Social helped make his job easier.

Rallying Around a Date

When he transitioned from a campaign and an inauguration — both big events with set end dates — to ongoing advocacy in Organizing for Action, the transition was more challenging than some might think.

“In the campaign world, your dates and deadlines are pretty prescribed to you by the calendar,” he says. “There are voter registration deadlines, there are end of quarter deadlines, there’s election day. There’s a termination point to your actual organization’s existence.”

Having that event to rally around remained important even after the campaign. “You have to set that date. There will be a few dates on the calendar that make sense, but mostly you have to be forward-thinking enough to create dates. You have to create moments… It’s really important that everyone in the organization believe in the date as the most important thing the organization is doing that day. The supporters will never feel it unless everyone’s really together and unified.”

Managing Large Networks With Sprout Social

When he worked on the Obama campaign and later Organizing for Action, he said the scale of the organizations was vast, and that presented some unique problems. “One of the very unknown things about the campaign was that we had a pretty robust digital presence for all 50 states, and a very robust one for the battlegrounds plus some other important states.”

Like many nonprofit endeavors, the campaign depended on a network of enthusiastic volunteers. “There were these volunteers who were getting trained to use for advocacy and managing social media profiles that were bigger than some other NGO’s main accounts,” Schenck said. “Some of these state accounts with volunteers running them have 50,000 Twitter followers.”

He said that over time, using Sprout Social alleviated stress for those volunteers, who were carrying surprisingly heavy burdens.

“There were times when for the folks at headquarters, there would be breaking news or something would happen, and the volunteers were running the account,” he said. Sprout Social made communicating efficiently in those situations easier. It also made measuring the appropriate responses possible.

When asked about specific features that proved useful, he named “the scheduled publishing feature, and having everyone in a uniform place for us to go in and switch up the timing on things in a way that’s not as chaotic as reaching out and asking people.”

Engagement From the Ground Up

While you might normally think of tools like Sprout Social as methods to keep the people at the bottom of a big organization in line and on message, Schenck didn’t see it entirely that way. “There is this organizational ethos to really raise supporter engagement and so our organization isn’t about being the biggest,” he said. “We don’t want to be the biggest environmental organization, we want to be the most effective and savvy environmental organization.”

Ideas would come up from the bottom too. Schenck said that one volunteer might send him a task based on incoming engagement with a supporter saying, “This is pretty interesting, should we follow up with this person?”

Looping back to the discussion about working towards a big event date, Schenck said, “When you set a day, you have a chance to test some visuals and graphics that most resonate with people about that day, and as you get closer you can sharpen your impact and visuals.” That’s another example of the system working from the ground up in addition to the top down. “We had empowered the battleground states that had digital directors to explore with their own voice and style. And we’d actually find content that would pop there that we would redevelop for national.”

Both scale and volume made the social platforms useful in Schenck’s organizations. Email has been a useful tool for campaigns and NGOs for a long time and remains so, but social has become an essential partner to that. “You just can’t send people as many emails, and so that’s where social media becomes really important that there’s an arc towards that day and there’s a building toward that moment.”