In working with various organizations that want to set up an advocacy system, we have seen both great success and failure in launching an advocacy program. We have worked with universities, associations, non-profits and state agencies that have worked to engage their people to become advocates. There are some definite measures that will breed higher degrees of success, and they have less to do with the technology and more to do with the internal game plan. Here are some steps you can take to improve the success rate of your advocacy program:
- Clearly define what you would do with an advocacy system. We tend to think of advocacy as having members of an organization contact their legislators. Advocacy can be a passive process as well as an active process. Advocacy is also knowledge of who in your organization would be represented by each legislator. For example, there are several public universities who use their advocacy tools to keep track of alumni by legislative district. New graduates can be pulled out and information about them emailed to legislators to help them understand how tax dollars have been spent on their constituents. Knowing the assignment of members to districts, can also help a professional organization relate the count of members by district to each legislator to let them know how many people are affected by a decision. If your idea is to keep your organization in front of legislators, information about members or people in their district will do just that. You are not lobbying as much as keeping the lawmakers informed that decisions they make affect people in specific organizations who are also constituents.
- Active Advocacy networks need management support – You would think that if the budget request has been approved that there would be support from on high regarding building an advocacy network. However, we have seen time and time again, the government affairs team wants an advocacy support network, they get the budget approved, they get the technology in place and then they are prevented from launching and engaging members. The reasons vary; sometimes at public universities there is a concern about engaging in advocacy because of being a state supported organization. One association we worked with told us they thought their members might not like to be asked to contact their legislators. What really surfaced when it was time to use the advocacy system is that senior staff was not fully aware of what it meant to engage advocates and, therefore, balked at the engagement process. When this happens, the advocacy tools languish, nothing is done and eventually the organization feels that advocacy was not a good thing for them. The bottom line here is that for an active advocacy network, the management chain needs to fully understand and support the idea that your advocacy network will contact people and ask them to help the organization.
- Understand and own the advocacy process – Advocacy is all about communications. It is misleading to think that a body of people will react to email alerts for advocacy if that is the only time they hear from you. Successful advocacy networks use frequent communications to keep members informed of issues and opportunities. By keeping people informed, you are engaging them on the issues. When they are engaged, and subsequently receive a request to take action, they are more likely to respond because they are familiar with what you are trying to do on their behalf and more than likely agree with you. Successful advocacy is a continuous process. We are not talking about a lot of work here, but using the advocacy communications tools to send emails about happenings at the capitol, or issues facing the organization and how they relate to state or federal legislation. Making the connections for your audience between your issues and the lawmakers who will decide the issues, helps your members understand the problem. Then when you need a louder voice, they have the background, they know you from past communications and are more willing to help you.
Many organizations seem to dabble in advocacy. They think they need it, but because of an unclear plan, or misunderstandings as to what it will entail, or thinking that advocacy is a part time effort, the process fails. Advocacy is an investment in communications. There are a variety of ways to apply advocacy so that it is successful for your organization, but they all start with you defining what success should be. Is it winning on a series of legislative issues? Is it knowing who the legislators are that represent your members or alumni? Are you succeeding if you can email members within a district to contact their legislator? Once you know what the measures of success are for your organization, your advocacy efforts can be tailored to meet those goals, and grow from there.