By Todd Cohen
Laying the groundwork for its interim president’s testimony in September to the Senate Judiciary Committee on John Roberts’ nomination to be chief justice, Planned Parenthood waged an electronic campaign to spur citizens to voice support for the Supreme Court’s Roe decision that established a woman’s right to legal access to an abortion.
In less than eight weeks, that effort generated more than 125,000 email messages from Planned Parenthood supporters enlisting their friends, with more than 100,000 individuals signing a campaign petition in August alone.
“Technology is very important for us advancing our mission,” says Karen Pearl, who at the time was interim president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America in New York City. “It provides access for patients, it provides information for young people as well as supporters, and it gives us the opportunity to communicate with and activate our advocates immediately, within minutes of an event happening.”
The system that helped generate those email messages is part of a long-term strategy to fully integrate technology into the way that Planned Parenthood does business and works to achieve its mission, says Tom Subak, director of Planned Parenthood Online, a new initiative.
With a national organization, 120 independent affiliates and 850 health centers, and multiple websites for many of those entities, Planned Parenthood has presented itself as a kind of online crazy-quilt, Subak says.
“Although it’s been an organizational structure that has served us extraordinarily well over the years, it could not be a more challenging one for communicating online,” he says.
In recent years, for example, an individual searching the internet for a topic related to Planned Parenthood such as reproductive health services or for opportunities to get involved would find “more than 100 Planned Parenthood organizations competing with each other to present you our results,” he says.
“We were tripping all over ourselves and frustrating you, the searcher, just when we needed to be providing you with that health information or that opportunity for involvement,” he says.
After four years of planning, Planned Parenthood in January 2005 relaunched its web portal, aiming to create “a single port of entry” that now houses the websites of the national organization and dozens of affiliates.
The charge for Planned Parenthood Online is to transform the way the federation thinks about and uses internet technology, moving beyond its literal functionality by tying it to the organization’s mission and strategy.
That initially means understanding and identifying the Planned Parenthood’s internet opportunities, and then translating them into clear goals, measurable outcomes and strategies to reach those goals and outcomes, Subak says.
“Given what we do,” he says, “what is it that the internet can help us do better, faster, cheaper, smarter?”
With three-and-a-half staff positions, Planned Parenthood Online also has the job of working with Planned Parenthood leaders from through the United States to reach the organization’s online goals, while maintaining and developing current and future technology.
Specific goals that Planned Parenthood Online has set for itself include learning how to best use the internet to provide online health information and services; communicate with existing and future supporters to increase revenue and advocacy work; promote and protect the Planned Parenthood brand; and best serve customers
Planned Parenthood Online distributes 500,000 to 1 million email messages a week to supporters on behalf of the national federation and participating affiliates, using web-based software provided by GetActive in Berkeley, Calif.
Ultimately, Subak says, technology is one of several interrelated strategies Planned Parenthood or any nonprofit should use to further its mission.
“Our assumption is that any great strategy on any issue,” he says, “is going to be won or lost on our ability to approach it from multiple directions.”