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Considerations for Launching a Grassroots Advocacy Program
When a federal law dealing with building cranes threatened to negatively and unnecessarily impact National Lumber and Building Material Dealers Association (NLBMDA) members, association leaders mobilized its grassroots advocacy network. Through its outreach efforts to federal lawmakers, NLBMDA and its members contributed to the rule being altered so that lumber dealers were exempt from the costly new regulations.

“It was a great win for us,” explained Chris Yenrick, president and COO of Smith Phillips Building Supply in Winston-Salem, N.C., who serves as the current board chairman of NLBMDA. The law treated all companies using cranes the same, but NLBMDA members were able to convince regulators that one size does not fit all. The type of cranes that NLBMDA member companies use to deliver materials is far different from the massive cranes used to build skyscrapers. Thanks to NLBMDA’s efforts, its members that use these cranes each saved in excess of $10,000, and, in some cases, much more.

This is one example of the many successes that NLBMDA has created through its grassroots advocacy program. Other organizations can generate similar impacts by implementing simple and relatively inexpensive initiatives. The following are suggestions on how to build the foundation for a successful advocacy effort.

Create a Policy Agenda

Advocacy is about influencing public policy, and while many associations have lobbyists and political action committees, there is an important third component: grassroots advocacy. This type of specialized effort involves mobilizing members and providing them with resources to engage lawmakers and policymakers on issues that are important to their industry.

Lobbyists work on a broader scale, talking about issues and positions from an industry perspective. But with grassroots advocacy, an association puts its members, who are constituents, in front of their elected representatives. These members are voters and taxpayers, and when they take the time to voice their opinions on something, they can get lawmakers' attention in ways that a paid lobbyist sometimes cannot. It personalizes the issue for the elected official, and that can be more powerful.

The key for a successful launch of a grassroots advocacy program is to identify the issues that are important to the association and communicate them to members. This can be accomplished by convening board members, committee members and other key stakeholders once a year to establish a national policy agenda in which both regulatory and legislative issues are identified.

“Without a disciplined approach to identifying issues, regulations can get passed without us ever really having our eye on them,” Yenrick said. “NLBMDA is our watchdog, and we are delivering great value to our members by helping shape laws and regulations that impact our businesses.”

Make Your Voice Heard

Next, it is imperative to develop a program that establishes an ongoing dialogue between association members and their Congressional delegation – the members who represent them personally in Washington, D.C. – as well as local and state politicians. Optimally, members should have a relationship with a policymaker before something happens that could hurt their business and their industry. If a member waits until the last minute to approach their elected officials about an issue, the “ask” becomes a little bit harder.

NLBMDA facilitates that relationship building in several different ways. One element of its program is an annual Washington, D.C. “fly in” that is held in conjunction with the spring board meeting. Participating members visit for scheduled meetings with select members of their Congressional delegation. This touch point is critical, but to deepen the relationship, members are also encouraged to meet with their U.S. representatives and senators back home. While visits to Washington are beneficial, hosting a member of Congress at one’s place of business has an even greater impact. To improve the success of these visits, NLBMDA provides members step-by-step guidelines on how to coordinate and host such events.

NLBMDA also offers members various email and letter templates that help them clearly articulate their stances on specific issues. The templates, which are a part of an online toolkit, include a form letter that can easily be customized and personalized. It makes it very simple for the layman to communicate their viewpoint to lawmakers on complex issues.

Many Happy Returns

Often, associations will not even consider grassroots advocacy campaigns because they think the programs are prohibitively expensive. However, the work can be executed cost effectively.

Another important return on investment from such efforts is that the programs resonate strongly with members and potential members. They become advocates through the programs, and therefore they become more engaged with the association. And when they see successes like those NLBMDA generated, they know that their involvement with the association is paying off.

 

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MAY 2014 EDITION
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