Civic Engagement and Advocacy Blog

From Zero to 60 with Grassroots Activism: Arkansas Learns Case Study

Posted by Brent Willis on 7/8/15 12:32 PM

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The Financial Challenge of Grassroots Activism

It has been said that “We can always live on less when we have more to live for.” Nowhere is this sentiment tested more than nonprofit work (and especially grassroots activism). While there is no doubt that our passion and utilizing our base of volunteers can fuel an impressive amount of progress, the “living on less” part can turn from a practical reality into a stiffling momemtum killer.

Yes, nonprofits are often asked to do more with less. And arguably, they need to be smarter with their decision making than for-profit organizations, simply because they often don’t have the resources to pay for their mistakes.

With the stakes so high, many nonprofits are looking to work leaner and smarter than ever before. And many are counting on technology to help them succeed.

A start-up's story


Arkansas Learns is a great example. Founded in late 2012,this start-up state organization’s mission is to empower the private and public sector to provide excellent education for a skilled workforce in Arkansas — where 47% of state revenue is spent on state education ($5.3 billion annually).

Many citizens and organizations felt that there was a need for more involvement and more transparency in how that money was being spent. As the Arkansas Learns website says:

Public school districts are the largest local government entities in Arkansas, generally dwarfing their respective city and county budgets. And yet, school board and millage elections are held on an obscure date in September and generally decided by hundreds, if not tens of votes.

This insider system has enabled incumbent school board members, administrators, and teacher unions to drive local and state education policy, while disenfranchsing parents (public, private, home school), employers, non-union teachers, employers, and citizen property tax payers.

If the current governance model were delivering excellence to every student in Arkansas, change would be unnecessary. But it's not.

With a lean budget and a strong mandate, Arkansas Learns set out to establish a fresh approach to make civic engagement easier for citizens and communities.

This one person start-up quickly realized that building the organization by solely meeting citizens, civic groups and the hundreds of school boards one-on-one would be too time consuming and difficult to scale. What they needed was a way to to give every person in ARK the ability to communicate with school board members on 439 school boards.  And they wanted to keep them apprised of issues and engage them in conversations using best in class technological solutions.

Arkansas Learns did their homework, looking at a number of solutions, and a clear leader emerged. They chose Votility political advocacy software.  

The Arkansas Learns website empowers members to assert their individual and collective leadership to ensure excellent education for all students. Members may take action by keeping up with state bills and local initiatives, telling state and local elected and appointed officials how they want them to vote on those issues, and holding those officials accountable for their actions.

What they have been able to achieve in just over a year in existence is impressive. By advocating for better education and empowering citizen involvement, Arkansas Learns has helped impact legislation in many areas including: 

  • Changing the dates of elections to increase involvement.
  • Embracing common core standards - to make it easier to assess performance and establish consistency
  • Changing the authorizing authority for charter schools
  • Implementing A-F grading in schools
  • Establishing the digital learning act - requiring every student to pass a digital learning course, helping ensure a stronger workforce

It is clear that technology must play a role in keeping organizations running lean and being more effective. And it’s not just about streamlining operations from the advocacy side. It’s about communicating with constituents the way they want to be communicated with.

A recent study showed that Americans are spending 4.5 hours per day using computers or mobile devices outside of work time. What this means for nonprofits is that if you are not getting your message out to people via social media, e-mail, e-newspapers, blogs or text, your voice isn’t going to be heard.

Download a free case study on Arkansas Learns

Brent Willis

Written by Brent Willis

People want to be heard other then just voting every 2,4, or 6 years. Groups that engage them and measure it are positioned to win the public policy battles of the future. My vision and mission is to revive the civic engagement of the American citizen in government relations; at the federal, state, and local level.

Topics: Grassroots Advocacy Campaigns, Financing grassroots advocacy