Turning Members And Volunteers Into Your Greatest Policy Advocates

by Sheryl Jackson // Apr 04, 2017 Engagement

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Knowing the right people in the legislature is important, and often the responsibility of an association’s government affairs staff. But knowing your members’ backgrounds and getting them in front of said lawmakers and staffers can be just as powerful an advocacy tool. The trick is balancing an association’s reliance on staff and volunteer efforts to be sure that they work together effectively.The Ohio Pharmacists Association celebrated its most successful legislative advocacy year after restructuring the advocacy program to enable staff and members to focus on areas in which they are most effective, says Antonio Ciaccia, director of government and public affairs. “We saw three bills that are positive for Ohio pharmacists and residents pass in the final week of the state legislative session (2016) – a huge accomplishment for an association of our size.”

While grassroots advocacy can be very effective, Ciaccia points out that associations should look carefully at what roles volunteers are asked to fill and how much direction is provided to ensure a cohesive effort.

When Ciaccia arrived at his association two years ago, there was an over-reliance on staff members to tell the industry’s story to legislators and regulators. “This resulted in members who do want to participate in advocacy becoming less engaged and taking their foot of the gas for their own relationship development with legislators,” he says. “Our efforts are most effective when members make our case to legislators and their staff.”

To keep members engaged without risking burnout, the pharmacists’ association set up advocacy teams that are comprised of two reliable pharmacist members who have agreed to participate to each one of the 132 state legislators. “We coach them on the issues, provide support, and let them develop relationships with legislators,” explains Ciaccia.

“Pharmacists by their nature are not confrontational, so we emphasize introducing themselves and meeting with the legislator and their staff members as a resource for information before we have a specific issue,” he explains. This not only is a more comfortable approach for members, but they also enjoy acting as sources of education and information for people outside their industry.

Although the Ohio Pharmacists Association doesn’t use technology to match members to legislators, it is important to find common ground for members of the advocacy team and their legislators, points out Ciaccia. “While we might match members to legislators representing their district, it is not always the only reason for a match,” he says. “For example, a legislator who has women’s health issues as a priority will be matched with a pharmacist with the same passion. This common ground serves as a starting point for the relationship.”

Recruiting members as active advocates for the profession also means not overwhelming those who indicate an interest, points out Brian Pallasch, CAE, managing director of government relations for the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). “Primarily, our volunteers set policy as board members and provide input on the many public policy statements we develop,” he says. “In fact, we have about 165 public policy statements that comment on various pieces of legislation that are related to our profession or to the nation’s infrastructure in some way,” he explains. These policy statements are reviewed on a rolling basis every three years to determine if they are still valid or need to be changed or dropped based on changes in engineering practices or changes in legislation. “These policy statements form the foundation of our advocacy efforts and provide clear direction for staff and members.”

Pallasch has found that his organization is most effective when association staff members work with legislative staff to form relationships and create introductions for members who then provide the in-depth knowledge of how the issues affect the profession and the country.

“We identify members who are effective one-on-one advocates in a couple of different ways,” he says. The annual legislative fly-in day identifies people who are interested in advocacy but not everyone who attends a fly-in continues an advocacy role throughout the year.

“Legislative issues, especially at the federal level, are complex and seem to last forever,” says Pallasch. “Most engineers see a problem and want to fix it immediately – not a trait that meshes with the slow, steady effort required in advocacy,” he admits. In addition to evaluating members who self-identify themselves as interested in advocacy for expanded roles, ASCE has also turned to technology and uses the RAP Index®, a data mining service that allows organizations to identify stakeholders who have relationships with key elected officials.

“When we identify someone, we reach out individually to ask their help,” says Pallasch. ASCE does recognize that even if a member has a relationship with a legislator, every member is willing to commit at different levels. “We’ve designed a scalable list of projects from which volunteers can select,” he explains. “The list includes everything from five minutes to send an email, to a half day visit a local representative, or a greater commitment of ongoing communications with the association and legislators.”

ASCE members who commit to a higher level of advocacy volunteerism, receive more personal emails that include updates on ongoing lobbying efforts and progress on various legislation.

The detailed emails are too much information for all ASCE members, but those who have indicated a high interest in advocacy welcome the “insider” information, and the emails keep everyone focused on the same message, says Pallasch.

“We still send alerts and brief updates to all members, but we tailor the messages to the audiences – sending more detailed information to those who want it and are in a position to act upon it.”

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