ROI: What should you be earning on your investment in advocacy?

By Chip Felkel

ROI: What should you be earning on your investment in advocacy?

The short answer: Political Capital.

With three decades of public affairs work with a wide range of clients and projects, I’ve seen what organizations must have to get a solid ROI out of their respective advocacy programs. It’s much more than the money they have and spend.  The truth is, a lot of well-funded organizations have under performing advocacy efforts because they spend far too much on activities that produce very little long-term value. These “programs” provide cover in reporting to the board or management but some seem more focused on making sure the staff is busy (or can claim to be) instead of executing on things that will be externally effective.

Given the annual budget battle you and your team faces, shouldn’t there be more emphasis on what really works over the long haul? There are numerous studies and interviews (CMF)with elected officials and key staff that offer some insight on what kind of programs, activities and interaction are effective. If more organizations simply made a commitment to value and not getting distracted by bells and whistles or shiny objects, they would quickly be earning a strong return on their investment in their advocacy efforts.

Marathons. Successful advocacy programs should be viewed as if you are preparing to run a race. If you want to do your best, there is practice, and a lot of it. There is attention to diet. The right equipment is required.  The runner must study the course in advance, know where to expect challenges and where they will have a clear advantage over their competitors. More than anything, a successful runner knows that the hard legwork, comes first. It’s a long-term strategy. Too many organizations treat advocacy as a sprint, with fast burst of focus and energy, or a “fun run” where you just want to be part of the pack and enjoy lots of fanfare and noise. Successful advocacy is more like a marathon and successful marathon runners, are constantly training, working and improving their times, endurance, and knowledge.

Running analogies aside, experience shows that successful Advocacy ROI reveals some characteristics that are worth considering. At their core, they are all proactive, strategic, and focused on getting real broad-based value from the tech tools they choose to use.  They are also very efficient, and ultimately, very effective.

The truest test of the ROI on your organization’s investment into advocacy is determined by success when the votes are taken. But being able to win, means taking the time to develop, cultivate, nurture and expand an advocacy program that keeps you ready for challenges, agile, flexible and prepared. It means putting in the “training time” and it is what separates the winners from the losers. In looking at winners, we found some areas of focus that you should consider developing in your organization. If you do so, you will be well on your way to earning what you should, which is building of your organization’s political capital, and improving your ROI, on your advocacy investment:

Coverage: Successful organizations regularly monitor and track how they stand in terms of actionable relationships with key policy-makers or committees at the local, state or federal level.  They know who they know, who they don’t and who they need to develop contacts to and relationships with. Example: We have relationships with 55% of the Members of Congress, 38% in the US Senate and on that key committee 45%.

Key Contact Programs: These organizations have identified individuals with important relationships with policy-makers who they can and will engage with a call, letter, intercept, or an LTE.  They are the organization’s uber-advocates, their core group of influencers who are cultivated, educated and committed. This is one of best investments any organization can make as their existence allows groups to be agile, effective and efficient.

Authentic Messengers: We hear a lot about “story-telling” these days. It’s important to create a “bank” of authentic voices, whether within a key contact program or not, who can convey your story. Identify and leverage stakeholders whose personal stories attest to how certain policies will affect them, their business and their families. It’s an incredibly useful and effective asset that can pay incredible dividends.

Seat at the table: Organizations who are earning a good ROI on their advocacy investment are always well positioned to get a seat at the table when policy is being discussed. They have stakeholders, not lobbyists, who can get in the room, at the table to make sure that their position will be part of the conversation.

Focus on Quality Conversations by Proactive Advocates: If you are earning a good ROI on your investment in advocacy, you have stakeholders, advocates, and supporters who can have quality discussions and conversations with key policy-makers and their staff at your direction. Consistent dialogue and conversation are either based on or can lead to, solid relationships that provide real value.

Less Dependence on Passive Participants: Getting a good ROI means that your advocacy efforts are not solely dependent on making digital noise via “click and send” messages to The Hill or State Capital. “Slack-tivism” or dependency on noise per se, has a role but organizations earning what they should on their investment in advocacy recognize this can only be one aspect of their overall strategy.  And, they know there are certain risks when you combine passion over policy with keyboard courage.

Donor to Advocate Development: Recognizing that getting donors or association members engaged beyond merely contributing or paying their dues provides the opportunity for significant return. Successful organizations recognize that donors who engage in advocacy historically become larger donors, members who are asked to do more than write a check become “invested” in the success of the organization and invariably commit more time and energy to the cause. Effective advocacy programs have figured this out.

Integrated Programs: There is no cookie cutter solution for getting the most out of your advocacy investment. Every organization is different but successful programs have a broad-based strategy that includes grassroots, key contact programs, digital and traditional lobbying.

Technology: Selecting the right technology for your organization can mean the difference between success and failure.  What exactly is the best technology for you and your team? No one size fits all so it’s important that the solution or solutions you choose align with your short and long term goals.  Groups earning good ROI’s are choosing tech that allows them to know about relationships with policy-makers, to access information on key staff, to track interactions 24/7, and to proactively deploy their best possible messengers with agility. And, they are quickly moving away from hard to manage excel spread sheets or the institutional knowledge in the brain of some longtime lobbyist or staffer.

Professionals who work in advocacy have an incredibly difficult challenge showing their ROI to their organizations. The investment made and dollars spent must be focused on creating, building and leveraging valuable political capital that is ready to be spent. Ultimately, the real ROI is seeing the development of your program so that when the challenge or opportunity arrives, you’ve done the legwork, and you are ready to succeed.

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