Engaging Members in the Lobbying Process

Sooner or later, many organizations will find their fortunes linked to government corridors and committee rooms, where it can still be a challenge to get their members’ voices heard. Apathy is pretty common, unfortunately. Just as the 2014 midterm turnout for Election Day was the lowest in 72 years, when associations make members’ political involvement as easy as clicking an online “take action” button, many still don’t bother. It’s time to introduce newer ways to engage members in grass-roots political activism.

It’s the rare American who can just pick up the phone and have a heart-to-heart with a governmental decision-maker. Yet abstaining from the political process is like failing to make a will—eventually, there’s a gap between your own goals and how the government handles them. Lobbyists help bridge that gap. Major corporations understand this and have long worked the system to their advantage. In 2014, some 11,509 registered lobbyists argued the causes of organizations that shelled out about $2.41 billion for their services, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. However, for many associations, influencing decision-makers is more difficult. Just getting them to focus on the organization’s issues is tough.

Lobbying is a fact of life.

It’s the rare American who can just pick up the phone and have a heart-to-heart with a governmental decision-maker. Yet abstaining from the political process is like failing to make a will — eventually, there’s a gap between your own goals and how the government handles them.

Lobbyists help bridge the gap. Major corporations understand this and work the system to their advantage. In 2014, some 11,509 registered lobbyists argued the causes of organizations that shelled out about $2.41 billion for their services, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

For many associations, influencing decision-makers is more difficult. Just getting them to focus on the organization’s issues is tough.

Who needs lobbyists?

Several types of associations may find themselves most in need of improving outreach to public officials. These include:

  1. Smaller-scale associations that lack budgets for a governmental affairs department or even for a specialized position to handle those duties.
  2. Associations in highly regulated fields. These are groups that acutely feel the effects of government policies, and need help asserting their complex interests. Examples include: health care, banking, energy, telecommunications.
  3. Associations whose members come from businesses operating in the absence of settled law. Think Internet privacy, UAV drones, and startups that threaten the establishment (like Uber or AirBnB).

Which engagement options actually work?

Strategies for offering input to lawmakers range from the traditional to the cutting-edge. Personal letters, emails and phone calls will at least show up in a summary by the lawmaker’s staff. Heavy call volume gets attention. But lawmakers only care about voters and businesses in their own districts. That’s one reason they think they can ignore entreaties that originate with mass mailings or online petitions. Some executives report better results with letters on their personalized letterhead — with real signatures — targeted to specific lawmakers.

Web pages and online position statements may include “take action” buttons. Again, these generate boilerplate communications. And they might require your members to supply personal information they’d rather not share online or to slog through policy verbiage, both of which can discourage people from clicking through.

An innovative political persuasion platform, iLobby.co, also called cloud-based lobbying, applies crowdsourcing and crowdfunding to the political process. Here anyone can start an online dialogue on an issue on which they want elected officials to take action. Others join in, adding their support and/or arguments. Congressional districts are included on the site, which is important because while issues transcend boundaries, voters do not.

When participants in the platform reach a consensus, they contribute funding to hire a registered lobbyist who’s not only savvy about their issue, but able to document the political districts represented.

Lawmakers want feedback.

Online formats facilitate the exchange of information. A former California state senator, Joe Simitian, even encouraged voter feedback through this medium when he expressed his belief, “There oughta be a law.” Yet associations may need to overcome the belief that politics is not any of the association’s business. According to Bob Breault, who chairs the Arizona Optics Cluster, “They consider it ‘corrupt’ and all that politicians do is take money from them — most often for the wrong reasons.”

Yet Breault supports a cloud-based lobbying approach. “People will participate if someone makes it easy to pass along their opinions to the appropriate legislator. Of course, the discussions need to be civil and respectful and factual, and not emotional tirades.”

Online discussions also can turn up real-life stories on the effects of legislation. These are especially useful if an association needs people to tell their stories in a committee hearing.

What’s important to remember is that association members are constituents, too. Since many members already like the simplicity of using services like eBay and Amazon, online lobbying can be a natural extension to foster political relationship-building. They are an easy way to get members more involved in political issues, which are vital to their lives and careers.

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Originally published in Association News,  March, 2015