Advocacy marketing is key to school bond campaigning.
Identifying and supporting advocates during your bond campaign
In the context of your bond campaign, you have two very important groups of advocates: those who will vote “Yes” and those who can convince others to vote “Yes” with them. As school leaders, you can do just about anything to provide your stakeholders with information, and you can encourage them to vote—you just can’t legally tell them how to vote. But we’re confident that there are advocates in your district who are more than willing to mobilize on your behalf, to get out into the community and push for the “Yes” votes you need. But who are they? And how can you support them?
Find your school bond advocates.
In an ideal world, every school district that went out for a bond would have the support of a local education PAC or at least a focused advocacy committee. But even if that’s not the case for your district, you likely do have enthusiastic advocates who want to see your schools thrive. They want to do more than vote “Yes”; they want to help you grow support throughout the community.
Your students and families are great examples. They have the most to gain from the bond passing, so they’ll be the most willing to act as a persuasive force in the community and put their own free time into supporting the district. Retired teachers also fall into this category. “I suspect people don’t realize the power of retired teachers and the influence they have,” says Dr. Alina Lehnert, co-chair of Friends of SPS, an advocacy committee that supports Springfield Public Schools in Missouri. “People will listen to their former teacher or their former principal—because those people had an influence in their lives.”
The same goes for community members who may not have a personal relationship with your schools, but who will likely support them on principle. For example, Friends of SPS called on the advocacy of the PTA, business leaders, alumni, faith-based groups, fire and police associations, homebuilders associations, the local chamber of commerce, and more during their bond campaign. Each entity formally endorsed the bond effort and used their resources to garner support from their members.
You should also review voter data from past elections. Who showed up? Who will likely turn out to vote again? And who’s most likely to vote “Yes”? There are plenty of people in the community who will probably support you on Election Day, even if the bond doesn’t benefit them directly.
As you get more and more people talking about your bond, you want to make sure they’re having the right conversations. So how can you keep everyone on message while generating as much positive buzz as possible? With advocacy marketing.
Build support with student advocacy.
When Montgomery ISD in Texas issued their 2022 bond proposal, the district’s students made their message loud and clear: They wanted the bond to pass.
“We had a number of students participate in our bond process,” Superintendent Dr. Heath Morrison tells SchoolCEO. “They were even involved in the development of our bond proposals.” And when local advocacy committees were forming, they recruited students from the district’s bond task force. With these committees, the students were able to act as volunteers, advocating for the bond’s passage on their own time. “These students really took it very seriously,” Morrison says.
Morrison is quick to credit MISD’s campaign success to its student leaders every step of the way. Early on, he says, when the bond was being proposed to the school board, he wasn’t certain that the proposal would receive a unanimous vote of approval. Morrison anticipated that one specific board member would push back on an initiative that dealt with technology. “But it was listening to our students present and hearing the needs around technology—the need for a more digitally rich environment—that finally convinced him,” Morrison explains. “So our board did vote unanimously to support the bond, and I really credit the students on our task force.”
In addition to working on the school bond task force and acting as student advocacy volunteers, MISD students helped lead town hall presentations. Throughout their campaign, MISD’s goal was to prioritize and exemplify transparency and collaboration. “There was no secrecy,” Morrison elaborates. “We were sharing everything that we were thinking in real time. We shared the need; we shared the data; we asked our community what they thought. And a third of those presentations were led by students.”
“It was definitely intimidating during the first couple of meetings, trying to get the hang of things,” says Kyler, a junior at Lake Creek High School. “But it was good because I’m pretty connected in the community and I knew a lot of the people who were there, so it was easier to speak up.” The firsthand experience of students was invaluable to the campaign. “As a student, I can see how crowded our hallways are,” says Kyler. “We’re over capacity, and being able to walk around the hallways, you can tell it’s super crowded. I was able to share this experience with the group.”
And it’s in those very hallways that students like Kyler continued to advocate for the school bond. They connected with students who were of voting age and encouraged them to vote “Yes” on Election Day. “We had a high participation rate of students voting in that bond,” Morrison says, “and that’s directly attributed to the leadership of our students.”
Cline, a student advocate and junior at Lake Creek, said that when he decided to serve on the bond task force, he was thinking about his younger brother and sister. “I love my school district very much,” he says, “and when they told me about the opportunity, I remembered the bond they had in 2015. That’s when they built the high school I go to now, so I knew it was a big deal.” For Cline, advocating for the bond is how he can make sure his siblings will love their district, too: “It leaves something behind for them.”
Use marketing strategies to empower your advocates.
