Using Scarce Resources to Enhance Advocacy
Throughout the last several years, the Regional Airline Association (RAA), which represents regional airlines and the manufacturers of products and services that support the industry, has faced a serious problem that few outside of the industry were aware of: a pilot shortage. Due to new, stricter training and certification guidelines and booming international markets for pilots, many were leaving for other opportunities. Fewer pilots could mean more planes grounded, which could result in less air service for local communities.

It was important for RAA to get this issue on lawmakers’ radars, which the association accomplished through a relatively small investment in grassroots advocacy. RAA approached the challenge knowing its advocacy efforts could make an impact with limited resources, something many associations incorrectly believe is not realistic.

One essential element of RAA’s advocacy efforts was its annual "Congressional Fly-In,” where members were invited to come to Washington, D.C., to meet with their representatives and senators. They shared association-commissioned studies that highlighted the problems that the pilot shortage created for air service. They communicated the need for more grant money to train pilots and more institutions to facilitate the training. In addition, RAA members also invited their representatives to tour their facilities – airports and headquarter locations – to help them better understand challenges within the regional airline industry.

The advocacy program has been very successful in terms of gaining the attention of lawmakers. RAA knows the key to making change is by building long-term relationships, and now it has the organization and infrastructure in place to engage its members on critical issues and communicate to the groups it wants to influence.

Changing the Rules

Another organization that established successful advocacy programming on a modest budget is the National Association Medical Staff Services (NAMSS).

NAMSS, an association that represents individuals responsible for verifying the applications of healthcare practitioners for credentialing purposes, was concerned about the practitioner credentialing process, which the association felt was not as efficient as it could be. NAMSS leadership believed the process could be improved, so it decided to do something about it.

The NAMSS board appointed a task force that worked with the government relations and advocacy staff to streamline the application process and develop new industry standards. NAMSS then convened a roundtable of industry and government representatives to discuss the challenges of the application process, present solutions and solicit stakeholder feedback. From that meeting, NAMSS wrote a final report that included the new standards. NAMSS will now engage stakeholders and work with them to advocate that regulators adopt the new standards. It cost little to launch the initiative, but if the new standards are adopted, the effort will result in a significant payoff for NAMSS members and practitioners as well.

Government Relations Efforts Can Produce Growth Within Organizations and Industries

Since the late 1990s, the National Society of Genetic Counselors (NSGC), which promotes the professional interests of genetic counselors, wanted to establish a state licensure advocacy program for professionals in the field. At the time, no states had formalized licensure programs, and the society found that without an organized effort, it was very difficult to make a case for the genetic counseling profession to lawmakers in state houses across the country.

That started to change in 2006 when NSGC hired a government relations specialist to both lobby lawmakers on the need for licensure and help society members execute their own grassroots advocacy. At that time, just one state – Utah – issued licenses to genetic counselors. By 2009, just three years into the advocacy initiative, it grew to seven. Today, 19 states issue licenses and 20 more states are actively considering bills to do so.

NSGC’s advocacy program quickly evolved into a sophisticated machine. As part of the effort, the society developed model legislation and supported it with data that justified the need for the proposed legislation. Some associations may feel it is not their place to offer model legislation, but associations often are the most qualified to do so. Who knows the profession or industry and its needs and challenges better?

NSGC also encouraged its members to take advantage of the resources created by its government relations team and reach out to their local representatives. This, of course, greatly magnified the voice of the profession.

The results of the advocacy program had a significant impact on the growth of the profession, as well as NSGC’s membership. This is an example of a more sophisticated approach that combines lobbying with grassroots advocacy. The investment was higher than what was required for RAA and NAMSS but was still generally modest, and worth it in terms of impact.

Government Relations Best Practices

If your association is starting to build an advocacy program, here are some best practices to consider:
  • Create a well-defined “ask” for legislators. For example, a clear, singular message like “We need state licensure for genetic counsellors,” is often most effective.
  • Develop background information and fact-based white papers to justify the ask. But keep in mind, more is not better and facts speak louder than opinions.
  • Build consensus for the ask within the membership. Messaging to membership should be clear and concise with specific direction and action items.
  • Establish a legislative committee to strategize and drive the initiative forward. Or, hire a lobbyist or government relations specialist to spearhead the effort.
  • Find out who among the membership has relationships with members of Congress, staffers, political action committees, or others in Washington and then leverage those relationships.
  • Promote grassroots communication by encouraging members to reach out to lawmakers and regulators. In-person meetings, either in Washington, D.C. or the home district, are the most effective method. Phone calls and/or emails to specific staff members or legislative aides are the next best mode of communication and are less expensive. Emails and phone calls to a main office line are not as effective.
  • Avoid sending letters to the U.S. Capitol using conventional postal delivery services. Letters go through an irradiation process that often damages them, and the process can delay delivery for weeks.
Effective advocacy programs take time to both develop and produce results. The process of introducing an issue and the relationship building that follows require patience and commitment. Success is often hard to measure quantitatively, but a total lack of advocacy engagement can take a heavy toll. Organizations that sit on the sideline – or simply react – often are the losers. But the good news is that, as these examples show, impact and influence is possible with a modest investment.

For more information on the topic, read the article “Considerations for Launching a Grassroots Advocacy Program,” which was published in the May issue of Board Forward.
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