People join associations for a variety of reasons: networking opportunities, continuing education and, yes, for representation of their industry before assorted levels of government. While the first two benefits are often immediately tangible, the latter can be difficult to quantify in the era of legislative gridlock at the federal level.
For most associations, the vast majority of their members live and work outside of the Beltway, making it a challenge to showcase the advocacy efforts as a tangible and quantifiable member benefit. As a result, it’s essential for any successful organization to take the time to communicate the value of government relations to their membership and even sell advocacy as a key attribute of the association and reason for paying dues.
Government relations in the modern era require membership involvement and political efficacy in order to advance a cause. Membership working in tandem with professional advocacy staff as well as grasstops member engagement can and has impacted the course of public policy beyond standalone efforts of staff. Advocacy is an easier sell when members are already apart of the process.
In order to fully appreciate the value of advocacy to the association, staff must articulate that government relations isn’t solely a drain on revenue, and the practice isn’t just suits going from one marble building to another. To do so, advocacy needs to be seen as a value-add program: one that can even generate revenue through communications, advertising, live events, and other sponsorship opportunities.
Here are a few tips on how to sell advocacy as a member benefit:
Establish a grassroots program: This might seem rudimentary, but many organizations still don’t have a formal grassroots program, whether one maintained by an outside consultant or dedicated staff. A grassroots program is essential to overall continued political involvement.
Having a PAC alone is harder to sell advocacy because your organization is seen as always asking for money. Having only direct lobbying fails to tap into the influence and personal stories of membership that are compelling to lawmakers.
Generate a public annual report: Benchmarking, metrics, and reporting are often kept closely guarded by organizations and viewed by a select few staff members or association leadership. It’s perfectly fine to keep certain information internal, but that shouldn’t stop groups from generating basic year-to-year progress reports providing context and understanding to the entire membership on what is exactly taking place in Washington and where their money is going.
Calculate the expenses to be imposed on your association by specific legislation: It’s relatively easy to calculate the “cost” of a hostile bill becoming law and its economic impact on association businesses. Doing so often gives you a parameter on what should be invested to prevent hostile legislation from being enacted.
Define advocacy: Creating a one-page explanation of what an advocacy program entails and how members can become involved is a first step toward getting buy-in. When an understanding is established, continue to educate and update members to channel their energy and focus.
Association engagement generates more advocacy involvement: When an advocate is involved in the process, writes messages to Congress, attends a fly-in, listens in on a federal update call, or interacts with the association on government affairs issues history demonstrates they, in effect, “sell themselves” through repeated interaction on this key member benefit.
Refresh and repeat: When members are involved in the advocacy program, your role then shifts to maintaining, building, and refreshing these people routinely. Part of your position becomes that of a cheerleader, coach, and chief enthusiast for the public policy cause. You now enter the membership stage of auto-renewal, but you need to remember that at any point the member can cancel this transaction.
Joshua Habursky is the Head of Federal Affairs at the International Premium Cigar & Pipe Retailers Association (IPCPR), contributing editor to C&E, and Adjunct Professor at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.
David Rehr is Professor and Director of the Center for Civic Engagement at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.