Tips For Telling Your Association’s Advocacy Story
Telling your story well is the essence of advocacy, according to winners of the American Society of Association Executives’ (ASAE) annual ‘Power of A’ awards.
This year’s winners were honored for their success in enriching lives; creating a competitive workforce; preparing for the future; innovating; and making a better world. And all of it done through advocacy. We tapped their collective wisdom for tips.
Think outside the box and don’t take no for an answer. That was Gary A. LaBranche, president and CEO of the Association for Corporate Growth (ACG) and his teams’ approach when they found ACG up against tough odds following the economic downturn of 2007-2010. “There was a lot of misinformation floating around Washington,” LaBranche says. “Some people thought private equity firms had something to do with the recession.”
ACG wanted to find a way to tell their story better, but most people said it couldn’t be done because little information was available to the public. So they developed an online research database – GrowthEconomy.org – that can gather and analyze economic data about job growth in metropolitan statistical areas, states and congressional districts. This information took the association’s voice to a new level, because instead of just telling anecdotal stories to Congress, hard numbers could be added to paint the picture.
ACG created a huge database that compared what private equity does to the whole U.S. economy using “a level of computational genius” provided by the University of Wisconsin. That new database “dramatically shaped the conversations that we can have on Capitol Hill,” Labranche says.
Association advocacy efforts begin with effective communication with members of your organization, says Richard Yep, CEO of the American Counseling Association. Yep was formerly the director of government relations and has also done stints as a staffer in the California State legislature and the U.S. House of Representatives.
Because the main responsibility of an advocacy association executive is to facilitate the communication between its members and elected officials, it is essential to keep association members engaged, Yep says. To that end, he advises:
Appeal to your members’ passion and be honest. “It is important to know what your constituency is passionate about, and then craft your message in a way that aligns with their values and beliefs,” But you have to be sincere. “I am not a fan of hyperbole or trying to create hysteria,” he says. “Just as we who serve as association staff don’t want to be hoodwinked, neither do our members.”
Vary your communication tactics. “While many want a text or an email, don’t forget that some people still like printed materials,” he says. And don’t forget your call to action. “Once you have developed the message, it is critical to know how best to deliver the action you want your advocates to take.”
Felton Thomas Jr., president and director of the Cleveland Public Library, speaking on behalf of Power of A Summit award-winner the Public Library Association (PLA), says to play to your strengths “authentically and with passion.” For the PLA, that passion is the “unique and unparalleled ability to help anyone learn, do, and grow.” Thomas also says to:
Invest in, learn from, and amplify research and evidence. For example, “public libraries can move the needle for individuals and communities on so many issues, including literacy and school readiness but extending to employment, civic engagement, health and more,” he says. “Knowing ‘what works’ makes our programs successful, and showing measurable impact is critical to engaging other stakeholders and advocates.”
Sherrill Rude, vice president of advocacy at the Indiana CPA Society, a 2016 Power of A Summit Award winner, says to focus on building a three-legged stool of grassroots, PAC and grasstops. After that, she says to:
Build solid trusting relationships with elected officials before you ask them to consider any issue for your profession. “Components of all three legs build this foundation. For an organization just getting started in advocacy efforts, it’s important to hire a capable and extremely credible lobbyist or staff person. Elected officials view the lobbyist or staff they interact with as the face of the profession, and consider them a resource. The officials must trust the lobbyist and his or her information before they will grant access.”