15% of Your Membership Wants to Do More Than Just Send an Email. Do You Know How to Find Your Grasstops?
When your issue needs that human touch with a lawmaker, one of your members’ personal relationships could be a very important piece in the puzzle. See how you can find out who they know, and tap into the best directory of grasstops ever.
In December 2015, the bill reauthorizing five years of funding for Brand USA, the public-private partnership that promotes the United States as a global travel destination, was placed on legislative hold two days before the Senate was to adjourn for Christmas. At jeopardy for the U.S. Travel Association (USTA) and other groups engaged in the travel industry was up to $100 million a year in federal matching funds for promotion and marketing programs.
“It looked like we were going to run out of time,” said Michael Jacobson, USTA Director of Industry Relations and Political Engagement in Washington, D.C.
But Jacobson, who manages a grassroots network of 500,000 travel employees, not only had an ace up his sleeve, but at his fingertips: A key contact list of USTA members who knew the two senators and had been identified as potential “grasstops” advocates — constituents willing and capable of engaging elected officials and regulators.
“It came in handy,” Jacobson said. “Within minutes, we had (the members) on the phone and contacted (the senators). We were successful.”
USTA’s success in securing the Senate vote reauthorizing Brand USA confirmed that despite advances in technology, social media strategies and the systemic analytics of data-driven outreach, personal relationships remain a positive in advancing a cause.
“A personal phone call is a more effective tactic than blast emails. Congressional staffs are not impressed with massive deluges of form letters,” Jacobson said. “They both have their value depending on the circumstances. There are times when it is good to activate the masses, but sometimes it’s quality over quantity — the quality of touches.”
“They don’t love the form letters — they recognize it means a lot of people, but a personal story means more,” agreed Dawn Bauman, Senior Vice President for Government and Public Affairs with the Community Associations Institute (CAI) in Falls Church, Virginia. “I will go into a legislative office and (staff, elected officials) will respond to the relationships they have with (members). It’s a combination of personal relationships and constituent contacts and associations should not forget that.”
“We can get so caught up in social media that we forget to be social. There is a lot of noise and static out there. For advocacy groups, you really have to find a way to be heard,” said Chip Felkel, CEO of Rap Index, a strategic communications and issue-advocacy consulting “shop” in Greenville, South Carolina. “Personal relationships are the anti-volume.”
“But first you have to find members in your association who have personal relationships with key legislators and leverage their relationships,” he said.
That can be easier said than done.
The CAI, for instance, has 33,000 members who are community association directors, homeowner association administrators, and professional management company operators in more than 60 chapters in six nations.
“It’s not easy to identify members who have personal relationships and are active in their communities,” Bauman said. “It can be difficult to find that phone number or email of that person when you need it. You end up saying to yourself, ’Shoot, I remember somebody had a relationship with Marco Rubio but I can’t remember who.’”
Avoid this by investing the time in developing a key contact list that identifies who knows who, right down to the Congressional district level by adopting survey techniques that not only pinpoints potentially influential relationships, but distinguishes who is willing and capable of effectively carrying your message to the right person at the right time.
“It takes a lot of time,” Jacobson said, “but it pays dividends in the end.”
To assemble an accessible key contact list, you need to know who your members know, assess these “connected” members’ ability to be “grasstops” advocates, and to identify opportunities when to encourage them to engage on your behalf.
Find out who knows who: “The key is a survey we send to membership, a whole series of questions that takes members 10 to 15 minutes to complete,” Jacobson said, noting the questions are essentially geared to ask, “Who do you know?”
“You’d be surprised who your members know. You find some remarkable relationships that you wouldn’t know exist,” he said. “‘I golf with the Senator. I go to the same church as the Congressman. I was college roommates with the state representative 30 years ago.’ Sometimes, they know staffers.”
Batman said CAI also sends a survey to its members and asks them, in turn, to pass along the questionnaire to members of their local associations.
“We do it three, four times a year,” she said. “We share the results of the survey with local associations and committees so they can make contact with local (key contacts). It creates something like a phone tree.”
The best time to ask members to refresh their key contact lists is after your association has scored a success on their behalf so they can see the results of cohesive advocacy, Bauman said.
Felkel said RAP Index has developed an eight-question survey with members’ responses ranked from 1-to-5. The higher the score, the more likely the member has key relationships and is capable of engaging.
“You need to know who can cut through the clutter,” he said. “We’re looking for relationships that have everything to do with life, and nothing to do with policy; for relationships that would make an elected official uncomfortable about not responding. This is a way to capture them at the granular level, that is what we are talking about.”
Finding your ‘grasstops’: If you have 10,000 members, relatively few will meet the criteria to score a ‘5’ on the RAP Index, Felkel said, because not everyone — even those with longstanding personal relationships with key policymakers — are willing to engage them.
“This is where associations need to figure out who their best messengers are,” he said. “Not everyone is comfortable (contacting a legislator). Not everyone has the ability to be an advocate.”
But these “messengers” with key relationships are out there. Felkel said. Typically 5-to-15 percent of membership want to do more than just send an email.
“It’s important to know what they’ll do, and what they don’t want to do for you,” he said. “It’s quality over quantity — finding people who get ‘it.’”
Again, survey questions have to be specific to ferret out potential key contacts, Jacobson said. “How well do you know them? What is your level of comfort in contacting them? Phone call? Email? Personal meeting? Can you call Sen. X?”
Jacobson said USTA’s survey also asks members if they are involved in the local Rotary, the Chamber of Commerce, the Kiwanis and other local community groups.
“We look to see if they are active in civic groups,” he said, noting those who have personal relationships with elected officials and are “civically inclined” are identified as “a grasstops advocate.”
Bauman said CAI first identifies key legislators and then looks for members who live in their districts. “We look for people in a legislative committee to approach and we can go to the database and find people who have relationships with that legislator,” she said.
When to call upon them: Calling upon a member with a personal relationship with a key legislator you are trying to influence can be a sensitive matter, especially of the member is otherwise not typically engaged in advocacy efforts.
Despite surveys and intensive indexing of responses, Felkel said there are always members who won’t disclose their personal relationships with elected officials for a range of reasons.
But, Bauman said, constant reminders of how effective advocacy benefits them and fellow members is one way to prod reluctant key contacts to pitch in. “Not everybody likes to share the relationships they have with important people,” she said. “You have to compel them, for one reason or another, to share that information.”
“We have been doing this work for a long time and we know what works — relationships do matter,” Felkel said. “What do you think is more likely to be successful? Ten-thousand emails or a phone call from college roommates?”