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Do Not Wait to Start New Relationships in Washington, D.C.
By Michael L. Payne, Executive Vice President, SmithBucklin

Representing the interests of your members to Congress is a powerful way for an association to deliver powerful member value. And timing could not be better. If your organization’s board of directors does not have established connections with key decision makers in Washington D.C., spring 2015 is a perfect time to start.

Here is why: The new 114th Congress has convened and key committee assignments have been made. Right now, congressional staffs are beginning to think about and work on legislation that will be proposed this year. It is likely that some of that legislation will impact your membership. So, if your association does not have a relationship with members of Congress now, it is likely to be put in the awkward position of reacting to new laws rather than helping to shape them. Clearly, the latter is more likely to increase the organization’s perceived member value.

Given the state of Congressional approval ratings today, one might understand why some associations may be reluctant to initiate such a strategy. A recent Gallup Poll shows that only 13 percent of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing, just above the all-time low of 9 percent in November 2014.

Despite these dismal views on the effectiveness of Congress, there is good reason to be open-minded about the opportunities. For example:
  • Many elected officials are brand new. There are 13 new Senators and 58 new Representatives in Congress this year. New in this context equates to potential opportunities for associations.
  • There has been restructuring in Congressional committees. It is possible that a new committee chair or member might have a more favorable view of your association’s position on an issue. There are hundreds of committees across the House and Senate. A few include Agriculture, Appropriations, Armed Services, Banking, Budget, Commerce, Energy, Environment and Public Works, Finance, Health, Education, Labor and Pensions and Small Business.
  • Connecting with lawmakers is possible. Meeting with lawmakers in Washington, D.C. is not as challenging as people imagine. Many legislators are very interested in meeting with associations and constituents on key issues. If the issue or issues at hand impact voters in their home district or state, lawmakers will appreciate that the association provided themselves and their staffs with a new level of understanding. If the lawmakers serve on a committee that has jurisdiction over specific legislation, they will especially be receptive to additional perspectives.
Once your association has committed to a government relations effort, the following best practices will help you maximize success.
  • Conduct a relationship inventory. Your association may already have relationships with key lawmakers. Your first step is to identify those that already exist. If your association does not have existing relationships, do not be discouraged. There are resources available to help target specific lawmakers. Associations can use the map of Congressional districts as a guide to identify which members are in the geographic areas impacted by the issue tied to your association. You can also leverage the list of Congressional committees to determine which members are on a committee with jurisdiction over an issue that may be pertinent to your association.
  • Call and ask. Most Congressional offices will be willing to meet with you. However, be ready to be flexible. You may not meet initially with the representative or senator. At first, they may ask a staff member to represent them. It is also possible that your meeting may get interrupted or postponed as a legislator is called to the floor to cast a vote. Do not be discouraged. This happens all the time and their office will reconnect with you. Also know that your association may not accomplish everything it wanted to achieve. Lawmakers have many constituents whose interests they must balance. The important point is that your association’s voice is heard and you are building and strengthening your relationships with people important to your organization.
  • Stay engaged.  Once you establish the initial connection, keep it going. For example, invite law makers and other decision makers to site visits and local facility tours when they return to their home districts. These interactions can have an even greater impact because they personalize the issue for lawmakers. The Regional Airline Association leveraged site visits and other activities to positively influence select decision makers in government positions.

    Just as building a personal relationship requires patience, persistence, flexibility and commitment, the same holds true in Washington, D.C. And just as we place hope and trust in our elected officials, your members place hope and trust in their board of directors to protect and represent the best interests of the association. Do not avoid Washington, D.C. and assume that someone else will represent that concern for your members. It is not as challenging as you might think, and it could open more doors now than in previous years.


      Michael Payne is an executive vice president at SmithBucklin. His responsibilities include managing the government relations division and working with a number of associations on government relations and advocacy efforts. Payne previously served as a deputy to the assistant secretary for Congressional Affairs in the U.S. Department of Commerce.



     
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FEBRUARY 2015 EDITION
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Board Forward is published 10 times a year by SmithBucklin, the association management and services company more organizations turn to than any other. SmithBucklin has served volunteer board members for more than 60 years.

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