If you run a government relations team of any size, then getting the annual budget approved—and increased—is part of the job. Because no budget can anticipate everything, you will also almost certainly have to go to leadership to get funding for a project or two. While many of us do not come to the job with a strong financial background, the truth is that you can have success if you treat it like a campaign.
You need to connect your request to your audience’s interest. You need the right messaging. You need to work the hallways a bit. And you need to gather broad support. To learn the best way to do that, we checked in with Jace Johnson, vice president of global government relations at Adobe, who has years of experience making successful requests for funding.
What emerged was a step-by-step plan that leaders at any organization can follow to create a business case for your funding requests. When you speak the language of leadership and you use that language to make your case, you will start seeing funding requests approved.
“If you have ever had any difficulty getting a project or even just your annual budget approved and you work in government affairs, you are not alone,” Johnson said. “This is a common issue that many departments deal with. There are a couple of reasons for this. One is the simple fact that your background, education, and training are all significantly different from, say, your colleagues in marketing or sales. The good news is that every year projects that are outside of the normal budget process do get approved, which means that the only question then is, ‘how can you make sure that yours is one of them?’”
Why Requests Get Denied
To put it simply, most government relations teams get denied because they are speaking the wrong language.
“Government Affairs professionals usually come to budget meetings wearing their government hats and not their business hats,” Johnson said. “They talk about policy and expect everyone else in the room to regard policy as important. If they talk about the company at all, it’s usually around vaguely worded risks from regulations. They almost never get specific. They almost never tie the policy goals back to the company goals.”
The people at your company who decide spending priorities might hear in excess of 30 pitches in a standard budget cycle. They might fund five of those. In a zero-based budgeting climate, where the budget is built from scratch each year with no rollovers, you have to justify every dollar you receive (and then spend it or lose it). The winners in that climate will be those who can closely align their requests with company priorities. Departments like sales, marketing and product will be good at that. They will tightly align their requests with customer retention and new sales. Often, you will be competing directly with these departments, and others, for funding.
“If all you’re talking about is policy, you’re not going to carry the day,” Johnson said. “This is why most requests from Government Affairs are denied. Nobody in the room was convinced of the strategic benefit of the project.”
Making the Business Case
In order to get what you want, you need a business plan. For some, that may trigger a wave of uncertainty and doubt. After all, the people in sales, marketing and product have a business background. Most people on a government relations team come from the world of politics and policy. But it is important to break through that psychological barrier.
The goal is a two-page plan that explains your request for funding in business terms, making the case for how it helps the organization’s overall objectives. To do that, we will take the following six steps:
- Map your stakeholders
- List shared problems
- Rank problems by impact
- Recruit an executive sponsor
- Craft your narrative and collect data
- Write your plan
“Following a step-by-step approach is important,” said Jeb Ory. “It’s easy when schedules get busy to let a budget presentation slide and deliver something that looks a lot like last year’s. But that’s not a formula for success. When GR teams treat this like a campaign, they adopt the right mindset, put in the time and often get what they request.”
Said Johnson: “You absolutely can write a business plan. You need to write a business plan. Your colleagues in every other department are writing them. That’s how they get their projects approved. That’s how you’ll get yours approved.”
Creating Your Plan
Making a business case can and should involve the entire government affairs team, if for no other reason than you each have different connections within your organization. The vice president at the head of the team will have a different set of contacts than the people below him or her. Involving the entire team maximizes your reach, and gets every member bought into the mission.
Here are the steps you can take to build your business case:
Step 1: Map Your Stakeholders.
As a team, make a list of the internal stakeholders you work with on projects and activities, including the people in finance and the c-suite who make decisions about funding. Johnson says that they do this annually at Adobe, creating a visual map of influence within the company.
“It’s actually not that different from the kinds of work you create as a lobbyist,” he said. “You’re trying to convince a group of readers to do something. In order to convince them, you have to carefully craft arguments that will win them over, get the right meetings to build support, and make sure that when the vote happens, you already know what the outcome will be. I tell my staff all the time that what we’re doing is lobbying for money. It’s
just that simple.”
Step 2: List Shared Problems.
In this step, you identify the goals and problems you have in common with each stakeholder, the items that you both want to address. This may require some meetings to identify the issues that colleagues are struggling with, the challenges they have to overcome, the goals they are trying to accomplish and the things standing in their way. These meetings are vital to building your network of support. They will give you an understanding of the problems facing your colleagues and how those relate to your funding request.
“If you can identify problems that are shared across more than one department, you’ve accomplished two things,” Johnson said. “First, you’ve found ways to frame your arguments. These are issues that your colleagues care about, and getting them on board with you requires that there be something in it for them. Second, you’ve found strategic issues that affect the company, not just your specific niche within the company. The broader the problem and the more global the solution, the greater the likelihood of it getting approved at higher levels.”
Step 3: Rank Problems by Impact.
This may seem obvious, but it is important to rank your shared list of problems by impact on the company. This will function as a priority list, letting you know which solutions would have the greatest impact on the
company. These are the problems that will sit at the center of your business case.
Step 4: Get An Executive Sponsor.
Just like in politics, having a champion with enough influence to sway others is a key to success. You need an executive sponsor with more influence than your team has to help make your argument. In most cases, this will be the top person on your stakeholder map. If that person does not have enough influence to carry your proposal across the finish line, then you have work to do, creating a relationship with someone who does.
“Your executive sponsor needs to buy into your idea and really drive it up and across the organization,” Johnson said. “The more power they have, the more budget they control and the more likely your chances of success are.”
