Canada may have been the first industrialised country to reject funding a drug that treats the severest form of the most common type of vision loss in the developed world, were it not for a quickly-assembled web campaign from the Canadian Institute for the Blind (CNIB).
The Toronto-based charity turned to e-activist 2.0 software in a bid to engage Canadians in a letter-writing campaign to convince the Common Drug Review board to reverse a decision to not recommend funding of Lucentis. The drug is the best known treatment for wet advanced macular degeneration (AMD).
The software helped CNIB make an effective and direct connection with Canadians, says Julia Morgan, project manager for the Right to Sight campaign.
"I think our campaign might have had an influence of shining more light on the issue and getting the board to take another look at their decision," she says. Canadians devoted to the cause wrote a total of 8,000 letters to provincial and federal health ministers.
It was March 28, nearly four months after the board's rejection of funding for the drug, when it reversed its decision. It meant free access to the drug for all Canadians who needed it.
The success of the campaign that was pulled off with a piece of software illustrates a shift in the way charities are operating.
Just as many businesses are moving their operations to the web, charities are also looking to take advantage of the cyber world to advance their causes. The impact has been very encouraging and includes faster fundraising and accelerated advocacy.
The CNIB is one of 24 charities in Canada, and 70 around the globe, that have used e-activist 2.0 software from UK-based Advocacy Online to run a web campaign. The software has become very popular in the last two years, says Graham Covington, the managing director.
"We get anywhere from three to four web inquiries a week," he says. "It's definitely reaching a bigger audience now."
E-activist was developed out of "the sheer frustration of trying to organise grassroots advocacy without the internet," Covington adds. Low-tech methods of communicating with supporters meant having conversations one at a time, and left no way to track actions.
The software arms a charity with the tools needed to influence government policy. Campaign organisers create actions for supporters to follow and can track when an action has been completed.
A database is provided of all members of Parliament, and members of Provincial Parliament or members of Legislative Assembly. Form letters created by the organisers can be modified by each advocate, and sent to a targeted politician. Each letter addresses a politician personally, and makes an argument based on their known point-of-view.
"It's good for people to customise their letters and write their own letters," Morgan says. Research has shown politicians are more likely to respond to personalised letters rather than repetitious cookie-cutter letters.
Being able to view the letters written was also a great way for the campaign to learn more about their advocates, she says.
Media attention was another major plank of the campaign. Stories in the mainstream press focusing on the issue would often mention the web address. Staff at the CNIB were often used as sources, and the institute quickly became the go-to place for information about the issue, Morgan says.
"Our software should never be used as a stand-alone product," Covington says. "It has to be integrated into an organisation that is looking at how they use it with online and offline projects."
E-activist is designed to fit into a charity's existing web site. The style of the page can be set in the content management system to match the look and feel. Although the campaign is hosted on Advocacy Online's servers, the URL can be set as a sub-domain of the charity's site.
The company is also working on a Facebook application that charities can use, Covington says. Many charities have started making use of the social networking site's "cause groups" to reach out to supporters.
Toronto-based Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada started its Facebook group in mid-April and has gathered 564 fans so far. The group features videos created by the society and by fans, as well as resources for people living with MS.
"What's nice about Facebook is that it's a conversation, so people can communicate back and forth," says Stewart Wong, the society's manager of national public affairs. "The number of fans we have in a relatively short period of time speaks to the power of online tools."
Also a user of e-activist software, the 60-year-old society has seen much success in its online endeavours. While saving an estimated C$200,000 (NZ$258,460) annually in administrative costs, the charity expects to raise more than C$6 million online this year, Wong says — a big improvement compared to just C$80,000 raised online in 2002.
"In the past, registrations for our major fundraisers would have been done by hand, with people calling in and taking up staff time," he says. Now more than half of participants the Super Cities Walk for MS register on the web.
The increase in online revenues is in part from a donor shift, but also represents new money coming in, Wong adds. The society raised C$21 million last year, compared to C$13 million in 2003.
Their online success has the society planning a Web 2.0 micro-site involving user interactivity and online video. A successful YouTube video posted one year ago — with over 25,000 views — has inspired the society to invest in video production.
They now have a newly-purchased video camera and recently-hired video specialist on staff, Wong says.
"We're about to launch a new campaign that will use a lot more video, and encourage people to upload their homemade video as well," he says.
CNIB's campaign also made use of a Facebook group that was at 1,400 members at its pinnacle, Morgan says. It helped push to the campaign run with e-activist.
"CNIB will definitely be using e-activist again. We've renewed our license with the new version of the software," she says. A corporate sponsor donates the cost of the license to the charity.
The new version of e-activist will allow charities to build and release a campaign in less than an hour, Covington says. More web building tools will allow better manipulation of the web pages, and drag-and-drop features mean user actions can be added more easily.
There's also better tracking and reporting features, he adds.
"You can see who's written to a MP and retain comprehensive information about the profile activity of a specific supporter," the director explains. "You can also transfer your data with us directly to another database location on your own servers."
For Morgan and the CNIB, it's just another tool to help steer public policy towards the light.