On Election Day in 1952, a neighbor told former U.S. House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill that she would vote for him, "even though you didn't ask me." When O'Neill protested that he had known her since he was a child, had shoveled her walk and cut her grass, and didn't think he had to ask for her vote, she replied, "Tom, let me tell you something. People like to be asked."
It's no different with grassroots advocacy and grasstops advocacy. People like to be asked about engaging with your campaign. That means you first must distinguish your organization’s grassroots and grasstops advocates, in order to hire the right staff and execute the most effective strategy.
In recent years, it’s encouraging to see more special interest and membership-based organizations dedicating resources to grassroots and grasstops. It’s a recognition that effective advocacy cannot be exclusive to hired lobbyists or public affairs professionals.
Elected officials want to hear from their constituents – voters in their districts and states, as well as stakeholders with whom they have a trusted relationship, to learn about the potential impact of their public policy decisions. And that’s where grassroots and grasstops advocates play a critical role.
Unfortunately, too few organizations can articulate the difference between grassroots and grasstops advocacy. Grassroots advocacy is the means of engaging constituent groups by demography or geography for the purpose of contacting their elected officials on an issue which matters to them and supports your cause.
Grasstops advocacy is the means of engaging stakeholders with a high professional and/or public profile who are members of an organization or geographic area, maybe politically-connected, and can raise public attention or influence policymakers through established connections.
When organizations use these terms incorrectly, the hiring manager may hire the wrong person and fail to achieve the group’s goals. When looking to hire an advocacy professional, hiring managers should take the following steps:
1. Identify existing needs. Whether you’re creating a new position or replacing someone who left, staffing needs change over the course of months and years. It’s important to conduct a thorough assessment of what your team currently has versus what it needs to execute an effective advocacy strategy that’s within your organization’s means.
2. Define your advocacy objectives. After assessing your team’s needs, hiring managers must define the team and individual advocacy objectives. This step formulates how the hired advocacy professional may add value to your team and achieve those objectives, as well as whether grassroots or grasstops advocacy may be warranted.
3. Include all essential components in the job description. Be sure the job description states the position’s purpose, as well as its context within the team and organization. The job description should clearly define your team’s advocacy objectives, as well as specific attributes the hiring manager or team values most among prospective candidates. Duties and responsibilities outlined for the job description should derive from your team needs assessment.
4. Market the position among those in the advocacy community. Share the job description with lobbying, public affairs, and advocacy professionals in your network. Post the position to advocacy professional and public affairs professional job boards. Don’t “spray and pray” with your job posting.
5. Filter candidates with key criteria and hire the best fit. Evaluate which candidates can manage your grassroots or grasstops advocacy from Day One, as well as whether you’re willing to train an individual with less experience. Take a candidate’s personality, work skills, and professional experience into consideration, and weigh each based upon attributes that you value most. Then make the best job offer possible to get the right advocacy professional to say, “Yes!” to your team.
Matthew Wright is the Advocacy and Outreach Director for the Children’s Hospital Association.