Well, the High Court has spoken — and Australia’s leading non-profits are stepping up for the YES campaign for equality.

Australian Progress yesterday convened a webinar discussion with staff of four diverse organisations about their motivation, process, activities, and next steps.

These notes summarise the discussion and provide practical advice about what your non-profit can do for the YES campaign in the coming weeks.

1. Be deliberate about why you’re getting involved

Each of the organisations have made a deliberate decision to get involved, consistent with their values.

  • Oxfam Australia operate programs in many of the more than 70 countries globally where diverse sexual identities remain criminalised. “Where we see our policy impinged we have an obligation to speak out”, says Pam Anders from Oxfam. “One of our partners in Zimbabwe [where homosexuality is illegal] told us “we’re watching what happens in Australia”. Oxfam had a formal kick-off with a staff action. “Staff wore a rainbow colour to work, we took an inclusive staff picture; and [encourage staff] to share the photo and tag themselves on Facebook” says Pam.
  • For Victorian Trades Hall Council, the decision was based on a combination of values-alignment and having the experience to jump right in. “Trade unions do these kind of ballots all the time – this is how you do industrial action, you get a postal ballot delivered by the AEC and then you have to get a certain number of people who send it back. We know there is work even with people who are committed to the issue. Even [members] saying “Yeah yeah, I’m with you, don’t worry about it isn’t enough – we have to make sure those people are reminded and get their ballots in… and don’t leave them sitting on the kitchen bench until November” said Wil Strake from Trades Hall Council.
  • Lyn Morgan, CEO at cohealth, one of Australia’s largest primary health providers said they began from the premise that inequality is an issue of health equity. “We knew that for community health organisations to get involved they needed something that was well within their objects. We have been prominent in helping to assist [other health groups] understand, where they do not already, what the health impacts of inequality are, why there are questions over the merit of a postal survey; why a yes vote is so terribly important to the health and wellbeing of the community; and why it matters that they are public in their support for the LGBTI community”. cohealth commissioned a short paper outlining the evidence base for their involvement, which has been widely circulated.
  • GetUp have been one of the most vocal groups on the issue — and against the plebiscite in recent years. Michael Poland from GetUp explained a big part of their focus was on building broader alliances. “GetUp has been talking about marriage equality for many years and we haven’t won it — the brand isn’t important; marriage equality is, and LGBTI groups should be at the head of this”.

2. Be clear about strategy

With only a short window for the campaign, it’s important to prioritise activities. This means building alliances, getting out the YES vote and supporting affected communities; rather than the slow work of persuading “No” ‘voters’ to reconsider.

Here’s what the organisations on the call had to say about strategy:

  • As a first step, cohealth circulated a statement of support for YES to other community health groups. Says Lyn, “We asked them whether they’d sign on and by and large [they] have agreed to do that. Almost all of them felt they needed board endorsement to do so; I felt that was advantageous, because that was another group that was privy to the arguments”. And “while the statement is an important kick off point, it’s really about drawing the organisations into a network that we can use as we move into other campaigning stages. There is recognition that they are in effect bound by their own statement (if I can be a little bit cheeky here); this allows us to use that network to do the ongoing work we want to do”.
  • For Victorian Trades Hall, it was natural to start by contacting union members. “One in five people who support marriage equality are already saying they may not vote; we cannot assume these are not our own members” says Wil. Vic Trades Hall have created a range of guides designed to help unions have conversations call their members, including through a large scale ACTU program. They’re also distributing posters, t-shirts and other visibility materials. “We need to show it’s an important issue, it’s a widespread issue, and also show support for LGBTI people who are going through a stressful time”.
  • As a counterpoint, GetUp’s own research suggested they should not prioritise contacting their members [who were likely to vote YES, or in a minority of cases were firm No voters] but instead focus on other members of the general public who were warm but less likely to vote, such as younger people and men aged in their 30s and 40s.

3. Stay positive with your messaging

A key question for many non-profits is getting the language right and prioritising the right messages.

  • For voters and supporters already committed to the YES cause it’s vital to get them to actually respond to the survey. Michael from GetUp says “the best key message is that they should commit to vote as soon as they receive the ballot”. The Equality Campaign have prepared a Plan Your Vote tool that helps YES voters identify their local post box and commit to voting by a certain day. They also have a vast array of downloadable resources and kits to help different types of organisations engage.
  • Then there are the people who are 90% of the way to voting YES. Says Wil from Trades Hall “there are conversation tools to help you have conversation in a constructive way, resolve the doubts, and focus on the things that are most important in this debate”.
  • Wil adds: “stop talking about the No side. Just don’t. Every time we talk about what they’re doing, or share some foul poster that is going around is time we are not talking about fairness, love, dignity, equality, respect and commitment; and really that is what this about; if we can talk using that language we don’t have to worry about the No side because we are the majority. Rather than sharing, complaining, and talking about the No side, what I say to unions is: don’t engage with it”.
  • Michael from GetUp emphasises that talking to No voters is not a priority. “If you do happen to talk to a No voter we’re encouraging people to wrap [the conversation] up, rather than spending huge amounts of our time and energy”.

