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

How Your Trade Association Can Have Greater Political Impact

There are 90,908 trade associations in the country. With philanthropic and charitable organizations, the number rises to over 1.2 million[1]. 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?

Sure.

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.