Small Nonprofit Uses Email to Rally Against Big Utility

By Jan 21, 2011

In this modern-day David-and-Goliath story, email rather than a slingshot helped a scrappy community group stand up to a major utility company. The group’s efforts raised awareness among legislators, the media, and the public about a proposed natural-gas pipeline that would cut across private farms and Mount Hood National Forest in Oregon.

NW Natural, which provides natural gas to Oregon and southwestern Washington, along with several partners had been seeking to build the Palomar pipeline to carry liquefied natural gas (LNG) to California and other markets. Although farmers and other private landowners who would be directly affected had been trying to put pressure on politicians and the public to stop the pipeline, they weren’t making much of an impact.

One reason, says Monica Vaughan, community organizer with Friends of Living Oregon Waters (FLOW), was because the pipeline was viewed simply as a NIMBY (not in my backyard) issue. To show that the pipeline would in fact also hurt those who didn’t live along the proposed route, Vaughan decided to focus more on how public lands—two state forests as well as Mount Hood—would suffer and how the impact on the immediately affected farmers would hurt other Oregonians as well.

“We needed to hold this gas company accountable,” Vaughan says. “They’d spent so much branding themselves as green. We wanted to force it to them to be a choice: support their green image or the pipeline.”

Along with other community groups, FLOW scheduled a protest rally to coincide with NW Natural’s May 2010 shareholders meeting. To spread the word and enlist volunteers, FLOW and its coalition partners, which included environmental groups Sierra Club and Bark, launched an email campaign in autumn 2009.

“We wanted to create a blast that all our coalition partners would feel comfortable sending to their lists,” Vaughan says. “We also wanted to make the email so compelling, so emotional that people would want to share it.”

The copy for the first mailing, which was sent in early November, was crafted so that each organization could easily tailor the introduction to its specific audience. The core of the message, though, focused on local farmers: “Hundreds of farmers are worried about the future of their land and Steve Wick, an old-time Oregonian who raises filberts, is one of them. Steve, like all Oregonian farmers, loves his land. He wants to produce food for our region and he wants to be a part of the growing agricultural and wine industry in the Willamette Valley. But right now, his goals have been put on hold because NW Natural is proposing a gas pipeline to cross Steve’s land.”

A link to a video of Wick discussing the potential damage to his farm was embedded in the email; to access it, recipients had to opt in to receive additional emails from the Hey NW Natural campaign itself, not just from the organizations involved.

The goal had been to get 500 recipients to opt in within a week; Hey NW Campaign generated 1,000 members during that time frame. Vaughan credits much of the response to the fact that the first message “really drew people into the reason they love Oregon.”

Subsequent emails focused on encouraging those who had opted in to enlist more followers and on persuading followers to become more actively involved in the campaign. “Ideally you want to move followers into supporters and supporters into volunteers and donors,” Vaughan says.

The second email focused even more on the ramifications of the pipeline on those who didn’t live in its immediate vicinity: “Oregonians who rely on the Mt. Hood watershed for drinking water and recreational users of our national and state forests are impacted by the Palomar pipeline. Worse yet, because LNG would increase Oregon’s greenhouse gas emissions, all of Oregon will be affected by the impacts of climate change.”

In addition to providing links to online petitions and another video, the email encouraged followers to submit a photo of themselves and their friends holding signs that read, “I am impacted by Palomar.” The photos added a visual element for the organization’s other efforts, including Facebook, and provided an easy way for followers to step up involvement.

Subsequent emails notified followers of smaller events leading up to the May rally while continuing to address the multiple effects of the proposed pipeline. “There were so many issues wrapped up in the campaign,” Vaughan says. “It can really be overwhelming when you list all the issues. With each email we built the story of the campaign. We wanted to show the diversity of issues in our campaign without overwhelming them.”

Vaughan also took care not to send more than one or occasionally two emails a month: “People get so happy about emailing because it’s so easy, but you have to respect your list. If you’re not willing to call your members about this action, then it’s not worth an email.”

To communicate less urgent actions and news, Vaughan updated the Hey NW Natural Facebook page several times a week. “On our Facebook page we could announce things like, ‘Hey, check out this article. Could you comment on their letters section?’” she says.

Just days before the May stockholders meeting, one of the partners in the Palomar pipeline venture filed for bankruptcy, putting the plans on hold. Nonetheless, roughly 300 protesters attended the rally outside NW Natural’s meeting. And Hey NW Natural continues to solicit followers and encourage members to put pressure on legislators and the gas company to halt the pipeline altogether—efforts that will no doubt continue now that NW Natural recently found a new potential partner for Palomar.