5 Questions to Answer Before You Build Your Advocacy Coalition
Among the best ways to enhance the effectiveness of your organization’s advocacy is to find other groups with related concerns and similar goals. By building an advocacy coalition, associations and nonprofits can mix-and-match proficiencies with partner groups to better engage public officials and influence policymakers.
In other words, there is strength in numbers and diversity.
“That is the bottom line,” said Charles Brumlik, of NanoBiz LLC, a New York consulting firm that works with the Chemical Marketing & Economics Group (CM&E) to build coalition alliances and devise coalition building strategies.
Brumlik said CM&E is involved in a broad range of national and international legislative and regulatory issues that require collaboration with different types of trade groups and professional associations for it to be effective.
“Chemistry is pretty much everything – we touch everything,” he said. “So, we have to deal with a lot of different markets and industries.”
American Institute of Architects (AIA) Senior Government Relations Executive Andrew Goldberg said his nationwide constituency has a similar need to connect and cooperate with a diverse array of nonprofits to persuasively lobby on Capitol Hill.
“Architects are, by their nature, collaborators and facilitators,” he said. “We apply those ideas to what we do and that is the biggest part of what we do: Specifically, build advocacy alliances and coalitions.”
As professional alliance-builders, Brumlik and Goldberg say you should ask these 5 questions to both identify allies and also convince them that your concerns are, in fact, shared concerns impacting each of your respective interests enough that you should team up:
1. Are you clearly stating your goals?
If you are not explicitly articulating what your association wants to accomplish, don’t expect potential allies to interpret for you.
“Get an early, clear expectation of what you are trying to achieve,” Goldberg said. “You are among many voices out there so, obviously, being upfront and transparent is critical to getting folks on your side.”
That can be easier said than done, he said, noting developing consensus within the 86,000-member AIA can be a task in itself. “One of the first questions you ask internally is, ‘Where is everybody on this? Make sure all the little tribes are working together.”
“The key in identifying and approaching other groups is to first define the topic and then find different angles on that common topic” that may be of concern to a potential advocacy partner, Brumlik said.
2. Are you effectively harvesting your members’ contacts?
Before exerting a lot of time and energy in recruiting external allies, begin your outreach from within. Make sure you have canvassed your own ranks for contacts.
After all, your members not only know members from other member groups, they already have relationships with them – as business associates, friends and even family.
“Look within the parent organization,” Brumlik said. “There are a lot of resources at the chapter level, a lot of local business-to-business contacts, a lot of interesting interplay.”
An often overlooked asset in recruiting allies are the people to your left and right at board meetings. “The way we identify (advocacy partners) is usually through our directors, through the relationships they have built through time,” Brumlik said.
One way to get members more engaged in your advocacy efforts and, in turn, encouraging them to understand the importance of building alliances with other groups is to essentially show them how advocacy works.
“I just brought in a bunch of architects (to Washington DC) to meet members of Congress,” Goldberg said. “It creates a level of excitement and empowerment. They will carry that back to their (congressional) districts and, hopefully, remain engaged.”
3. Are you appealing to diverse groups?
Numbers are always important, but when a coalition includes a broad array of nonprofits representing different industries and professions, elected officials and policymakers take notice.
“It can’t just be chemists talking to chemists,” Brumlik said. “Find opportunities to co-brand. Figure out what your strengths are and their strengths are.”
“You never discount anybody. (Approach) everyone from the Chamber of Commerce to the Sierra Club — even if they disagree 99 percent of the time, there just may be that one thing” they concur on, Goldberg said.
“Look for things that dovetail. Some groups have very strong grassroots mobilization, some are very strong at getting people to write bills, some have a better inside game. You want to think, ‘Who are the voices out there that are stronger, have better tools, where you are not strong?’ Come to them and say, ‘Here are the assets we bring to the table.'”
Goldberg said the AIA is part of a coalition that includes building trade associations, business groups, labor unions and environmental nonprofits. Each organization has its own unique interests, but they share a common perspective on important policy matters.
For example, the entire alliance is opposed to the proposed repeal of Section 433 of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA), which mandates that the federal government eliminate fossil fuel-generated energy from new and renovated federal buildings by 2030.
Each organization advocating individually would bring to bear a collection of disparate voices, but as a coalition their voice and their resources are amplified.
“We all have good relationships with members of Congress and we can provide experts” from a spectrum of disciplines, he said. “When we are together, we do well.”
Brumlik said there can be reluctance from some groups about joining ad hoc single-issue alliances, not just because they may be odd bedfellows with others in the coalition, but also because they may believe their proficiencies are redundant.
“Sometimes they are going to question whether we are competing with them or synergistic with them,” he said. “You don’t want to cannibalize one another.”
So do some schmoozing – today’s most hesitant collaborator may be tomorrow’s most stalwart ally. “We focus on crossing bridges people might not always be prepared to cross on their own. We get people out of their comfort zones,” Brumlik said. “We find topics that will get them to cross that bridge because it is in their common interest. Same with your networking, go outside your comfort zone.”
That Being Said, Keep This Caveat in Mind
Don’t be afraid to say no when approached by other groups that may have an issue that you may not be as concerned with as they are — especially if you can’t provide the energy and resources the effort may require.
“When we’re trying to get a set of groups aboard, the reality is, we’ve set our agenda and we’re pushing 100 miles-per-hour,” Goldberg said. “If someone comes to us and asks to take lead on something, it is a little hard for us to stop and change course.”
Beware of diffusion by dilution. “The more general the issue, the more everybody gets to put their two cents in, the more (efficacy) gets diluted,” Goldberg said. “It can be hard gaining that middle ground to find support while maintaining the integrity of the proposal.”
4. Are you creating opportunities to network?
Brumlik said the CM&E stages seminars around the world, often empaneling speakers and presenters from different countries and varied industries, professions and passions not to merely generate interest, but to expose those in attendance to new insights – create a common ground upon which you can network.
“They are there to meet others and find that common ground,” he said. “We try to satisfy both the presenter and the audience. You have to play both sides.”
The CM&E recently put together a seminar in collaboration with NewYorkBIO, a bioscience trade association, to discuss specific patent legislation making its way through Congress. The assembly was rewarding, Brumlik said, because it coalesced opposition to both measures which, attendees agreed, weakens patent development and discourages investment in innovative drugs.
“We put people from different industries and different associations on panels” and the result fostered a multi-dimensional, multi-disciplined campaign to lobby against both measures, he said.
Joint seminars, trade shows and conferences are good draws, Brumlid said, “because people come for different reasons and there are more than one type of person at these events,” Brumlik said.
Goldberg said such events “tend to work better when you have a converging issue, such as building safer communities, climate change, education.”
But, he said, the more refined the focus, the less worthwhile they can be in building coalitions. “If get to a point where you are really pushing a specific policy, that is less effective,” he said.
Don’t overlook inviting people from other associations to your award banquets and don’t turn down offers to attend others. “Big award dinners — there is plenty of networking done,” Brumlik said. “The advantage is, you can facilitate some of those introductions.”
5. Are you effectively using technology?
CM&E makes extensive use of webinars and video presentations to discuss its positions with members, Brumlik said. Often, it invites members from other associations to attend and contribute.
“We invite them to attend for free,” he said, noting Cisco’s WebEx Web Conferencing platform is a tool that is “simple and easy to use. It is a very effective tool for extending the message beyond” your members.
“Technology works. It keeps (allies) informed and bound” to the alliance, Goldberg said, “but, at the same time, nothing beats face-to-face.”