Individual associations, and in fact the association industry at large, often find reasons to be on Capitol Hill. Many associations are based in Washington DC, and those that aren’t may still need to meet with legislators at one time or another. The reasons include (but are not limited to) lobbying, education, and speaking opportunities and it is for those reasons and several more than Association Executives gathered on The Hill this week for ASAE’s American Associations Day.
While ASAE’s American Associations Day is preprogrammed, many association professionals may not have the means to get to Capitol Hill this week (or didn’t know about it) yet still may need to represent their members in a meeting with a local congressman or staffer.
NPR this morning had a story about how to meet with your local representatives in Washington. If you’d like to listen to/read the story, click here to go to the NPR website.
The story points out that getting a meeting with an actual legislator is pretty difficult. A staffer is a little more likely, but still unlikely and those precious moments are highly competitive. Rarely, if never, are you going to catch your Congressman at "home" in his or her home state and district. Chances are you’ll have to foot the bill for a trip to DC in order to grab 15 minutes with a junior staffer. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.
You have a couple of options here. You can write letters, send emails, and work the phones diligently yourself. That takes time and some savvy- legislators receive correspondence all the time and it can be a struggle just to get your issue glanced at. Another option, as explored in the NPR piece, is to hire a political consulting firm. Not necessarily a paid lobbyist, they do a lot of that initial legwork to get you that meeting which, according to the NPR article, could take weeks and may only result in a few minutes here and there with a staff member, not the Congressman him or herself.
And then, of course, there is the issue of money. Politicians, lawmakers or not, are more likely to take a longer meeting or pay a little more attention to individuals or organizations willing to support their campaigns. This, of course, isn’t a rule but a generally accepted idea that “donors” tend to get a little more time than “constituents.”
This is where the payoff for your association comes in. If you’re considering pursuing a meeting with a lawmaker, get together your own “brain trust” or members, staffers, and your board and before you start the effort, make sure your association has the following under general consensus:
1) What is the ONE important issue for which you want to gain attention or support? (There are probably more things you'd like to address, but keep in mind one strong argument is more likely to make an impact than several smaller ones.)
2) What is the ideal outcome?
3) How likely is that outcome?
4) How much money, if any, are you able to put towards this? Consider here travel expenses as well as campaign donations.
5) Is it worth it?
For many associations, banding together to enact political or social change is the whole point. Then the answer to number five is obvious: of course it’s worth it. For other associations, the rumblings of political union and change come after legislature or a big court decision. If that’s the case, while politics may not have brought your members together, it certainly plays a part in uniting them now.
It may seem intimidating, but it’s not impossible. If politics is a major goal of your association it could very well be worth your time, but be prepared to invest a lot of it.
One final word of warning: politics are obviously very divisive. If yours is an association inspired to political action and not necessarily founded in it, be sure that your members are on the whole in support of your endeavors, or be prepared to lose a few. Politics, even on the most micro level have the ability to really get people riled up. As always, association action often comes from member approval, the board’s thumbs up, and your, as an association professional, willingness to buckle down and work hard!