Why Don’t Members Care About Advocacy?

A new study shows that associations struggle to get members involved in lobbying efforts.

Now that election season is over, life has returned to normal. Front lawns are more likely to be draped with leaves than campaign signs. Friends circulate more pictures of their kids and fewer Informative Charts. Local TV ad breaks are stuffed with cars and mattresses, not candidates. And associations—especially their advocacy professionals—have a clearer view of the legislative landscape. The path is never easy, but at least for the next year or two leaders know what the path looks like.

The problem with selling wins is that a lot of the time—maybe even most of the time—you lose.

Alas, persuading members of the value of the work associations do in Washington and/or the statehouse remains tricky. The just-released 2012 Advocacy in Associations Survey, conducted by XYZ University, lays out a number of challenges. Among the findings:

  • 82.1 percent of respondents said they promoted advocacy as a primary member benefit.
  • However, 83.6 percent said their primary challenge was motivating members to get involved in advocacy.
  • 74.6 percent said they sometimes or often received feedback from members or prospects that advocacy holds minimal value.

Leaders know that advocacy is important, and they broadcast it to their members. But members aren’t hearing it. What gives?

It’s not a matter of throwing money at the problem—all associations spend about the same proportion of revenue on advocacy. And it’s not a matter of failing to leverage social media: Though some organizations have enjoyed substantial gains through Facebook and Twitter campaigns, 64.9 percent of the XYZ University survey respondents said they promoted their advocacy efforts on Facebook, and more than half said they did so on Twitter as well. And let’s not be too seduced about the power of social media here: Facebook campaigns have issues of their own, and Congressional staffers aren’t particularly impressed by social media as a grassroots mobilizing tactic.

I’m not a government relations expert, but reading the survey results and past ASAE articles on the topic, it seems clear that members have constructed a perception of effective lobbying efforts as a matter of wins and losses—legislation passed or not passed. Some associations may even help cultivate that perception, by loudly celebrating “wins” to members. But the problem with selling wins is that a lot of the time—maybe even most of the time—you lose. And you lose for reasons that aren’t your fault, strictly speaking: The legislature has more pressing matters to attend to, your campaign conflicts with the mood of the constituents of a key lawmaker, your issue got traction but some last-minute fussbudgetry on a bill meant your issue got cut. That’s reality, but nobody writes a press release for it.

“When it comes to advocacy, results are not always immediate and we shouldn’t under-estimate the value in cultivating relationship,” said one survey respondent when asked what they wished members knew about advocacy work. That’s a hard message to deliver to members, but not impossible. Members understand the value of relationships—they joined your organization, after all. Telling them that their contribution has long-term bridge-building benefits may work better than pitching involvement in specific campaigns that don’t work out.

In her article “Building Relationships With the Big Dogs,” Amy Showalter discussed the virtues of long-term influence in advocacy, and shared examples of how organizations enjoyed success by spending years persuading legislators considered directly opposed to their mission. This is the gritty, slow, and essential work that (eventually) gets things done, but is it the message you send to your members about advocacy? If not, why not?

(Christopher Robbins/Photodisc/Thinkstock)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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