Advocacy Do’s and Don’ts

By Hank Berkowitz • July 15, 2014

Hank Berkowitz
Hank Berkowitz, Editor-in-Chief

One of the most eye-opening findings from our annual Association Communication Benchmarking Study this year was that “lobbying/advocacy efforts” has now supplanted “best practices,” “industry news/trends” and even “professional development” as the single most important topic to association leaders and their members. To some, that’s more surprising than Germany’s 7-1 dismantling of the Brazilian national soccer team (on Brazil’s home turf) last week at the FIFA World Cup semi-finals. But, like the stadium scoreboard, our numbers don’t lie.


  • Our research shows that “lobbying/advocacy efforts” is now the single most important topic to association leaders and their members—ahead of “best practices,” “industry news” and even “careers.” But, the two terms should not be used interchangeably.
  • “Advocacy means we are the eyes and ears for our members to protect their interests at the Capitol and to educate legislators about our industry.”

More than half (52.1 percent) of the 910 North American association leaders who responded to our survey told us that news about “lobbying/advocacy efforts” was highly important to them. No other topic achieved a score of more than 50 percent in the “highly important” column.

See this Did You Know?  for an in-depth look at how your peers rate the 10 most important topics to association leaders.

Top 10 Topics Most Important to Association Leaders

So what’s driving this renewed emphasis on lobbying and advocacy? Karen Conlon, president of the California Association of Community Managers (CACM), said it’s because there’s a great deal of “misinformation—even fabricated information” presented to legislators that can easily turn into bad legislation. “This increases costs to consumers,” she added, even though some legislators “don’t seem to care.”

Mary Lange, president of the Independent Bankers Association of Texas (IBAT) Education Foundation, reiterated that members pay dues to be represented. “Running an association requires many skill sets that can be obtained in many places. But, representing core issues of legal and regulatory nature for an industry takes a very special knowledge bank.”

At a recent presentation in Washington, D.C., Robert L. Johnson, founder of the RLJ companies and one of America’s most successful media, business and entertainment moguls, said that an association professional’s job “is to create that passion, that belief, that whatever it is you represent, you can do it more effectively for members than they can do it for themselves.” While Johnson is well-known worldwide, you may not know that he spent the early part of his career in the association world. “As a trade association, you represent a brand and you represent people who have a passion for that brand and its causes,” Johnson added.

It’s kind of like the popular soccer chant I Believe!

Advocacy versus lobbying

Before diving in further, it’s important to note that the terms “lobbying” and “advocacy” should not be used interchangeably. IBAT’s Lange said her association does both lobbying and advocacy, and there is a distinction between the two. “We lobby with the 501(c)(6) organization focusing on laws, regulations and taxation issues impacting the community banking industry. With our 501(c)(3) foundation, we advocate for financial literacy for all Texans,” she added.

At CACM, Conlon said that “lobbying certainly takes place at the state Capitol and involves our contract lobbyist relating our concerns and position on an issue or bill. But, advocacy for us means we are the eyes and ears for our members to protect their interests at the Capitol and to educate legislators about our industry,” she added.

Angela Kisskeys, marketing and communications manager, Midwest Society of Association Executives (MSAE), which represents associations in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, said her organization doesn’t lobby directly unless the issue impacts the overall operations of non-profits. “At that point, we would take necessary measures. MSAE members keep us informed of current lobbying issues and/or any red flags that may impact the association management profession,” Kisskeys added.

Johnson agreed that associations should consult closely with members before embarking on any important lobbying or advocacy initiatives. “There’s always a conflict for associations since [individual member] companies have their own lobbyists and think you, the trade association, are trying to take their jobs away. They think they have greater access to members of Congress and the press.”

Advocacy success story

As CACM’s Conlon explained, her organization was able to defeat a piece legislation (introduced by a powerful lobbying effort) that would have prevented its members from charging market driven fees for services provided to clients.

So, what was the key to getting support behind your cause and getting lawmakers/regulators or others to see your position and support it? According to Conlon, CACM researched and articulated “the other side of the story” that obviously did not conform to the sponsors allegations. CACM provided “real-life examples” from members about how the sponsor’s allegations were simply not true. “It not only embarrassed the sponsor, but also the author of the bill,” added Conlon. “We then worked with both to minimize the [impact of the] bill, and it helped save face for them and we could live with the eventual outcome.”

For more advocacy success stories, see Kelly Donovan’s story.

What are some of the newer tools, techniques and strategies that associations can use to advance their causes with lawmakers and constituents? Lange pointed to building networks, helping members understand the “issues and the players,” understanding the legislative process at the state and federal level and helping members hone their messaging to representatives. “Building in a fun quotient is also important,” Lange added, and “learning the art of conversation. These are all good skills to have in the quiver.”

Avoiding advocacy mistakes

So, what are some of the biggest missteps that associations tend to make on the lobbying/advocacy front? According to Conlon, it’s when you ignore threats and “don’t visualize potential outcomes and how they impact your organization and members.” Lange called out two common errors: “assuming everyone knows what the issues are and blurting on a ‘cold mind.’ You have to have a relationship before you can tell your story.”

Another common misstep is neglecting the non-due revenue potential of your advocacy efforts. As Johnson explained: “It makes no sense to [do all the lobbying/advocacy] that associations do and NOT turn that passion into a monetization event to support the cause. It’s not as if you’re taking the money and putting it into your pocket. You’re putting it back into what your goals are.”

Getting NextGen involved

According to Conlon, you should explain to industry up-and-comers how helping your organization advance its causes helps them and directly impacts them. Lange advised showing younger members “how the game is played. Let them help raise political action committee (PAC) dollars and get involved in how [those funds] get spent. Have fun in the process. Make it relevant to their work and community,” she added.

How about new ways of educating and engaging members proactively when important new legislation hits? Lange advised texting and tweeting the news, sending out e-newsletters, hosting live forums, posting web articles and even going back to “the old telephone tree.” Conlon said CACM is big on e-communications and “call to actions when necessary.”

Has social media, video and mobile changed the lobbying/advocacy equation in recent years? According to Conlon it has, because there is so much information from so many different sources to manage and monitor. Lange said she’s noticed it on a national level more than on a state and local level. Lange, Conlon and Johnson each said they were amazed at the speed with which news travels today. “It’s important as a trade association that you take advantage of every technological advantage that’s available, said Johnson. “You can’t afford to be slow off the dime and [being tech savvy] puts you at the head of the class.”

Finally, an organization’s charitable and philanthropic work can contribute to member value. Conlon said, “it shows we have more of a universal view of the world,” not just an industry-centric view. Lange said that IBAT’s foundation not only helps build financially literate communities that students, teachers, parents and community bankers can relate to, “it also provides regulatory credit under banking compliance rules. It is a win-win-win,” she exclaimed.


Even if you barely followed soccer’s World Cup, you’d have to agree with Johnson that having a passion for a cause is one of the most powerful tools that exist for “changing human behavior.” From the soccer field to the association board room to Capitol Hill, it’s not just showing passion for your cause; it’s about having the ability to channel your passion into a productive and beneficial result for your followers (apologies to Brazil).

“If you can show that your mission is to impact the market, the constituents and the industry that members are trying to serve,” added Johnson, “then I think you’ll be around for a very long time.”

Hank Berkowitz is the moderator-in-chief of Association Adviser eNews.