This is one area where it pays to spend time, have meetings and do some one-on-one discussion. In some cases, the strength of your top champion can make the difference between a win and a loss. Take the time to set your team up for success.
Step 5: Craft Your Narrative and Collect Data.
Just like you would when you make a case to lawmakers or regulators, you need to craft a compelling story and then back it up with data. If either of these are underdeveloped or absent from your presentation, you risk losing support.
“Neglecting either of these two components is a common mistake that can kill your budget request,” Johnson said. “I see it happen all the time. Your narrative is where you tie together all of the data points and demonstrate to senior leadership exactly how this project solves shared problems and benefits the company as a whole.”
“Your data is the proof that this isn’t just something you want, but rather something that is objectively true,” he continued. “I’ve seen executives call people out if either of these two things is missing. They’ll say things like, ‘I don’t believe you. Where is the proof?’ Or they’ll get a skeptical look on their faces and say, ‘I don’t get the point of all this. What’s the story here? What are you trying to say?’”
These two points are important enough that we should take each in turn.
- The Narrative. Creating a story that explains and justifies your pitch should be relatively simple if you have done your work on steps 1 through 4. The narrative should leverage your deep understanding of company strategy, as well as the roadblocks that prevent you and other departments from succeeding, and explain and how your proposal mitigates those challenges and provides the right way forward. Writing out that narrative allows you to explain it in one coherent, flowing and powerful argument.
- The Data. There has to be hard data to back your request. Without it, you are vulnerable to scrutiny that questions the veracity of your argument. After all, other departments will likely have their numerical argument in line. In this way, this exercise is just like making a case to Congress or a regulatory agency. You have to prove that the problems
you discuss exist and that the solutions you recommend are viable.
“The reason executives are so hard on people is they are rightly suspicious of arguments that are missing either element,” Johnson said. “If you left out data, then what are you hiding? If you didn’t craft a compelling narrative, do you really understand this company and how your project can help? So you absolutely have to have both.”
Step 6: Write Your Two-Page Business Plan.
When all that work is done, you are ready to write. Johnson recommends that teams have the discipline to keep it to two pages, which will be handed to the
executives who weigh your proposal and will guide your presentation should you have to deliver one. While it may be tempting to write more, Johnson argues against it.
“Nobody is going to read anything longer than that,” he said. “Also, if you can’t distill it down to a succinct summary, then perhaps you don’t fully understand
it yourself. As you write it out, anticipate the kinds of questions that an executive would have and then answer them. The last thing you want is for them to have a question, not know where to find the answer and just look blankly at your plan.”
How to Structure Your Business Plan
Johnson recommends that you follow a prescribed format when making the pitch for a budget increase or additional funding. “I created these steps after years and years of seeing well intentioned government affairs professionals get shot down when they ask for more money,” he said.
- Section I: The Bottom-Line Request. Use the first two sentences to explain what you are requesting and the outcome it will bring about. “It’s critical not to bury the lede, otherwise the executives will stop reading and start scanning for it,” Johnson said. “They want to know what they’re getting into before they look at the details.”
- Section II: State the Problem. This is where you state the company-wide problem that you identified in your conversations with stakeholders. Be clear and direct. This is not the place to argue or equivocate. “Be specific about the cost of this problem,” Johnson says. “It could be actual dollars. It could be dollars lost to inefficiencies. It
could be a looming problem that will have real repercussions if it’s not avoided. Also be aspirational. The problem statement could actually be an opportunity. Social justice issues are a great example here. Companies have explicitly said they want to invest in things like diversity, equity and inclusion. If your project helps meet some of those big goals, then you’ve got a perfect problem to solve.”
- Section III: Business Justification. This is where you present your data in a concise and compelling way. “Talk about return on investment,” Johnson said. “Talk about dollars and hours and risk and reward. Use all of your creativity and critical thinking to bring
information that demonstrates you know what you’re talking about.”
- Section IV: Resource Request. This is where you go into detail about the funding that you need and how you will use it. For example, if you are adding capabilities, cover exactly how you will do it. Will you create in-house resources or hire a firm? If so, which firm—and why. “Be specific,” Johnson said. “It shows that you’ve really done your due diligence. This gives executives greater confidence to approve your project because they know exactly how the money will be spent and it demonstrates that you take it seriously enough to come to them with a well-thought-out plan.”
- Section V: Deliverables. Everyone likes deliverables, the concrete things that the company will receive for its money. List what it is that the company will receive each quarter, giving details on how each quarter will be spent and what it will yield. “These deliverables show the executives that they don’t have to wait and just trust that everything will happen at the end of the project,” Johnson says. “It keeps you honest and they like having regular reports.”
- Section VI: Success Metrics and Reports. Finish with a section that explains how you will gauge success, including the metrics you will watch and how you will report this information back to the executive who backed your request.
Speaking the Right Language
The goal of this entire effort is to create a proposal that is grounded in a solid business case, with a compelling narrative and strong data, that is directly connected to well-known company objectives.
“Accomplish that and you bring government affairs inside the tent,” Ory said. “Your team will not be some outlier that is speaking a different language. You will be addressing those who hold the purse strings in the language they understand, and that is going to result in more resources and more success.”
Johnson agrees, saying that government relations teams must adjust how they approach executives in order to be properly heard.
“The conclusion that most people in government affairs make is that the executive team just doesn’t value their work. That’s just plain wrong,” he said. “The reason your budget requests are getting turned down is you don’t know how to make those requests in a way that business leaders understand. Follow these steps and I guarantee your next ‘ask’ will go much, much better.”