There are 90,908 trade associations in the country. With philanthropic and charitable organizations, the number rises to over 1.2 million. In any event there are lots. Every trade association has a dual role: 1) to increase membership and 2) to promote the cause of the organization.
Your association relies on its members and other activities for funding. But it has an untapped and overlooked hidden stream of potential advocates that it could use more effectively.
As a leader of a trade association you may poll your members to find out what are their top issues. You summarize a select few and these are the ones you focus on and go forward with. Most organizations are usually single-issue organizations.
Legislatively, you compete with other associations for the time and attention of lobbyists, legislators, congressional staff members and government regulators. You rely upon your membership numbers and your PAC’s campaign giving to support your cause and to gain access to Washington lawmakers.
For the largest organizations often this is enough. But for the smaller and midsize groups they might find themselves struggling to push their agendas forward.
Sometimes, you can rally your membership to take on different activities but generally you can’t do it that often. Like any group, your members tend to experience what is referred to as “donor fatigue.” They don’t want to donate more money, they do not want to donate more time, and they can’t take time off work to get on the bus to attend a rally to hold a sign in the pouring rain. While association members as a whole may appreciate the opportunity to vote up or down on issues, they often feel they are left out of the full debate creation and argument process.
So can smart leadership still get them involved?
The best association leaders allow their members four things:
1) To come forward with topics of their own concern.
2) Provide a forum for the members to discuss issues.
3) Allow their membership to respectfully debate arguments pro and con on various sides of an issue.
4) Provide a place where members can vote anonymously.
Essentially, they give their members a voice.
The best association leaders also know that family members often influence what the member thinks. The chief lobbyist, it turns out, is often the spouse.
Association leaders recognize that their members are not one-dimensional. They do not have only one issue that matters to them. They may be members of many different special interest groups because there are several different issues that concern them. The member joins different groups that support his cause. So in effect he could be a member of a pro-gun group, a pro-choice group, a clean energy group and a business development incubator. He may be a moderate on social issues and conservative or entrepreneur on business issues.
Some political independents that neither lean left nor right fall into this middle category.
But there remains one highly overlooked element.
Imagine the trade association member is a US voter and a constituent of a congressional district. His alternate issues may span into other congressional districts. In the district they span into may reside friends and associates who support the nature of your particular membership group. But the voter in the other district is not and cannot be a member of your trade association because he simply is in a different profession or geographical area.
So how do you cross the line? Can you take advantage of this? I think you can.
If your trade association members were free to openly debate and vote anonymously in a safe, independent, non-partisan environment, the likelihood is great that they would continue to support your efforts. After all, they are in your business. And if their spouse and friends from other states were able to share in a debate, then they too could bring greater weight to your argument and causes.
But more importantly, all these interested parties are constituents in other political districts. If they are able to lobby their congressman or representative who may sit on key Congressional committees that affect your broader issue, then you could bring a greater force to bear by empowering more people to push legislation forward that supports and benefits your organization.
Can this be done? Certainly.
Let’s say your association allocates $25,000 per year to lobby or about $2,000 a month.
If an additional 2,000 voters from 10 different districts contributed $20 a month to support your efforts, you would have $40,000 a month extra for lobbying or almost a half million dollars a year. If these voters were aligned with your cause and made their issues known to their congressman, your impact could increase twenty-fold at no real out-of-pocket cost to you or your association.
The greatest impact any independent constituent group can have are:
1) Clarity of message and singular focus on an issue.
2) Mass of voters who can appeal to the Congress.
3) A real budget to continue and persevere.
Remember, these are real voters and Congress loves to hear from its own constituents.
So, the advocate is not a nameless organization supporting a large, broad membership that may or may not support its overall goals. Working together through social networks, you now have real people putting up their own money to support causes, which are aligned with your organization’s needs.
Because voters will have self-identified as constituents to congressional members on committees affecting your organization, your impact in Washington with lawmakers will increase.
Encourage your members to pursue their interests and make public their issues and you may find that your best ally could well be, not just your association member, but also her family and network of friends.