You can’t count on every advocate to be a natural at bond campaigning. For some, this may be the first time they’ve even heard of a bond. But with a few strategic marketing approaches, you can ensure that all your advocates have the right information and enthusiasm to become vote-generating powerhouses in your community.
Identify the best language to communicate your message.
Having lots of community buzz about your school bond election is great; it means people are interested and listening. However, the more people are talking, the more potential there is for confusion or misinformation. In order to keep everyone on the same page, it’s important to identify a core message, as well as specific language to communicate that message effectively.
In Missouri, “Friends of SPS did a benchmark survey to figure out what the likely voter cared about,” Lehnert says. “Then we honed in. We knew for sure that safety and security would get people to the polls—so all of our messaging focused on that.” What does your community care about? How can you tailor your message to best connect with their needs?
Once you have your message settled, it’s also important to identify the specific language that both the district and your advocates will use to talk about the bond. For example, Friends of SPS recognized the importance of their community understanding that they were proposing a no-tax-increase bond. They didn’t need to explain the intricacies of how that type of bond works; simply returning to the phrase “no tax increase” proved effective enough.
Meet your audience where they are.
While it’s important to invite your community into the district, it’s equally important to go beyond the walls of your schools to meet your stakeholders where they already are. Keep in mind: Local community groups like realtors, Rotary Clubs, and chambers of commerce may not have direct ties to your district, but likely support your schools on principle. Now is the perfect time to leverage those personal connections. Why not offer to give an informative presentation at each of these organizations? By keeping influential groups in the know, you’re increasing the likelihood that your core message will make its way into the community—and that your voters will make their way to the polls.
Meeting your audience where they are also means being thoughtful about your online presence. Once you start going out into the community to make presentations, some of the folks you present to will probably be interested in learning more about the school bond. Make sure additional information is readily accessible on your school website. (For more on this, click here.)
Get local brand ambassadors onboard.
If you’ve spent any time on social media, you’ve seen influencers unboxing, using, and endorsing products. Whether it’s fashion, skincare, or even a luxury cruise, companies depend on advocacy marketing to find influencers who will promote their products to their legions of devoted followers. With built-in audiences and the right training, these brand ambassadors have tremendous influence.
Our bet is you have the same kind of ambassadors for your district—advocates who could use their personal influence in the community to garner support for your bond. And you don’t even have to give them free products—they just need a little training.
That’s exactly what Friends of SPS did with their Influencers Boot Camp. They identified people of influence in the community and brought them in to learn about the district bond. “We told them what was on the ballot. We gave them our talking points, the questions to answer, the message we needed to communicate,” says Lehnert. “Then, they’d take signs and pledge cards and go out to work within their circles of influence.”
If these brand ambassadors have the power to influence your individual stakeholders, then strategic endorsements have the power to influence your entire community. Think about it like this: If your neighbor talks about how great something is, you might listen. But if a community icon or deeply trusted local institution talks about how great something is, a lot of people will listen.
Friends of SPS sought endorsements from organizations like local teachers' unions, police associations, realtors, and more. Whether you seek endorsements from well-known individuals or from organizations, the idea is to identify those in your area who can influence the most people and get them trained on your message.
Leverage local media.
Another strategy for generating positive conversations during a bond campaign is engaging with the local media. Who better to have on your side when it comes to spreading information than newspapers, magazines, and local reporters? Of course, in order to get the kind of coverage you want, you have to intentionally develop strong relationships with your local media over time—not just when you need something.
“When you’re going into a bond election, you want to make sure that the people in your community trust you,” says Francisco Rojas, communications specialist at Longview ISD in Texas. “In order for the community to trust you, you have to show what you’re doing, how you’re using the resources that you have for kids, how you’re thinking outside the box.” In other words, the more innovative you are, the more likely you are to get news coverage. And if you already have positive relationships with the media, it’s more likely that news coverage will help you build further trust with your community. People talk about headlines. It’s your job to do everything you can to keep the conversation positive.
Retired teachers, current students, proud grandparents—no matter who your advocates are, they support your schools for a reason. They believe in them. By finding, training, and empowering these advocates, you are not only helping your chances of passing a bond but also your chances of continuing on as a district.
You will always need public support, and mobilizing your best supporters in the right way will help maintain and grow their advocacy for your schools. When your bond passes and your advocates realize the difference their work has made, you’ll gain lifelong supporters for your schools. No bond is the last one, after all. And no school system thrives without a community that knows how to support it.
Originally published as "Mobilizing Advocates" in the Summer 2023 issue of SchoolCEO Magazine.
Marie Kressin is a writer at SchoolCEO and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.Subscribe below to stay connected with SchoolCEO!