Special Branch – super campaigners for UK woodlands

Kaye Brennan explains how Woodland Trust is developing and supporting deeper relationships with key 'super campaigners'.
Special Branch – super campaigners for UK woodlands
The Woodland Trust is the UK's leading woodland conservation charity. Credit: WTPL

Listening to a Care2 presentation at my first ECF back in 2009 inspired me to look more closely at my campaigners. The idea of turning some of our more energetic supporters into what Care2 called 'super activists' really appealed to me.

I wanted to know more about the people who were taking my actions. But ultimately it was about offering deeper engagement opportunities to our more dedicated supporters, and reaching wider audiences with our campaign actions.

Big challenges with limited resources!

Finding our 'super campaigners'

Woodland Trust is a conservation charity rather than a campaigning organisation – so campaigning was beginning to happen in quite a low key way. But we were starting to see some fantastic responses to our asks.

Approaching known enthusiasts

The introduction of a new CRM (Customer Relationship Management) system (in 2010) meant I could tell how many of our actions people had taken, revealing that hundreds of supporters had taken more than 5 of the 8 actions we had launched that year. We also noticed the way some supporters went that bit further, including actively promoting campaigns.

Woodland Trust - creative cornerWe also have 'Creative Campaigning' web pages, featuring beautiful poetry, films and art sent in by people who were passionate about trees and woodland. Surely these were my 'super activists'?

As a first stage analysis, I sent a Polldaddy survey out to all these supporters in September 2011. A surprisingly small set of people expressed an interest in being part of a more formalised campaigning network.

The poll did also reveal motivations and preferred methods of communication, and this information has helped to shape future developments for the network. 35% said they do not pass on our actions, mainly because they felt people would not be interested. There was a larger number of people however, who did say they tend to share actions with others as they have an affinity with our work and want to help get as many people involved in what we do.

Recruiting via the website

More effective in terms of numbers was recruiting directly via the website. We created a role specification, and advertised the role in the volunteering section of our website alongside more traditional volunteer roles. People were able to fill in a standard volunteer application form, outlining their skills and experience, and why they wanted to become a 'Super'.

Setting up a network

Once we'd identified some enthusiastic and reliable campaigners it was time to set up an informal but managed network to support them, which (never ones to miss a tree pun) we called our 'Special Branch'.

Asking around the Trust, we decided that calling them 'super activists' felt a little too hard core and so we settled for 'super campaigners', but I mostly call them Supers.

What do Supers do?

Supers are asked to share actions and campaign messages using a variety of methods - for example via their own existing website, blog, social media networks, and off-line communities - giving depth and breadth to our asks by adding a more personal and local element to our actions.

Each campaign plan incorporates related communications to the network. They tend to receive campaign content in advance as part of each action's delivery plan, and are the first port of call for 'breaking news' and campaign updates that come from the Trust's Campaigning team.

Supers are encouraged to play a role in related campaign events and activities, and can be invited to help shape and test the content and style of campaigns before we make them public.

Taking care of Supers

We want to ensure Special Branch members stay interested in our work and feel they get something out of playing a more in-depth role in our campaigns. We also want to make the most out of and build on members’ skills, and develop the network as a self-seeding entity, within certain parameters.

"Last year I had a debilitating illness and was in hospital for 2 months. Cliché I know, but it did encourage me to re-evaluate things and I realised that the British countryside is one of the most important things to me, and something I feel strongly should remain for future generations. I looked at outdoor volunteering, but am unable to fulfil that because of physical limitations now, so this seemed a very worthwhile role." Super

Supers are also rewarded and recognised as Woodland Trust volunteers; for example they can be nominated for Awards, can take advantage of internal training and events, have expenses reimbursed, and are offered half-price WT membership.

Methods of communication

Email Each new applicant gets a personal reply with the Handbook (below), plus a note about any particularly useful skills they've mentioned, such as photography. Once they've indicated they want to take things forward, I send a standard 'first steps' email, asking them to follow us online, and asking for their online names so I can follow them back. As well as regular action mailings to the group, I try and email each of them individually every so often to say hello, or send them something I think they will find interesting.

Woodland Trust - handbookHandbook The Handbook sets out the role and expectations and the type of activity Supers could do. It splits tasks into 'offline' and 'online' activity to make it clear that Supers can play a part irrespective of the effort they perceive might be required, the tools they can use and the time they have available to them. This allows them to engage in a way that suits them best. Many supers prefer online methods for reasons including time, flexibility, saving paper, being housebound.

GoogleGroup We have set up an online forum using an invitation-only GoogleGroup to enable members to 'meet' and interact with other members.

Catch up calls We're also looking into settng up group or small group catch up calls to allow us to make that extra connection, and talk about any extra training needs..

Super learning

Commit your time

My biggest learning point so far is to give this time. I stuck with 25 members so as to keep the network feeling cosy, but able to make a difference.

Special Branch deserves my attention but I haven't quite got a routine down in my calendar yet where I'm talking to them regularly. Hooking them up to each other was a great idea, they have found mutual interests and even activities in common and I love the fact that they are connecting.

Be clear about expectations

Agreeing the commitment required early on helps to manage expectations of both members and the team. The ‘task outline’ explains the role and details the varying levels of input, regular communication means any problems can be dealt with as well as maintaining the relationship.

Give clear parameters on communications

We decided early on that it was necessary to maintain a balance between giving members the freedom to talk about our campaigns in their own voice, and controlling the messages that are put 'out there'. Establishing parameters is a key element of this: all members receive basic guidelines on the ‘dos and don’ts’ of being ‘super’.

Be responsive, and flexible

We make sure that, where we can, timescales around actions include room for Super fact-checking and questions. So we make space to ensure any questions, concerns or issues are dealt with swiftly and effectively. And even where a campaign doesn't resonate with a member, we still want to encourage them to share and promote it where they can (although they can opt out if they prefer) - we only ask that if they have a problem with an action they come to me to talk it through (it might just be that we are not explaining things clearly), and not criticize us in public.

Super plans

So far, around half of my small network are actively engaged in everything; we see them online, they tell me what they've been up to, and they tweet and share blogs and so on with me. Some aren't though, and I'm working on making things a bit more formal while maintaining that 'special club' and casual feel.

When it comes to identity, there are big plans for Super Pants - Watch this space!

Kaye Brennan is Senior Campaigner - Policy and Advocacy, and Special Branch Co-ordinator at Woodland Trust.

by Kaye Brennan published Apr 17, 2013,