With the vast and growing number of trade associations, lobbyists and non-profit groups all vying for the attention of the same 535 federal legislators, the ability to make an impact on lawmakers has become increasingly difficult. What can your association do to stand out, and more importantly, influence policymakers to act on your behalf?
The answer depends on a number of factors about your association, including the size and composition of your membership, the policy issues you’re advocating for, and the organization’s tax status. This last factor was addressed at length in Ross Weber’s recent Association Adviser column, “Keys to Successful Advocacy: Understanding and Maximizing Your Association’s Tax Status.”
Grassroots vs. Grasstops
Associations with large memberships can impact policymakers using traditional forms of advocacy communications, such as emails and calls to congressional offices. When legislative or regulatory issues arise, these groups have the ability to activate their grassroots army of volunteers with action alerts that generate hundreds or thousands of constituent messages.
Small associations, which are unable to generate a high volume of unified messages, need to be more strategic. One approach is to focus on “grasstops” volunteers, or high-influencers. Often political donors, these are supporters who have connections or direct access to policymakers. A single grasstops advocate can be just as powerful as hundreds of citizen activists if they are trained properly and willing to use their political capital to advance the association’s agenda. It often takes years, however, to build an effective network of grasstops advocates spread around the country.
It’s important to consider not just the message you want to deliver to legislators, but who your messengers are. Patients and their family members make powerful advocates when discussing disease-specific legislation or medical research funding. Physicians and other medical professionals often carry a level of expertise about healthcare policies that policymakers value.
Industry groups are good at talking about the jobs they create and their economic impact on states and communities. But they should also tell the stories of individuals whose lives have been turned around for good as a result of workforce training and other initiatives.
Storytelling and personal anecdotes should be a component of every advocacy program. Elected officials are inundated with data. A powerful story, especially combined with facts and figures, can create a lasting impression on a legislator and sometimes convert them from a supporter into a champion for you. There are a growing number of companies that specialize in creating compelling narratives for advocacy and marketing purposes.
The most successful advocacy programs understand that relationships with elected officials must be a two-way street. Instead of trying to exert the maximum amount of pressure on policymakers, associations should look for opportunities to demonstrate their support of the officials they want on their side. For most legislators, that means helping them get reelected, which is usually their chief concern.
The most direct way of accomplishing this, depending on your association’s tax status, is by contributing to a legislator’s political campaign, either via a PAC or through your members, but that can be costly and requires navigating federal campaign finance laws. As an alternative, there are plenty of indirect ways of supporting a legislator’s reelection effort.
Most associations have an annual meeting or conference. This is a good opportunity to invite an elected official to deliver remarks or a keynote address, especially if the event is held in their home district or state. Conferences in Washington, D.C., provide the option of inviting whoever the most important federal legislator(s) are for your industry.
Hosting a facility tour for an elected official provides them with a photo opportunity, which they may advertise on their website or in a campaign commercial.
You can also help gain positive media attention for a candidate by having one of your members submit an op-ed that applauds them for their support of one of your issues. That has the secondary benefit of reminding them of your association’s position on the issue. A quicker way of accomplishing this is by thanking a legislator for their support on social media and tagging them in the post.
Finally, associations should strive to be a reliable source of information and analysis for legislative staff. This will help you gain their respect and appreciation since they usually don’t have the time to perform extensive research on all of the various policy issues for which they are responsible.
By changing the way you think about relationship building with elected officials and their staff, you can raise the profile of your association and help advance your policy goals.