When it comes to having an impact on public policies, an association must be agile and flexible – two qualities that don’t come naturally to the complex bureaucracies that exist within many organizations.
Although it is best when advocacy initiatives are well-planned, sometimes opportunities for engagement arise quickly and there is little time for preparation. For example, a policy maker may ask about the feasibility of a program or project and need an immediate answer. Likewise, a member might be invited to participate in a media event, or come to an important meeting to brief policy makers. These opportunities may not lend themselves to extensive policy research and analysis beforehand.
To counter protracted processes that delay decision-making, association leadership must establish broad advocacy objectives and empower a committee or executive director to take actions toward the achievement of their advocacy goals.
Establishing Broad Advocacy Objectives
Advocacy objectives may come to the attention of association leadership through a variety of channels including members, partners, legislators or published reports. In deciding whether to take action on a particular issue, an association must consider how the issue is connected to several elements:
Linked to membership
Associations successful at advocacy have an established process to determine how governmental issues affect members. Members may be surveyed for their overarching concerns as well as positions on specific issues. That said it’s vitally important not to abdicate the association’s leadership role by soliciting the entire community’s feelings on every issue.
Most often, a government affairs committee will consider these suggestions and, with staff, categorize their relevance and urgency. Given the influence of this committee, it must be representative of the entire organization. For example, in an association of physicians, we find the most engaged members usually skew older and are in private practice. However, it’s becoming much more common for doctors to be employed by large health systems or academic medical centers. Therefore, the board has taken care to appoint members to the health policy committee who represent each of those practice settings; likewise with demographic diversity.
Linked to mission and strategy
An association’s mission will almost always include a commitment to representing members, but it may also address a broader dedication to the public. Therefore, legislative priorities may include so-called “White Hat” issues that benefit the larger industry and community.
Linked to reality
David Thompson, vice president of public policy at the National Council of Nonprofits, says, “it’s always important to find out ‘what’s happening in the real world’ before setting an agenda.” The organization may study past legislative and regulatory activity and assess the urgency of an issue and likelihood for favorable consideration. That determination will be based on several factors including the distribution of political power and public opinion.
Taking Action on Advocacy Objectives
There are many tried and true tactics to advance an association’s advocacy objectives:
- Direct ‘Lobbying’
- Grassroots Mobilization
- Coalitions and Alliances
- Administrative Advocacy
- Media Advocacy
Success will depend, in large part, on an effective communication system, according to the University of Kansas Center for Community Health and Development (CCHD). Their CCHD Community Tool Box emphasizes the necessity of being able to mobilize for immediate action, “you’ll often have a day or less to make an impact, and you have to make every minute count. The best way to insure effective action (putting together an urgent strategy meeting, calls to legislators, organizing a public event on short notice, etc.) is through an effective communication system.”
A commitment to advocacy can be simply stated with a policy that outlines an association’s “overall policy goals, the kinds of policy activities in which your organization will and will not engage, and how decisions about your advocacy activities will be governed,” according to the Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest (CLPI). Advocacy requires organizational agility and individuals’ patience. Activity often happens in short bursts, but also over many years.
The CLPI ably advises that an association must “be willing to keep at it, even in the face of apparent defeat, or worse, indifference. There is no guarantee that sustained effort will lead to success; but there is an absolute guarantee that a lack of sustained effort will lead to failure.”