News and analysis
January 30, 2017

In Wake of Travel Ban, Nonprofits See Support Surge

Zach Gibson/Getty Images

Protesters gathered January 29 outside the Trump International Hotel in Washington to oppose President’s Trump’s executive order temporarily barring U.S. entry for citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries. The ban unleashed protests nationwide and a surge of donations to nonprofits that work with Muslims and refugees.

Civil-rights and international-aid nonprofits have seen a flood of support following President Trump’s executive order on Friday to ban refugee admissions into the country for 120 days and bar U.S. entry for 90 days for travelers from seven majority-Muslim countries.

Most such organizations spent the weekend updating supporters about the White House order and encouraging people to sign petitions in opposition to the move. Nonprofits also asked people to join in protests at airports and other locations, which quickly spread across the nation.

Many groups said they saw spikes in donations in response to their communications about the president’s action, which sparked outrage at nonprofits that work with Muslims and refugees from the affected countries. It also left the nonprofits wondering: "What’s coming next?"

"We’re going be in a rapid-response world for a while," said Mark Wier, chief development officer at the American Civil Liberties Union.

Moving Quickly

The ACLU raised about $24 million online from roughly 350,000 people over the weekend, a record-setting amount for the group in such a short period.

After Mr. Trump signed the order, the organization quickly released a statement online from its executive director, Anthony Romero — and its online communications never slowed.

On Saturday, the ACLU started to inform supporters about a lawsuit it filed along with other civil-rights groups on behalf of two Iraqi men who were detained Friday in New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. Diana Scholl, the organization’s social-media manager, traveled to the airport and posted photos and Facebook Live videos documenting a crowd of protesters that had amassed.

Staffers for the group’s online communications team — most working from home — continued posting about the latest news, too.

The organization also retweeted messages from celebrities like comedian Rosie O’Donnell and tech investor Chris Sacca of TV’s Shark Tank, both of whom pledged matching gifts to the ACLU. "They’re better ambassadors than we are," Ms. Scholl said of outside supporters.

Court Battle

The ACLU and its partners won a short-term victory on Saturday night, when they convinced a federal judge to stop deportations of people who had arrived at U.S. airports from the countries affected by the ban — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.

That success will help with ACLU’s messaging going forward, as it shows the organization can be effective, said Mr. Wier, the chief development officer.

The group’s already capitalizing on the win. On Saturday, it pinned a message to its Twitter account that said "ACLU blocks Trump’s unconstitutional Muslim ban." The top of the organization’s homepage has a photo of Trump along with the message, "He discriminated: We sued" and a "donate monthly" link.

Mr. Wier said the organization will likely continue to steer its communications toward specific legal and advocacy moves it’s making.

"We get the biggest response talking about real action," he said.

Petitions in Opposition

Oxfam America sent an email Friday asking supporters to sign a petition urging the president to rescind his executive order. It also paid for social-media ads to promote the petition.

"The refugees impacted by your decision are among the world’s most vulnerable people — women, children, and men — who are simply trying to find a safe place to live after fleeing unfathomable violence and loss," the petition states.

On Saturday, the aid charity resent the email to people who had not signed the message.

"It’s been by far the best performer we’ve ever seen for an action," said Amanda Peña, who leads Oxfam America’s digital campaigns. She said about 33,000 people had signed the petition by around noon on Monday.

Oxfam also sent an email appeal Sunday with the goal of gaining more monthly supporters. The missive had already been scheduled, but it was updated to include a reference to the Trump order and noted that a big donor had pledged to triple people’s initial contributions.

Oxfam brought in $77,000 through the weekend, with the petition generating about $30,000 in donations — much more than usual for a message that is not explicitly a donation appeal, Ms. Peña said.

On social media, Oxfam sought to share real stories of people affected by the order, linking to news articles and videos, Ms. Peña said. It also posted graphics with messages like "I stand with refugees and immigrants," and "No matter where you’re from, you’re welcome here," that people could share online.

"We wanted to reach everybody out there who also cares about refugees, but maybe they hadn’t heard about Oxfam," she said.

Education and Advocacy

Other groups focused on educating their communities about the president’s action.

Muslim Advocates, an educational and legal group that represents Muslims in the United States, sent out advisories via social media that people on work or education visas should check with immigration attorneys before leaving the country, especially if they are from one of the seven listed nations. "Our focus has been, in the short term, on getting the knowledge out to the community," said Farhana Khera, president of the group.

The organization did not send any direct appeals but still saw a surge in online donations over the weekend, she said. (At press time Muslim Advocates said it was still tallying the take.)

Ms. Khera said that in the days ahead her group will be shifting to advocacy work, aiming to mobilize supporters to put pressure on public officials to speak out. "We are encouraging people to urge their members of Congress to oppose the ban," she said.

Starting a Protest

Many nonprofits leaders encouraged people to join protests over the weekend; others organized demonstrations themselves.

Farhan Memon, board chair of the Connecticut chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said more than 2,000 people protested at Bradley International Airport in the Hartford area in a demonstration his group promoted on Facebook and in emails to supporters.

Mr. Memon said he was surprised by the turnout but added, "This issue has lit a fire under a segment of the American population."

If the group leads another protest, it will likely try to get people sign a petition or donate to the organization. he said.

CAIR’s national office also promoted protests across the country on social media.

"In the old days, it’d be like pulling teeth to get a handful of people to come to a protest," said Ibrahim Hooper, the organization’s national communications director. "Now it seems like people just show up spontaneously."

Mr. Hooper said CAIR had seen a spike in donations over the weekend, but the group did not provide figures immediately.

One thing that worries Mr. Memon is the possibility that after expending so much outrage so early in Mr. Trump’s presidency, nonprofits and supporters will tire of speaking out.

"There’s going to be a lot more things going on and we can’t burn out," he said. "We have to be conditioned."

Send an email to Timothy Sandoval.