Chapters and affiliates play a critical role in federal and state advocacy, but the relationship between local and national must be tended carefully. Here is what three major organizations have done to ensure successful collaboration.
They are called by many different names: divisions, affiliates, chapters and more. Regardless of their label, they are the lifeblood of many of the nation’s largest and most impactful nonprofit organizations.
While many organizations engaged in advocacy have a prominent Washington office housing policy experts and lobbyists, it is the local staff spread across states and regions who play a critical role in the implementation of federal and state advocacy agendas.
Like state legislatures, every affiliate-structured organization is a bit unique. However, like those same legislatures, they are far more similar than different.
So what does it take for affiliates to be successful? And what must the national organization do to help ensure that success? We spoke with three very different organizations to gain their perspectives on those questions.
It Starts With Culture
Instilling a deliberate and proper culture is extremely important for an affiliate-model organization. It prevents the “us vs. them” dynamic that destroys collaboration and, ultimately, productivity.
When I led the digital strategy team for the advocacy affiliate of the American Cancer Society, my team had a mantra that we communicated regularly to affiliate staff: “Our job is to help you be wildly successful in your job.” This philosophy helped guide everything we did, from resource allocation to hiring decisions.
Josie Gamez, government relations manager for the National Hemophilia Foundation, said the dynamic within her team is very clear as well. “NHF is responsible for ensuring that patients have access to health care both at the state and federal policymaking levels,” she said. “The chapters take the lead with state advocacy and NHF is there to collaborate with them and help out as needed. It is all about establishing a culture of collaboration and trust.”
At the American Institute of Architects (AIA), the national staff works closely with their state chapters, which they call components. “Our constant goal is always to be collaborative and to have a customer service relationship with our components,” said Davon Gray, senior director for political affairs and engagement.
Of course, if you want to know about the true national-state dynamic for your organization, ask the affiliate staff first. Rarely is it the national staff who feel repressed or underappreciated. So we did exactly that.
“It is a dynamic relationship,” said Carol Wight, chief executive officer at the New Mexico Restaurant Association. “During the pandemic, we all had to figure out how to trust each other and know we were all doing all we could to come out of it okay in the end. It was that shared experience that allowed us to see individuals at the National Restaurant Association doing a brilliant job and doing the same thing we were doing in our states.”
Deliver the Training They Want
If you’re reading this article, then seeing the connection between advocacy and your organization’s mission likely comes very naturally to you. Yet, you should always remember that you are the exception rather than the rule.
Many people—even those working for organizations active in advocacy—don’t fully understand the role that advocacy plays in achieving their ultimate goals. Similarly, they don’t realize how the skills they already have can be adapted for successful advocacy work.
The AIA national staff focuses on three key things when it comes to training:
- Listen First. Listening skills allow them to hear what component leaders and individual members are thinking about public policy issues concerning architects.
- Convey Impact. Learning to talk about how your work impacts the lawmaker’s district is essential.
- Execute. The discipline of messaging is critical, using the communications platform to help members stay on message when contacting elected officials.
At the National Hemophilia Foundation, they keep it even more simple. “The one skill they need is how to effectively tell their story,” Gamez said. “We make them feel comfortable with their story and realize they don’t have to answer detailed policy questions.” Her small but mighty team stands at the ready to analyze legislation, prepare testimony or fly in for key meetings.
“Advocacy is the most important work we do on behalf of our industry in NM,” said Wight from the New Mexico Restaurant Association. Because of that existing focus on advocacy, and long tenures by many state executive directors, the national organization places less emphasis on regular training.
“Once a year we get together for a national conference and we do panels. What are the issues? How are we fighting those issues? I’ll hear something there and a few years later it comes up and I know I can call my national staff person on it,” Wight said. “All of the CEOs of the other states know each other well and we can pick up the phone any time.”
At the American Cancer Society, we needed a more hands-on approach, regularly working to build the skills of affiliate advocacy staff. Over time, my digital team built out an 80-item catalog of customized, on-demand trainings and resources. That ranged from writing effective emails and crafting compelling campaign narratives to sharing best practices for Facebook, Twitter and our own technology platforms.
Give Them the Technology They Need
Having the right tools isn’t just for repairing your car or fixing that leaky toilet. For advocacy, providing affiliates access to the right technology platform can be a total game changer.
“Our components and members needed a unified platform to communicate,” said Gray at AIA. “It helps us rapidly respond to legislative action where our members need to make their voices heard quickly and effectively.”
At the National Hemophilia Foundation, states are using their technology platform to communicate and advocate. “They are creating action alerts, emailing their chapter members and driving phone calls to lawmakers,” Gamez said. “We hold monthly office-hour calls for chapters to learn how to better use the system.”
Wight says she is regularly calling her national staff contact, requesting a greater allowance for texting. “I’ll go on the radio and say ‘Text GOT TIPS to our shortcode to take action.’ That’s something we’ve never been able to do before. We’ve been able to tick that box.”
The benefits of having the right platform aren’t just limited to the affiliates.
“Now, our national staff and state components can easily monitor our advocates’ advocacy activities,” Gray says. “We can see what’s working and what’s not. We also know which lawmakers are receiving messages and how many. That is a significant advantage when designing and strengthening future advocacy training programs.”
This ability to monitor communication is essential both for running successful campaigns and also protecting an organization’s brand. At ACS, I received nearly every email that was sent by affiliate advocacy staff to our volunteers and quickly glanced at most of them. This practice was never used for formal performance evaluation, but allowed us to identify staff who might need additional training. We knew that volunteers didn’t distinguish emails from state vs. national staff, so every message sent was equally representative of the brand.
Don’t Just Give, Teach
Every manager has muttered to themselves, “it would be easier if I just did it myself.” But every great manager realizes it is working together as a team that will foster the greatest success. Regardless of how the org chart might look, if you work “at national,” your affiliate structure and its staff are part of your team.
Yes, investing in your affiliate staff takes time and resources. But by creating the right culture, delivering the training affiliate staff want, and providing them the technology they (and you) need, that investment will exponentially increase your organization’s advocacy impact.
Brian Rubenstein, president of Rubenstein Impact Group, helps nonprofit organizations and companies drive greater engagement with their audiences—volunteers, members, employees, customers and partners—to deepen relationships, run successful campaigns and strengthen their brands. You can reach him at email@example.com