4. Make calls and knock on doors.

  • GetUp has worked with the Equality campaign and many others to create a phone calling tool, at Yes.org.au to patch volunteer callers through to people they’ve identified as more likely to support marriage equality. “Calling parties are being run at offices, in people’s living rooms, and people can dial in, on their own, from home” says Michael, “We’re hoping a million phone calls will be made over the coming weeks”. Many organisations, including Oxfam, Save the Children and even companies such as Commonwealth Bank and Foxtel are making calls through this tool. Says Michael, “If companies can make calls, then civil society should be close behind — if not ahead! Many companies are quite comfortable and safe making calls”.
  • Pam from Oxfam says: “We kicked off the first of our calling events yesterday evening, encouraging staff, volunteer [to take part]… we had about 40 people in the Melbourne office; we made about 200 calls. By and large it went pretty smoothly; about two thirds of the calls that were placed are very supportive. We had a debrief with staff afterwards and we’re going to host them nationally over the next few weeks”.
  • One issue that emerges with joint campaign websites can be organisations’ protectiveness of their supporters data and privacy, and on the flipside, a desire to know what they do. Michael says Yes.org.au has taken this into account – “there are dozens of groups going into that data melting pot so there is tracking to help with that”.
  • Over the coming weeks, the calling will be complemented by volunteers going door-to-door. A coordinated doorknock for YES will be held on the weekend of 23rd and 24th September. Michael noted that given the national nature of the survey-count, the focus was on “places with higher density of Yes voters [who are easier to reach] and Yes voters that might not vote. Melbourne, Sydney and Perth will be particularly important”.

5. Deflect push back

  • Lyn from cohealth acknowledged that there had been some push back from “No” advocates. “Yes there has. Especially internal to some of the organisations [cohealth has reached out to]; we’ve had questions raised amongst staff, whether this is core business. We were asked to also promote arguments which were effectively “No” arguments…. Sorry, we’re an evidence based organisation and we’re not prepared to promote arguments for which there is no evidence… we’re well positioned around the evidence, we do health inequality every day. I would reinforce the importance of having the resources to hand to engage in those debates as they arise”.
  • Lyn added “Some of the push back is highly organised; while it might come through HR departments as someone’s right to freedom of expression, when investigated it has a high degree of organisation coming from the No campaign. We need to be aware of how that plays out in our organisation”.
  • Says Wil from Vic Trades Hall, “If someone goes onto your [Facebook] page and asks a question about it, just go back to the values we stand for: equality, diversity, respect; dignity; with a proviso that you can agree to disagree; but that is why the [organisation] says they support the Yes campaign.

6. Support those impacted

Community organisations are also on the frontlines providing support to LGBTI communities.

  • Lyn from cohealth says: “I have to say we’ve all been a little taken aback by how significant the emotional impact on the community is”. A key goal of cohealth’s statement was asking partners, especially those working in regional and rural contexts, to be alert to the adverse impacts of the debate on community, and making available resources for community as we feel these impacts”. Lyn says, “one of things we’re turning our mind to how our existing counselling services can provide additional support in our LGBTIQ counselling services; there is a broader question about if the debate goes on; how do we point people to more support when it’s required”.
  • Pam from Oxfam says nonprofits also need a strategy when it comes to their own staff. “What the LGBTI community does shoulder with this debate has meant that we wanted to emphasise to staff… that people will go through their own journeys they might not want to disclose; we need places that people can reach out in a confidential basis, such EAP [Employee Assistance Programs]”.

7. Bring other groups into the fold

So far, the effort has involved a high degree of goodwill and generosity.

  • Wil Strake says especially if you can’t do the above, “donate money to the campaigns that are doing things, because all of this takes resourcing for organising, produce materials etc.”
  • Likewise, Lyn from cohealth says they’ve asked their partners to “make their resources available to support campaigning efforts of LGBTI groups and networks who may not have access to resources and networks”. She says “One of the things I’ve observed is that there lots of allies that need a little bit of support to engage; possibly folks who’ve not been involved in campaigning work before that are concerned about what they’re seeing around them; reserving some of our energy to channel that has been important”.
  • Pam from Oxfam says, “One of the other things we’ve done is ring around other allies and talk about what we’re doing which has kickstarted their own conversation; there isn’t a lot of awareness around really practical things, like the calling parties”.

While the postal vote may be a waste of money and an unnecessary delaying tactic, it is bringing out the best in Australian non-profits!