Money: How to run with the big dogs when there is no budget for big lobby

Money: How to run with the big dogs when there is no budget for big lobby

By Andy Krakowski

“We could spend tens of thousands of dollars going into key districts, or we could focus on a few key contacts in that district that we already know have connections with legislators and will give us a better impact.”

-  Director of Grassroots at a national trade association

If you think the key to winning a legislative campaign is to outspend your opposition, you are likely in for a rude awakening. In 2016, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, over $3.15 billion dollars was spent on lobbying in DC alone and your organization would have needed to spend about $11.5 million just to crack the top 20 lobbying groups.

Ironically, the throngs of lobbyists and the explosion of communications going to The Hill in the form of templated emails, overly-scripted phone calls, random petitions, virtually-anonymous tweets and Facebook posts are actually helping those small to medium sized groups out there. I can safely assume most readers of this piece don’t have a seven- to eight-figure government affairs budget, and that’s okay. The hard, cold truth is: it is increasingly rare to win an advocacy campaign on volume alone.

Here’s why:

1)      More overall volume = less attention that staffers give it: Communication to the Hill has increased by tenfold in the last decade, and there are reports that some offices have seen a 900% jump since last November. The main culprit is low-effort, low-impact form communications that very often cannot be verified to be coming from actual constituents.

2)      Authentic, personal communication cuts through the clutter: The Congressional Management Foundation found, when congressional staff were asked what advocacy factors influence an “undecided” lawmaker, 94 percent said “in-person issue visits from constituents” would have some or a lot of influence and 92 percent said “individualized email messages” from constituents would. Putting in what is really a little bit of time to find your organizations’ personal connections will separate you from your competition and get you a seat at the table.

3)      Local, verified voices rise above all others: A truism coined by former Speaker Tip O’Neill and verified in the 2012 report, The Advocacy Gap, still holds up today: when it comes to Congressional advocacy, all politics is indeed local. Members of Congress and their staff want to hear from their constituents, and only their constituents. Contact from outside the district is wasted effort at best. Find your groups best messengers in the community. Keep it local.

4)      Most importantly, quality has always trumped quantity on the Hill: The same report also reached the very strong conclusion that “A few personal emails beat hundreds of form emails; calls from a few constituents able to articulate on the phone why they care about an issue and how it affects them are better than calls from hundreds of constituents parroting a talking point; and constituents showing up in person is best.”

You do not need big budgets to execute on this and most government affairs pros agree with those four points. Yet, most government affairs departments rely solely on web-based “Action Centers” that merely ask advocates to generate robo-letters and sign petitions, but are not actively working to connect activists with lawmakers. They are confusing issue education with advocacy and wasting their best opportunity – connected, influential constituents.

So, when the big dogs start barking, it doesn’t always mean they’ll have the strongest bite. Even the smallest organizations can find and train constituent stakeholders to develop meaningful personal relationships with legislators. In fact, if they chose the right technology to find, engage and mobilize their champions, those organizations can have a better, smarter and often more effective strategy without having tens of thousands of members, or spending millions of dollars.

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