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

Seven Steps to Political Empowerment

Real people can and should focus on issues, not just candidates.   Source: istockphoto

Real people can and should focus on issues, not just candidates. Source: istockphoto

Political Apathy is a Trap

If you feel overwhelmed and frustrated by our government leaders and apathetic about your own partisan destiny, there is a way out of your political malaise.

Here are 7 simple steps you can take to refresh yourself and participate in our democratic republic.

7 Steps

  1. Register
  2. Learn
  3. Vote
  4. Commit
  5. Engage
  6. Lobby
  7. Run

Register to vote

Show up. There are 45 million unregistered eligible voters in the country. Don’t be one of them. If you’re eligible to vote, register. 215 million US voters can’t be wrong. Locate the registrar of voters in your state or county. Fill in the form.

Tip: An absentee ballot makes things simple and easy.

Time: 1 hour Frequency: Once Cost: Free[1]

 

Learn

Get informed and stay informed. Find out who your congressman is, your assemblyman, your senators, your mayor. Go to their websites. Get on their email lists and follow their progress. Follow other political websites. Read political and opinion articles in major respected newspapers, listen to talk radio, watch cable and network TV debates.

Tip: Compare and contrast information sources.

Time: 4 hours Frequency: Once a year Cost: $50

 

Vote

Make a decision. Choose. Vote in every election you qualify for. Read the campaign materials and gather independent non-partisan information. Read the candidates statements so you are as informed as possible. Then vote. Vote for the best candidate, not the ticket, not the party. Remember, voting is private. If you have an absentee ballot, you can vote ahead of Election Day without looking for a polling station or disrupting your life.

Tip: Think for yourself.

Time: 2 hours Frequency: Every 2 years Cost: Free

 

Commit

Put your money where your mouth is. Make a small donation to your Congressman’s campaign. $5-20 is fine. If you believe in what he is doing, support his campaign. If you don’t, support the opponent or challenger. Remember, donations are public information. Follow the rules.

Tip: Donate small amounts to several candidates.

Time: 1 hour Frequency: Every 2 years Cost: $20

 

Engage

Take a stand. Engage where you are. Identify the laws you want to change. Talk to your friends. Then convince others to join you. Comment on a blog and sign a petition to support a cause or issue. Write your representative and voice your opinion. Attend a town hall meeting; attend city council meetings or a fundraiser. Serve on a local committee. Volunteer to help out on a campaign. Visit city hall, your state capital or Washington DC. Take a tour. Ask questions.

Tip: Volunteer, but only if you enjoy it.

Time: 2 hours Frequency: Every 3 months Cost: Free

 

Lobby

Build a coalition. Start by focusing on the top three issues that personally affect you. Write up your issue, your position, your arguments and your facts. Resolve your position, clarify your arguments and win support from your network. Expand your base, increase your reach and share the cost.

You can lead it on your own.

Lobbying used to be only for the rich, powerful and the connected. But now anyone can do it. Grassroots activism does not require you to join a single-issue organization, a trade association, pay union dues or contribute to a PAC.

You can drive costs down by sharing resources and costs with thousands of other people focused around a single common issue. With increased purchasing power you can have the same influence as a special interest.

The benefits will include less time, less money, greater mobility, ubiquity, increased control, and getting laws changed. Every day, everywhere, lobby on the go.

Tip: Be honest and straightforward and you’ll be amazed at your results.

Time: 15 min. Frequency: Monthly Cost: $25

 

Run

Lead. The world needs leaders. Run for office. Now that you’ve learned a lot and decided that you’re tired of someone less competent controlling the agenda, you should run for office.

If you are willing to serve and help other people then you will find that this is something that will become your life. You will want to do it all the time.

You will know this is for you because you listen to your supporters, you have the facts about solving real world problems and you are able to implement policy solutions.

At this point you will know if you have the political bug or not.

If you have issues, and friends and family that support you then this could be your ticket to political empowerment. Charisma and good speaking skills can come later.

Once you are in, there’ll be many people to help you to the next level. Good luck.

Tip: Don’t stay in longer than you need to.

Time: 8 hours Frequency: Daily Cost: $5,000+

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[1] All estimates of time required, frequency and cost are minimums only.