Associations have promising potential to influence public policy at every level of government. The most successful advocacy campaigns are customized to an organization’s unique needs, but certain strategies promote long-term success in every profession or industry. Paradoxically, political action is one of the simplest and most effective approaches, yet association leadership often consider it to be an activity that can only be taken on by an organization with a highly developed government affairs infrastructure.
Many organizations shy away from politically-related activities out of concern for their tax status. Uncertainty in this area often causes organizations to be overly cautious. However, Venable LLP, a national law firm focused on government relations, advises, “…by failing to employ lobbying and political tactics, associations may be neglecting activities that may be enormously helpful in carrying out their mission.” Your association’s board should discuss specific concerns about association-backed political involvement with legal and tax experts. Generally, however, 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations or section 501(c)(6) professional associations can conduct political activities so long as those activities are not the organization’s primary activity. Even a 501(c)(3) charity may inform political candidates of its positions on particular issues and urge them to pledge support of those positions.
One pathway to achieving advocacy goals: Political donations
Launching a Super PAC is not the only way a trade group or professional association can support its advocacy goals via engagement in political campaigns. Indeed, there are many manageable pathways for an individual or organization to employ political tactics in support of candidates, office-seekers, and the legislation they choose to endorse. Direct monetary contributions to candidates, political action committees and political parties are the most common source of campaign support.
“Lobbying” and “political tactics” are two distinct activities association leaders must understand. “Lobbying” involves meeting a lawmaker in their official capacity, perhaps in their capital or district office, to discuss specific proposals and public policies. “Political tactics” in the form of campaign contributions are a rare instance when policymakers come to constituents for support. In almost all other interactions, it is the advocate who needs assistance from the legislator, whether in the form of a vote, sponsorship, or championing an issue. This is not to say, of course, that a contribution is necessary for favorable consideration by a lawmaker. That’s unethical and illegal.
“Instead,” according to Naylor government affairs director Kevin Daley, “an association, whether as an organization or as individuals, can use political tactics to support policy goals.”
An example of using political tactics to support a policy goal
The political arm of a national association represented by Naylor Government Affairs recently demonstrated its effectiveness in supporting the organization’s policy goal of introducing a bill in Congress that would promote healthcare transparency. During the first six months of a new Congressional term, several rank-and-file members of the association represented its political action committee at fundraisers held throughout the country for elected officials seeking re-election. At these events, a novice advocate affiliated with the association delivered a contribution to the campaign and had the opportunity to introduce themselves to the candidate as they mingled with the intimate crowd. The newly-minted “political insider” reported that interaction back to their association’s executive office, which took the opportunity to follow up with the legislator’s official staff, and secured a meeting to educate them about the organization’s legislative priorities.
Several weeks later, the PAC-supported lawmaker signed on to co-sponsor legislation endorsed by the association. In this case, the political tactic of attending campaign fundraisers where advocates shared their profession’s concern about a lack of transparency in certain healthcare decisions supported the association’s policy goal of securing support for a new piece of legislation.
Identifying candidates & campaigns
A guide to political donations aptly asserts that the “most direct way to give money to a single candidate is to donate to their re-election committee, which would finance most of the things associated with campaigns, like advertising, hotel rooms, staff, and gas for the campaign bus.” Absent personal or professional connections to elected officials, it’d be wise for an organization to develop a slate of supported candidates – a list of elected officials who serve in leadership or have a particular interest in or experience with their industry.
Depending on your association’s level of engagement, this list must be updated frequently to account for elections, resignations, and reassignments. An environmental group might review the roster of legislative committees with jurisdiction over natural resources and regulatory affairs to come up with their slate. An organization representing health care professionals would focus on health care, insurance, and even judiciary committees. This list can be distributed amongst the board and members, who may be encouraged, not coerced, to support a candidate in their state, or to volunteer to make a trip to Washington for several events identified by the association’s PAC or government affairs advisors.
How much, when & where
A government affairs team can also advise advocates on the amount and timing of campaign contributions. In the best of circumstances, it’s wise to max out with candidates that you’d like to draw closer to. In federal elections, that means a $5,000 contribution for a primary election and another $5,000 for a general election. Long-term success depends greatly on consistency and repetition. Donating a high-dollar amount early in a two-year election cycle will likely prompt frequent invitations to events, as well as face-time in a candidate’s official capacity.
But beware: Trying to time or tie a donation to a vote is not only unethical, it is unwise, because by the time an issue is being considered by lawmakers, it’s really too late to leverage a political contribution into access to elected official. EMILY’s List, one of the country’s most influential political action committees, is instructive in this regard. The PAC’s name is an acronym for Early Money Is Like Yeast. For our purposes, we must take this to mean early money expands an advocate’s relationship with a candidate.
Building bonds with elected officials is the primary purpose of political action. Advocates create political capital to achieve policy goals even if that advocate isn’t a direct constituent of an influential lawmaker. Political support grants an organization access to educate candidates on the issues that matter most to a profession or industry. While certain legal hurdles do exist for organizations that want to mobilize members in a political cause, they are not so daunting as to ignore the benefits of political tactics in an advocacy campaign. An effective government affairs team will identify political connections and opportunities that can help your association achieve more.