Hundreds of advocacy professionals gathered at the Public Affairs Council’s annual Advocacy Conference in Florida last week to discuss strategy, share effective tactics and learn how to increase impact.
The conference offered more than two dozen sessions, workshops and events, including how to build a powerful grasstops advocacy program, use “approachable advocacy” tactics to supercharge results, and implement “power mapping” to increase influence.
“Some of the most effective programs in the industry were at the conference to open up their playbooks, explain what works for them, and discuss how to implement it,” said Jeanette Russell, director of product marketing at Quorum. “Much of that focused on grasstops advocacy and stakeholder management.”
As a sponsor and a participant, the Quorum team was on hand to attend sessions and see how top advocacy programs are improving their game and what the experts are advising. Here are some of the key takeaways that caught our attention:
Felkel Group: Grasstops is the Right Tool for the Time
Hollis “Chip” Felkel, founder of the strategic communications firm Felkel Group, makes a strong argument that grasstops advocacy is the right tool for today’s legislative landscape. In a world where congressional staffers are deluged with digital communications, authentic storytelling from credible people—preferably with an existing connection to the lawmaker or staff—is powerful.
The key to successful programs is recruiting the right grasstops advocates, and it may not be who you think. Big titles don’t always mean much, Felkel said. More effective are people with a genuine connection to the lawmaker or staffer. Perhaps they attend the same church or their kids play ball together. What’s important is finding stakeholders with authentic relationships and a willingness to engage so that you can dispatch the right messenger to the right policymaker at the right time. It takes work—and it is worthwhile.
“Expectation without execution is entitlement,” Felkel said in his presentation. “Grasstops does take execution. But not nearly as much as you fear.”
Alzheimer’s Impact Movement: ‘Approachable Advocacy’ Can Supercharge Results
The Alzheimer’s Impact Movement is well known for its advocacy program, which uses what it calls “approachable advocacy” to recruit grasstops advocates, support them with training and conduct sophisticated outreach.
Alzheimer’s Ambassadors are volunteers who commit to spend at least a year building relationships with members of Congress. They are aided by the Alzheimer’s Congressional Team, volunteers who contribute their personal stories and relationships to help. Kate Johnson, senior associate director for advocacy, explained that part of “approachable advocacy” is giving all these volunteers the support they need to be effective.
For example, AIM offers about 20 hours of training each year to its Ambassadors—14 mandatory and six optional—as well as 10 hours for grassroots supporters. The organization also produces an abundance of guides and other resources to support engagement year-round. The results are clear. The Ambassador Program was launched in 2010. Funding for Alzheimer’s and related diseases at the National Institutes of Health has climbed from $504 million in 2013 to more than $3.7 billion in 2023.
AARP: ‘Power Mapping’ Can Increase Influence
Latoya Peterson, associate state director for advocacy and outreach at AARP Ohio, says her organization has greatly increased its influence using “power mapping,” a stakeholder mapping strategy that involves identifying relationships you can use to access and influence decision makers.
“It is a strategy of determining who is needed to influence decision-makers, a process that identifies individuals with the most power,” she said in her presentation.
Power mapping goes beyond your organization’s grasstops network to identify anyone who may be helpful in a campaign to influence a lawmaker or other public official. These individuals might be faith-based leaders, major donors, or anyone who can help with outreach.
“Think broadly of all possible links to the target,” she said. “These can include
work, political, family, religious, and neighborhood ties. Anyone who can exert influence on this individual should be mapped.”
CUNA’s Million Messages: ‘Don’t Be Chicken Little’
Kristen Prather, state director of grassroots programs at the Credit Union National Association (CUNA), said her organization has made huge strides in rapid response in order to keep pace with a shifting legislative landscape. Traditionally, CUNA took a long-term approach because legislation in Congress moved slowly. But the pandemic changed that as lawmakers rushed to provide pandemic relief and CUNA had to move quickly to keep pace.
For example, when the Paycheck Protection Program was enacted, credit unions were at risk of being left out. “We needed advocates to contact their lawmakers quickly to make sure credit unions were included,” she said in her presentation. “Campaigns that used to take months of education and slower action by advocates needed to happen in the span of a week.”
The campaign was effective—and it was only the beginning. When another bill contained a requirement that financial institutions make additional disclosures to the IRS, CUNA launched a campaign within 48 hours that billed the requirement as a regulatory burden and an invasion of privacy, taking advantage of the idea that the “IRS is considered a villain to most Americans.”
That campaign generated almost 1 million messages over eight weeks.
Prather said that members respond when an urgent call to action is genuine, when the circumstances are made clear and when they have been educated over time. “Don’t be Chicken Little—the sky is not always falling,” she said. “Use rapid response when it makes sense.”
She added: “It’s a bonus to have a good villain you’re advocating against.”