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Grassroots Lobbying: Use Ideas, Not One-Click Campaigns

By Heather MacIntosh

Are you an American? Want to influence Congress? Do more than vote. Give them solutions.

In the United States, now is the time for the grassroots to grow. But in the age of mouse-click communication, it's important to grow smart as well as strong.

Public comment vehicles, like form letters and one-click online campaigns, allow grassroots efforts to increase dramatically in volume by reducing the amount of time volunteers spend supporting a cause. But volume can actually work against grassroots interests. When nonprofits clog Congress fax lines with hundreds of identical letters, the attention paid to each letter is minimal because it is clear that each letter represents minimal effort of the part of the sender. Volume is only one part of a process with many other public access points.

When your effort is well-directed, you will see your influence grow proportionally. The 535 members of Congress and their staffs are people who respond to good ideas and energy, just like the rest of us. We can’t delegate our future to policy professionals who know neither us, nor our local work. We need to feed the system with fresh ideas -- directly. And we can’t make change without taking a critical look at grassroots advocacy. flickr.com_photos_clockwerks.jpg

Lobbying in the Nonprofit Sector
I work in this environment every day. As the President of Preservation Action, the national 501c4 nonprofit grassroots lobby for federal preservation policy, I am one of more than 11,000 registered lobbyists working on Capitol Hill.

Not all professionals leading grassroots and nonprofit organizations need to be registered with the House and Senate clerk's office, but increased scrutiny about lobbying ethics will likely lead to expanded regulation of anyone who lobbies. Congress’s increased interest in regulating nonprofit lobbying reflects the growth and influence of these lobbies. By working with pros on the Hill, nonprofit and citizen lobbyists are maximizing their impact.

Many of the nearly 90,000 trade and professional associations in the U.S. have government affairs staffs or use lobbying firms, and the number of these organizations is growing each year. Paid lobbyists usually coach grassroots members of these associations.

The IRS also recognizes nearly 1.4 million nonprofit organizations nationwide. Because many believe that lobbying is more effective when done by a Hill insider, smaller nonprofits often outsource their government relations.

But hiring pros is often unnecessary, and can even be less effective than utilizing the people already invested in your organization. To compel our federal government to embrace solutions that make sense to us, we must focus our engagement locally, at the source of both the problem and opportunity.

The best lobbyists are often constituents who not only know their issues, but also maintain an ongoing direct relationship with their member of Congress, These citizens bring their experience, expertise and innovative thinking to the table. While they identify with a given nonprofit and its agenda, they also maintain their multifaceted humanness and interest in their community’s general well being.

Additionally, timing is key. We need to begin our involvement at the pre-policy level, where there is maximum opportunity for change. Unfortunately, the majority of volunteer advocates speak out simply in favor of, or in opposition to issues and legislation, after the idea has been processed. This is a waste. Real influence comes from lending each of our varied strengths to the creative process.

Creating Federal Policy Outside the Beltway
To understand what constitutes a grassroots advocacy opportunity, nonprofit leaders need to understand how our federal government and lobbying really works. Opportunities for our continuing education are out there, and often reasonably priced. And we also have to understand our own membership’s talents, beyond their interests and professional backgrounds. As a nonprofit director, I know this is kind of member-relations work is time consuming. But looking at the opportunities, I know we’ll move ahead if we take the time to make the most of our grassroots assets.

The U.S. government system is set up to foster meaningful contact with local constituents. Each member of Congress has multiple offices in their district or state that often address important work like vetting requests for federal grants or earmarked appropriations, and handling legislative issues. And staff at district offices also tend to stick around longer than their Capitol Hill counterparts, whose average tenure is 18 months. Because access at these local touchpoints is often more effective than in overwhelmed Hill offices, these district offices are now attracting the interest of D.C.-based lobbyists.

Connecting with district staffers, and helping them understand your issues, doesn't demand monumental efforts or resources from your organization. Invite district staffers to community charrettes and other efforts to solve local problems. Your DC-based nonprofit affiliation should help you understand what’s happening, and work with you to tie this into local projects. But ultimately, this outreach is personal. Invite them to learn more about local creative solutions. Invite them to your celebrations of success. If you know them well enough, you will rarely have to ask for anything. They will understand your issues because they know you and your work.

