Q&A: Robert Raben, President and Founder of The Raben Group
Robert Raben, president and founder of The Raben Group, discusses the state of association advocacy in today’s Q&A, including the importance of defining your advocacy strategy before executing your advocacy tactics.
“Government relations is an incredibly diverse profession,” said Raben, “and I have my slice of it.”
A big chunk of what his 13-year-old public policy firm does is nonprofit advocacy. The firm covers a broad range of sectors, including civil rights, education, financial services, health care and intellectual property. Nonprofit clients have included the AARP, the American Society of Criminology, the Financial Planning Association, and the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.
A graduate of the Wharton School and New York University Law School, Raben served as an assistant attorney general for legislative affairs and counsel for Rep. Barney Frank before starting his firm. He is known for his nuanced understanding of the intersection of law, policy, politics and media.
What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Do you think that associations sometimes have difficulty executing their advocacy efforts, especially given the current political climate?
“In Washington, there are those people who work on stuff that is always moving, like appropriations bills, national security, and the military. Then there’s a huge group people who are trying to make something move or stop. The two groups operate very differently.
The former category is not affected by paralysis. Corporations are always in the advocacy business. For organizations and associations that are organized around areas that are regulated or funded, the work is the same as it has been for years, and it is pretty constant.
However, one exception would be big ticket investment for ‘stuff that could be,’ such as trade agreements and alternative energy. Issues that focus on views of the world and what government should be doing are harder to address. At the federal level, there’s significant reluctance to spend money on long-term campaigns to change laws. If you’re trying to change a law, there’s much more interest in the courts or at the state level than in Congress.
One of your key philosophies/approaches to advocacy is strategy before tactics. Why is that important?
“Conventional wisdom says you just go in there and tell Senator X your story. I am amazed at how many people think that substitutes for how goals will be achieved. What’s our theory of change? How are we going to get the audience that we’re working toward to do what we want them to, given where they are?
Visits are useful for data gathering, but that’s not a strategy. For example, AARP relies on volume, the Human Rights Campaign relies on incumbency, and the NRA relies on intensity. When we do an effort, we love to operate on top of a stated strategy.
Why is there sometimes a rush to just do something?
“Sometimes an advocacy effort isn’t really about moving public policy. Sometimes the effort is about demonstrating to a defined membership or constituency the importance and relevance of the association itself by showing access, experience and sophistication, which might be crucial for the hometown crowd.
The point of the engagement wasn’t really to move a cohort of elected officials on a specific policy issue. Don’t underestimate the importance of an association or the Washington DC office of an NGO or corporation having to use resources to demonstrate to the hometown audience how it functions.
Your membership often doesn’t appreciate what a slog the issue is that they want changed. Bringing trade association members to hear from the decision makers themselves on what their challenges are (i.e. lack of jurisdiction, too partisan, no funding, etc.) could be beneficial. Having constituencies see that directly, and not just hear it from you, may have tremendous value.
How can associations address concerns from members who say they aren’t lobbyists?
“There are two possibilities, either your members are right or they’re wrong. They might be right. They may have a completely accurate read on the landscape and the Congressional industrial complex and realize that either the issue we’re interested in is not doable or we’re not the entity to take the lead in doing it. The association can’t always be in the business of proving its importance. That’s not good customer service.
The other option is that the association’s members are wrong. The association leader or lobbyist understands something through his or her experience that the membership doesn’t. Then, it’s incumbent upon the association leader to better educate members about the role they can play in moving public policy forward.
What are the most difficult challenges facing advocacy professionals?
“One of the hardest things is that a huge percentage of even very sophisticated people think that the entire profession of public policy is transactional and about money. People are legitimately disgusted by the premise that too much of this [process] is pay-to-play. The privately raised financing system is disgusting. It is a blot on democracy, but organized interests won’t let us change the system toward public financing, so we’re stuck with the private system.
As long as that’s the case, it’s incumbent upon those of us involved in the system to explain to rank-and-file Americans how much of public policy isn’t about money and how infrequent it is that policy makers’ votes are moved by the highest bidder. They’re not. Putting aside the corrupt and the felonious, a huge percentage of actual public policy decisions have nothing to do with contributors and how much money is raised.
Rather than whine about how badly most Americans view the system, it’s up to us to educate people about the truth. If you don’t do that, then don’t complain about your association members’ unwillingness to come to Washington.
What are association advocacy teams getting right?
“Organizations that do the best with advocacy are the ones that know who they are and why they’re here. There’s a core intellectual underpinning.
One political position might be, for example, are we the attack dog for the industry? Our members don’t want to go negative, so we’re in the business of being negative. Such was the case with the Recording Industry Association of America. The organization went after Napster. None of the labels that made up their membership wanted to. It’s an example – good or bad – of an association knowing exactly why it functioned.
The best associations know exactly why they exist. The worst associations have this constant conversation and fight among themselves and they churn through leadership because one of the major players in the industry can’t decide what they want their association to do. Those tend to be trade associations.
(Editor’s Note: Raben and members of his staff contributed the “Essentials of Advocacy” section of Independent Sector’s 2012 report, Beyond the Cause: The Art and Science of Advocacy. This section outlines five strategic approaches necessary for successful advocacy.)
What will be their greatest opportunity/challenge in the next five years?
“Their greatest opportunity and challenge is social media and online technology, which increasingly requires you to know your members and make fewer guesses based on the most active or voluble members. Technology democratizes the people’s voice and allows the leadership to have a much better read on what their membership wants.
Because of technology, you have to move from sophisticated guess work based on what you’re hearing at your conference to an increasingly accurate sense of what an association membership wants — when they want it, who really wants it, and why they want it.