Q&A: Stephanie Vance, Founder of Advocacy Associates
Stephanie Vance has spent decades as a D.C.-based lobbyist, Congressional aide, speaker and grassroots consultant.
Her experiences as a legislative director and Chief of Staff on Capitol Hill led her to found Advocacy Associates, a firm dedicated to helping individuals and organizations be both heard and agreed with in the legislative environment. Vance says one of her primary goals was to “make sure groups had better meetings and became more influential.”
Through her work, she has learned that many grassroots advocates need an education on the “basic mechanics of a meeting: what you want, who you’re talking to, and how to follow up.”
“So many groups give their advocates a whole lot of policy briefings, showing them reports and graphs, but they don’t give them enough training on how to have a meeting,” Vance says.
“In the lobbying community, we know it’s just a meeting, but advocates are often intimidated and think they’re going to be asked lots of questions that they don’t know the answers to,” she continues.
Vance, who is the author of five advocacy books, including Citizens in Action: A Guide to Influencing Government, has trained thousands of people in hundreds of organizations, including the National Association of Realtors, the Humane Society of the United States, and the American Library Association.
She holds a Master’s Degree in legislative affairs from George Washington University and a Master’s Degree in liberal studies from Georgetown University.
We caught up with Vance to get her take on the state of association advocacy efforts—what’s working, what’s not, and what’s next.
What pitfalls do you think associations can avoid in their advocacy efforts?
When I was a congressional staff person, many people would come in to meet with me. Lobbyists knew how to engage with me, but everyday advocates didn’t necessarily know how to interact with me.
What could they improve upon? For example, they could work on having “an ask” and knowing their audience. We would have a lot of grassroots advocates come in and want to educate us about their issues. It’s important to have “an ask,” which doesn’t have to be policy related; it can be a relationship ask as well. Tell your story in a way that’s relevant to the office you’re talking to and tie it back to legislation and/or funding.
In addition, I tend to think there are some associations that need to have strong control over their advocacy messages. They send their advocates into meetings with very specific wording, which can make people feel even more nervous. I suggest that they loosen the reigns a little bit so that their advocates can tell their own story.
What strategies do you think are most successful for associations in helping grassroots advocates find their own voice?
Figuring out ways to get advocates to understand the value of their communication and not to be intimidated by it is essential. To that end, I’ve seen mentorship programs where more experienced advocates are paired with less experienced advocates. In addition, finding a way to do local work and really get your advocates engaged in local meetings and attending town hall meetings is very important.
Is the focus on local efforts the biggest change you’ve observed in how associations approach advocacy?
The need to get people engaged from their districts is becoming more and more important. More and more, I am hearing that Congress people only sign onto a bill when their constituents ask them. They are making more decisions based on what constituents communicate directly to them.
We’re starting to see “fly-outs,” where Congress people are back in their districts several times a month. Associations need to focus on getting constituents to meet with them there. They need to have a concerted campaign to do that, and more associations are encouraging this activity.
What’s your take on the current political climate and what it means for associations and other advocacy groups?
During the final days of the current administration, we will see a lot more of the president just doing things; this president will go out on a limb a lot more on issues important to him. Because this is the case, some organizations decide that they can scale back their advocacy efforts.
That’s not true. I get concerned when associations assume they don’t need to have lobbying days because it’s an election year and nothing will get done. Too often they ignore the election year. Even though it seem like there’s not a lot happening legislatively, those grassroots communications are more important than ever. It’s a scramble at the start of a new Congress. You need to have already risen above the fray.
What’s going to be their biggest challenge and greatest opportunity in the next 5 years?
Trying to choose between rising above the chaos and having a proactive policy agenda will be challenging because a lot of associations are going to be dealing with reactive situations. I would encourage them to look at the larger things coming down the pike and how they can be proactive.
Congress is going to go more and more towards the local community and what this constituency thinks. Associations need to focus on getting those constituencies engaged. It’s a good time to build up local grassroots efforts.