Keys to Successful Advocacy: Membership Engagement

By Ross E. Weber • April 9, 2019

Associations have promising potential to influence public policy at every level of government through their infrastructure and the collective voice of grassroots supporters. The most effective advocacy campaigns engage members in their strategy and execution, as well as capitalize on their strengths and expertise. However, there are certain strategies that benefit every successful campaign.

In the advocacy arena, engagement is more than top-down communication. Engagement is both emotional and intellectual. Engagement sparks the recognition of a desire or need to the point that an individual is willing to take action.

One may lay the groundwork for true member engagement with communications that demonstrate how advocacy aligns with an association’s mission, as well as members’ economic and social interests. This may take the form of issue-specific updates in print and online publications, inviting a policymaker to speak at an annual meeting, or perhaps training by seasoned professionals that minimizes volunteers’ discomfort when speaking to legislators and staff.

Identify the necessary legislative connections

Once members understand why advocacy is an important part of association work, they are confronted with “How?” Through years of experience, your government relations team should understand the most effective and efficient ways to influence public policy, which varies depending on the issue and audience. The way to push for rational employee safety measures, for example, will be different in Washington, D.C. versus Washington State. It will be different if we’re talking to lawmakers about legislation or to regulators about rules.

Securing action and engagement depends on several factors, including buy-in from association leadership and a nuanced integration of digital advocacy tools. Ask yourself these questions when considering how to strengthen your advocacy efforts through member engagement:

  • Do individual members of the board support the organization’s priorities?
  • Is a policy committee empowered to adapt to swiftly changing circumstances?
  • Will board members “talk up” policy priorities with less-active colleagues?
  • Who is connecting with policymakers and political candidates?

A positive assessment to all of these questions doesn’t necessarily ensure success or defeat in an advocacy campaign. The most influential factor is an association leader’s willingness to connect with the people who make our laws. Not surprisingly, that also requires the greatest investment in terms of time and money. The position descriptions of your executive committee might include an expectation that they meet with their legislators or policymakers with power over your industry’s interests. Travelling to Washington or a state capital isn’t always required. Indeed, some of the most effective meetings take place when a lawmaker is at home because they are less distracted and more connected to their base of support. Your government affairs team should have plenty of experience putting these kinds of meetings together, from logistics to preparing talking points to sharing background about the legislator’s history and priorities.

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The author at the annual meeting for the American Association of Clinical Urologists, Inc. Showing how members’ dues and donations are used to fund industry advocacy activity is important to sustaining support for such activities.

Having said that, it should come as no surprise that these meetings are much more likely to happen after the organization, or an individual who represents the profession/industry, has already connected with the legislator in terms of supporting her/his campaign. The “connection” doesn’t have to be a monetary contribution. It could be through volunteering, attending a fundraiser, or even adding their address to an email list. All of these details shouldn’t become a burden. Board members are busy people.  They have a day job after all, not to mention families and downtime to consider. Again, this is where experienced government affairs professionals step in and demonstrate their effectiveness and worth to the organization.

Know how to use digital advocacy tools

In the last five years, there has been an explosion of digital advocacy tools. Member engagement in the form of a basic broadcast email has become less influential. There are dozens of services that track legislation and regulations, and just as many tools that report contact information for federal, state and local officials. An effective and efficient government affairs team leverages the latest technology to simplify, customize and analyze online advocacy.

This kind of activity, when it’s connected to a certain outcome, whether that’s a policy change or just a mention in the media, will fuel members’ sense of purpose and engagement. Today, we can identify which legislators need to be targeted for change to happen and which grassroots supporters are best suited to make the case. We can customize messages to supporters as well as lawmakers to quantify and assess the success of a campaign. This information helps us understand member engagement activism. An industry expert attests, “You can study your open and click-through rates, unsubscribes, and social engagements, but at the end of the day, the most important metric is the number of actions taken.”

Engage members in more than one way

When push comes to shove, it’s important for trade groups and professional associations to engage their members at myriad touch points. Therefore, those basic broadcast emails still bring value to the organization and the policymaking process. Successful advocacy campaigns depend on a more nuanced approach. What’s more, engaged members that spread your message may attract new supporters and members; organically growing your membership and strengthening your organization.

An effective government affairs team will increase member engagement in your advocacy campaigns by identifying the connections, opportunities and seamless tech integrations that help your association achieve more.

Watch this space for more “Keys to Successful Advocacy”

  • Coalition Building
  • Boots on the Ground
  • Political Campaigns
  • Know Where You’re Going

About The Author

Ross E. Weber is a state affairs manager for policy and engagement with Naylor Association Solutions.