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.

Who needs lobbyists? Several types of associations, in particular, are in need of improving their 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.

3. Associations whose members come from businesses operating in the absence of settled law—think Internet privacy, unmanned drones and start-ups.

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, which is one reason they think they can ignore entreaties that originate with mass mailings or online petitions. Some executives have reported better results when targeting specific lawmakers by using personalized letterhead and real signatures. And though Web pages and online position statements can be created with “take action” buttons, again, these tend to generate boilerplate communications, often with low click-through rates.

Cloud-based lobbying applies crowdsourcing and crowdfunding to the political process. Here, anyone can start an online dialogue about an issue; then, others join in, adding their support and/or arguments. Congressional districts are included on the site. When participants in the debate platform reach a consensus, they contribute funding to hire a registered lobbyist who is not only savvy about their issue but is able to document the political districts represented.

Overcoming doubt. Associations may need to overcome the belief that politics is not any of their business. According to Bob Breault, co-chairman of the Arizona Optics Industry Association, “they consider it ‘corrupt’ and that all 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,” he said. “Of course, the discussions need to be civil, respectful and factual, not emotional tirades.”

What’s important to remember is that association members are constituents, too. Online discussions can turn up real-life stories on the effects of legislation, and these are especially useful if an association needs people to tell their stories in a committee hearing.

Convincing attendees to use cloud-based lobbying may be easier than you think; many are already familiar with, and enjoy, the simplicity of online services and online lobbying can be a natural extension, but one which fosters political relationship-building. It’s an easy and ideal way to get members more involved in political issues vital to their lives and careers.