What Every Association Professional Needs to Know About Advocacy

The Texas State Capitol Building in Austin.

Go ahead. Google the words “association advocacy” and see what pops up. I recently did the same which resulted in over 87 million hits. American Association for Justice, Muscular Dystrophy Association, National CASA Association … thousands of associations that prominently include the word “advocacy” on their websites.

But what does advocacy mean? Is it something handled by your governmental relations (GR) team, your entire staff, your association members, or some combination thereof? How much, if any, of your association’s time should be spent on advocacy? And finally, who is your audience?

These are some of the questions I explore on a daily basis with clients and other work acquaintances and honestly, it’s a favorite part of what I do as an education lobbyist. As a former public school teacher, I enjoy giving people the tools and the confidence to achieve things on their own and I know I’ve done my job well when a client is able to advocate for themselves, whether it be in their community or at the Capitol.

Before we go too far, I’ll do my best to dispel the stigma of the “L” word. Lobbyists are ordinary people who work between an organization and elected officials. Their value lies in their relationships and knowledge that can help your issue move through the halls of government. Elected officials are faced with myriad tough decisions, and any lobbyist worth their salt will honestly present all sides of an issue at face value, and in so doing become a trusted source of information. I don’t own a yacht. I don’t take senators on ski trips. I’m just a school teacher who has taken her passion to
the statehouse.

I Don’t Do “Advocacy,” So Why Should I Care?

So let’s assume that your organization isn’t actively involved in advocacy or that you are not the governmental relations/advocacy lead for your organization. You’re plugging along, doing great work, and advocacy probably isn’t at the front of your mind. Why should this article be of interest to you?

It’s become increasingly important for associations to engage in advocacy on behalf of their members. And for associations that are already doing some advocacy, the work of the advocacy team is becoming more challenging. Why is this? (And stay with me while I become somewhat political for a moment!) On both sides of the aisle, political leadership is shifting more toward an “individual liberty” mindset instead of making decisions based on the good of the community. This is in stark contrast to the mission of many of the associations you serve – missions based around the concept that we are stronger as a whole.

Most associations engage in some type of advocacy within their own membership, or publicly at the local, state, or federal level. It may be time to take a deeper look at how you, your employees and members can play a role in the advocacy process.

Taking the First Step

If your association currently does not engage in advocacy, here are a few steps to lay the groundwork:

Define what advocacy will look like for your organization:

• If advocacy is new for your group, decide who will take the lead, how they will update the rest of team, and what role your members will play. Assuming you’ll be advocating at the Capitol, who will be the “face” of the organization during testimony or times of crisis?

• Decide whether your association needs the services of a professional advocate or lobbyist. This person may be someone in-house who advocates for your association full time or they may be a contract lobbyist who has a variety of clients.

• Be very clear about what you’re advocating for. Stay within your association’s mission statement and work with your board or GR committee to clearly define the group’s policy areas. In other words, don’t try to save the entire planet! Just work to improve your corner of it.

• Start small and increase your association’s advocacy footprint as your members’ interest increases:

• Review your bylaws to see if there are any guidelines regarding advocacy or prohibitions against lobbying. Work with your board to change the bylaws, if needed. Remember, 501c3s can lobby but there are specific rules and guidelines you must follow.

• Let your members know that the organization is jumping into the area of advocacy. Be clear about what that means for your association in particular.

• Consider including an advocacy column in your newsletter and/or a section on the association’s website. Include direct contact information for the person(s) leading your advocacy efforts and keep your policy issue areas visible for your members and for
the public.

• Expand your awareness by following political news outlets and political reporters — Look up “Texas Capitol Press Corps” for an excellent Twitter list created by the Texas Tribune, watch committee hearings that are broadcast online, or visit the Capitol in person — nearly all proceedings are open to the public. Remember that even reputable news sources can be politically biased, so try to avoid echo chambers, read from multiple sources, and decide on issues for yourself.

Integrating Advocacy on All Staff Levels

Think about how various employees can incorporate advocacy into their area:

• Membership staff – Consider a subset of your association member list that is particularly interested in or relevant to advocacy and the political process. Work with your advocacy consultant/lobbyist to create a governmental relations committee and train these association members as your advocacy front line. Encourage them to visit with their elected officials within the official’s House/Senate district. If appropriate, train your members as testifiers for the upcoming legislative session, which takes place every odd-numbered year
in Texas.

• Education/Events staff – Plan events or breakout sessions that are specific to advocacy and the legislative process. Ask your members what topics they’d like to learn more about and then invite experts and/or legislators to speak at your events.

• Media/Communications staff – Add an advocacy section to your newsletter and website and refresh these sections often. Use social media to inform and engage your members. Consider online tools that can send an immediate “Call to Action” to your members, especially tools that make it easy for your members to engage through pre-populated messages and emails/calls that go to their specific legislators. (Caution: don’t flood elected officials’ inboxes. This almost always backfires.)

• Corporate Partnerships – Encourage your corporate partners to become familiar with the association’s advocacy goals. If appropriate, ask them to support your initiatives through their own associations and through the legislative process.

Does some of this work sound scary and unfamiliar? To most people, it absolutely does. For most people and even the word “politics” is a turnoff. In 2018 and ahead, it’s an absolute necessity for many associations.

Advocacy in Action

About two years ago, I was contracted to do some lobby work for an association that had recently changed their bylaws in order to allow advocacy. They had been providing meaningful member training services for many years, but recently decided to engage in the legislative process on behalf of public schools. This was a huge step for their board and for their membership as a whole. Within a short amount of
time, they:

• assigned a staff member to be their governmental relations lead,

• defined their legislative priorities,

• added a Legislative tab to their website’s
homepage, and

• re-established their member-based governmental relations committee.

During the 2017 Texas Legislative Session, they provided testimony through their executive director and key members of the association and became a trusted resource for high quality data amongst various legislators. And while the groundwork has taken a significant amount of time and work for the organization, it has also allowed the association’s members to speak with an effective and resonant voice in the advocacy process.

A second client of mine, another education association, is prohibited from lobbying based on the type of members in their organization. Their mission, however, includes funding research that can be shared with other organizations, the media and elected officials. Recently, they contracted with a communications firm to package and distribute their high-quality education research and polling data to a variety of media markets. Their data is profound and is already being used by other advocates and officeholders to shape new policy for the next legislative session.

There’s No Time Like the Present

Why should you care? TSAE members are already in a position of advocacy for their respective organizations – you’re already driven toward improving your association. Bolstering your familiarity with the political climate, players, and process will dovetail with your efforts and pay multiple dividends: (1) Advocacy will be less scary, (2) As your views become more informed, your voice will become more effective, and (3) Your membership will unify around mission-specific rallying points — and that’s the perfect start of an action-driven plan to move your group’s goals across the finish line.

Author Dr. Michelle Smith is a TSAE member, full-time education lobbyist, and the former executive director of the Fast Growth School Coalition. She is listed as one of Capitol Inside’s 2017 Top 100 Hired Guns and regularly speaks to various groups regarding advocacy and the legislative process. Learn more at www.hillcopartners.com.
Photo credit: ©iStock.com/Traveler1116

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