Friday, January 26, 2007

Engaging Advocates in Advocacy

I recently gave a presentation at the Public Affairs Council conference on effective tools for “motivating” advocates. Many associations and companies recognize the value of having their employees and members delivering messages to policy makers. That said, the leaders of the effort get frustrated when the advocates respond half-heartedly or not at all to their pleas for letters, phone calls and visits to elected officials on a particular issue. In the advocacy world, this question of “motivating advocates” is a huge one – thousands of organizations struggle with it every day.

What I sought to do in the session was to have participants look at their advocacy networks in a whole new way. Rather then viewing them simply as tools to be turned on and off based on the directions of the national (or state) organization, advocates need to feel engaged in the process from the beginning. Through engagement, organizations can turn advocacy into something for their members’ “want to do” list instead of the “have to do” list. To achieve this goal, a few common myths need to be overcome:

1) Myth Number One: “We need thousands of advocates to make a difference, and it’s difficult to get thousands of people truly engaged.” Actually, quality works far better than quantity in dealing with policy makers. Given the vast array of bulk e-mail and form letters received every day in legislators’ offices, elected officials and their staff generally give these missives less weight than personal, thoughtful communications from constituents who really care. Currently, associations tend to focus on how they can make it as easy as possible for advocates to simply “point and click” to send a form message. This approach is a good first step to get advocates interested in and excited about the process. Through engagism, organizations can take their efforts to the next level by motivating and activating that powerful 1% that is willing to compose and deliver a personal message – and that powerful 1% might be willing to reach out to other potential advocates, helping the organization expand its network exponentially.

2) Myth Number Two: “Legislative situations are complicated. We can’t trust our advocates to come up with their own messages.” Here’s the catch-22: If the messages that advocates are delivering aren’t personal they aren’t effective. So, if you can’t trust your advocates to come up with their own messages, you probably aren’t going to be as effective as you’d like to be in swaying opinion leaders. Engaging advocates early in the process through ongoing discussions (blogs, list serves, etc.) helps them understand the language and the nuances better – and makes them better prepared to develop personal stories that tie the policy issue back to their own situation. It’s called the “advocacy-conviction connection” – people need to believe in and feel passionate about what they are saying in order to truly sway the opinions of others. Hey, if the Nuclear Energy Institute does it (and you better believe they have some complicated issues), so can you.

3) Myth Number Three: “If we engage our advocates, some of them will say mean things about our policy ideas, and that would be bad.” Actually, negative comments can be good because they demonstrate passion! If your advocates care enough about what you’re saying to respond (even if not very nicely), you’re one step closer to finding that powerful 1%. Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to do everything you can to turn that negative energy into positive energy by listening to their concerns and doing what’s reasonable to respond. Intel does this when launching a software application. The first thing they do is send the application to their list of certified naysayers, who do everything they can to break it down. They use this information to identify problems and make fixes before selling it to their customers. Both sides are happy – Intel has a better product, and the naysayers have been listened to.

Tomorrow I’ll share some tips and tools for creating a culture of engagism in an association setting – or maybe that will take up several blogs...

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