When this doesn’t feel like lobbying, you’re doing it right. flickr_photos_pbull.jpg

What A Few Good Advocates Can Do
I have witnessed firsthand that personalized grassroots efforts do succeed. Last year, one of the primary federal programs we support – state historic preservation offices – got a boost after seven years of flat-lined funding. For years, preservation’s advocates have been asking for adequate funding for core programs. For decades, we’ve received a fraction of what has been authorized to be spent on these programs. State offices hit their high water mark, funding-wise, in 1979. Over the past twenty years, Preservation Action and our national partners have produced a Preservation Lobby Day, and at each of these, we’ve supported increased state office funding.

Grassroots advocacy for these sorts of programs is tough. We’re not asking for grant funds. We’re asking for funding for salaries to support a meaningful federal program, now more than 40 years old. The state employees partially funded through this federal program are often limited in how much they can actually “lobby.”

Early last year, Kentucky Representative Ben Chandler joined the House Interior Appropriations committee. His family has lived in Kentucky longer than the state has been ratified. His mother is a preservationist. He was a history major. He recommended a $5 million increase for state preservation offices and used the same words grassroots advocates have been using for years to explain to his subcommittee why the increase was needed. We didn’t get the full proposed increase, but we got a 10 percent boost that puts us in a much stronger position this year.

Considering his local perspective, you can see how he might respond to someone from home with the same values versus a paid lobbyist. Constituents reached out, and he was open. It's grassroots work to figure out who cares and what they might do.

If you see your community’s problems as opportunities, if you can make something beautiful and useful out of what others would throw away, if you are not generally interested in process – we need you to develop collaborative relationships with your representatives locally, where innovation happens. We are now more important than ever.

A Checklist for New Advocates:

Make contact. The most comprehensive resource for things Congressional is Thomas (named after Mr. Jefferson). Use this to find your Congressperson’s website, or to refresh yourself on the details of the legislative process. Don't use generic interfaces to interact with legislators. Call you local office and get a real person's email address to make the first contact.

Know your legislator. This is essential for effective communication. For instance, if you're advocating for more stringent regulations on land use, like policies governing historic land or natural resource development, but your policy-maker is an ardent property rights supporter, you'll have to meet on common ground to get anywhere. To prepare yourself, create a profile of the legislator you wish to target. Your best resource is the legislation page of your representative's website, where you can identify their focus by looking at their committee memberships.

Coordinate with others. It’s always valuable to connect with others before connecting with Congress. Multiple groups and interests working together toward a common cause, with a common ask, makes legislative work much simpler. Conversely, when similar groups present different views on a topic, legislative staffers must sort through the static, and this can make grassroots efforts look fractious. Getting on the same page with your cohorts is tough, but early, internal discussions about priorities, big picture goals and maximizing strengths among your groups will help you win in the long run.

Know yourself. If you are introverted, and have trouble articulating ideas in new environments (like meeting with a somewhat famous person) consider “shadowing” someone in your group who has experience speaking with elected officials. If you prefer research to talking, then research case studies for the group’s use. Play to your strengths while expanding your skills. You may surprise yourself.

Heather MacIntosh is President of Preservation Action, the 501c4 grassroots lobby for historic preservation policy based in Washington, DC. She is certified by the American League of Lobbyists.

Photo credits: Flickr/Clockwerks and Flickr/pbull, licensed by Creative Commons.

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Under "coordinate with others" add "exploit online sources" especially truly collaborative ones such as Wikipedia, Sourcewatch, Dkosopedia and Debatepedia - or elsewhere

If your group's point of view is not represented well in these sources, it's your own fault for not editing.

It's amazing how many members of Congress check up on things they hear by reading for instance Wikipedia - you cannot afford to leave these powerful sources in the hands of corporate lobbyists or opposing players.

Posted by: Egbert Emondo on 25 Jun 08

What should one do (other than try to vote them out of office or move) if one's representative supports the opposite side of the political spectrum on virtually every issue? The times I've contacted my congressman's staff the responses have been along the lines of, "Thank you for your input. The congressman has a different opinion on this issue."

Posted by: Ann on 27 Jun 08

What should one do (other than try to vote them out of office or move) if one's representative supports the opposite side of the political spectrum on virtually every issue? The times I've contacted my congressman's staff the responses have been along the lines of, "Thank you for your input. The congressman has a different opinion on this issue."

Posted by: Ann on 27 Jun 08



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