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Be an Einstein at Advocacy: Five Tips From Grassroots Geniuses
The American Society of Association Executives' Government Relations School in late June boasted a veritable who's who in grassroots advocacy. Following are five important tips that came out of the conference for use by anyone who wants to achieve advocacy greatness.
Number 1: Clarity of Mission Trumps Party Politics
In what some might consider an "Odd Couple" pairing, Jay Timmons from the National Association of Manufacturers and Wayne Pacelle from the Humane Society of the United States joined forces on a panel looking at how political changes can impact grassroots advocacy efforts. Some might think of NAM as a traditional "conservative" organization and the HSUS as a traditional "liberal" organization. Turns out it wasn't such an odd pairing after all, since Jay is a leader in DC humane society issues and Wayne, well, uses manufactured things a lot.
In terms of tactics, both panelists agreed that focusing on your organization's mission as opposed to party politics generates much more long term success. HSUS, for example, has done a great deal to support Republican members who agree with them on specific animal welfare legislation. NAM is beginning to focus on a members' support for sectors of the NAM agenda (trade vs. health care, for example) in an effort to recognize Democrats. The point is that almost every issue can cross party boundaries. From an advocacy perspective, your focus should be on achieving your mission -- not who does it.
Number 2: "Praise support where you can. Express disappointment where you have to" (Jay Timmons, NAM)
Perhaps I'm showing my California roots here, but the basic premise of this message struck a chord with me because it puts the emphasis on the positive. In other words, in dealing with anyone, whether it's elected officials, staff, spouses, kids or your local Starbucks barista, our "default" should be to offer thanks to those who are supportive. Disappointment in an elected official's actions should be expressed only when necessary to make a point.
This really is a new way of thinking for many of us. Too many advocates start the conversation thinking "I know they're going to say "no" or not even pay attention. I don't know why I'm asking." Wouldn't it be more powerful (or at least more pleasant) to enter into any discussions thinking "I'm looking forward to a positive conversation." Sure, your "positive conversation" may have you gritting your teeth every once in a while, but at least you're starting from a more constructive place.
Number Three: Applying the Right Method of Persuasion to the Right Purpose
One panelist offered some interesting research into the effectiveness of various methods of persuasion (grassroots versus professional lobbying versus PACs, for example), and the results opened up to me a new way of thinking about grassroots. Turns out that while professional lobbyists have an important role to play in the development of legislation, grassroots approaches are considerably more effective than any other method when it comes to passage of legislation. We know this intuitively, but the research really bears this out. This is an important point to make to advocates, who sometimes think that everything in Washington, DC (or your state capitol) revolves around arcane legal doctrines that only a special few can understand. In fact, those special few are important for crafting language, but they are far less powerful than regular old citizens in terms of moving it through the process.
Number Four: Two Advocacy Speeds
At some point during the day I had an epiphany, and here it is. Almost every grassroots organization on the planet has two advocacy speeds: "Panic" and "Doldrums". We operate at the "panic" speed when there's a perceived threat to (or extremely valuable benefit for) our livelihood and the livelihood of our members. We operate at the "doldrums" speed when there's nothing really all that exciting going on. If we're concerned about the health of our grassroots program, it's almost always because of how it operates during the doldrums. More people than I can count asked some variation of "well, last year when we had a major bill everyone participated, but that's really slacked off. How can we get back to last year's level of participation?"
The simple answer is to have some sort of legislative crisis. But no one really wants that, right? My point is that our goal shouldn't be to have a "panic" level of activity when there's no reason to panic! While there certainly are ways to boost participation on a day-to-day basis, why use the panic mode as your benchmark for grassroots activity? Effective organizations will develop standards for at least two, if not four speeds. In fact, if you're feeling extra fancy go ahead and get yourself a five-speed network.
Which leads me to my last point, which is:
Number Five: Quality versus quantity
Quick, what's more effective? Getting 1,000 people to click and send a form letter or getting 10 people to conduct a site visit? In fact, if you pick the right 10 people talking to the right 10 members, the "quality" approach will win every time.
Many organizations out there are seeking ways to boost responses to their action alerts. Unfortunately, the focus is often on boosting the quantity of responses without considering the quality of those contacts. Those that do seek additional personalized letters or meetings are often disappointed at how few members are willing to step up to the plate.
Here's the good news: it's often both easier and more effective to spend your time and energy generating fewer high-quality responses than it is to generate scads of form letters. So go ahead and focus on that small percentage of your network that really WANTS to participate. You might be surprised at just how powerful they can be.
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