Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Money / Grassroots Debate

At a recent session someone asked me if they should focus their advocacy efforts on getting political donors in to see elected officials. In other words, rather than asking "plain old constituents" to see their members of Congress, the question went, wouldn't it be better to get political donors in to visit.

On the face of it, it seems like the answer would be a resounding yes, right? Universal perception suggest that people who contribute to an elected official's campaign have more "access" to a Congressional office.

But the thing is, that's not really true. The very first filter that any elected official considers any request through (whether it's to have a meeting, cosponsor a bill or attend an event) is "how does this impact my district?" So if people want to get in to see their elected official (or, likely, a staff person), their strongest avenue of influence is their position as a constituent. If you pass the constituent test, you will be able to get in to visit with someone in the office.

How do I know? We've scheduled literally hundreds of meetings for groups coming in to Washington, DC for the annual lobby day meetings. As long as we are able to demonstrate a constituency connection, we are never turned down for a meeting.

"Yeah sure," you're thinking "but what if you want to see the Member -- you have to be a donor then, right?" Well, first of all, why would you want to meet only with the Member? The staff people handle much of the day-to-day work. If you want to get anything done it's essential to have a good relationship with them.

But even if you don't buy that, I can tell you that decisions about who the Member meets with are based on a huge range of factors, including whether the person making the request is a friend, whether there are any good "photo ops" associated with the request and, of course, the Member's schedule. I've never worked in or even been in an office where a list of donors is matched up with the meeting requests -- in fact, in most cases the staff have no idea who has contributed to the campaign.

Now, don't get me wrong. Donors are important and are a valuable component of any grassroots effort. But in my opinion, their value lies in the fact that they have demonstrated themselves to be active and involved on two important levels: they have contributed both their time AND their money to the cause. Their willingness to be active on those two fronts suggests that they might be willing (and able) to undertake the arduous process of building a relationship with the office over time -- a relationship that will get them in to see the Member or staff whenever and wherever they want.

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