The dawn of the internet has sparked many changes in how we shop, drive, fundraise, and even how we interact with our elected representatives. Email, social media, and other online tools have opened the possibility of engaging elected officials at a fraction of the cost thus allowing even the smallest of non-profits the chance to engage in advocacy campaigns long dominated by multimillion-dollar lobby firms. Prior to this revolution, government relations was an arena reserved only for the largest non-profits and organizations that could bear the costs associated with mounting a large scale advocacy campaign.
Despite these new tools and methods of engagement, effective advocacy campaigns are still a hurdle for many small and medium-sized associations. This is because an effective campaign needs a diverse talent pool that ensures continuous creativity, a broader perspective in how government works, and finally, logistics. Therefore, associations can be more effective in their government relations when working through an Association Management Company (AMC), (which is a company that specializes in managing associations), since they’ll have access to those resources.
Associations are by their very nature mission-driven and member-centric with member services and programming consuming most of their budgets. Advocacy is viewed as something that should be ‘turned on’ during an emergency, but not a funded priority during ‘downtime.’ This on again and off again of advocacy prioritization not only leads to staff departures, but the association itself never develops the in-house talents or capabilities to launch a major advocacy campaign. When emergencies, such as legislation or federal regulations, come about, these associations are left bereft of the talent and tools they need to win since those key staff departed during the downtime. This downtime problem is mitigated at an AMC. This is because talents can seamlessly assist other associations that are having their own emergencies while continuing to develop their skills and return if needed. Furthermore, advocacy talents in AMCs can pull tactics and strategies from their colleagues without the same fear of revealing business secrets that can exist between two lobbying firms.
AMCs also have a diverse set of clients who may focus on different aspects of government (i.e. science, health, tax etc.) This helps give its talents a broad range of expertise in how various aspects of government works – a significant advantage over specialization since as anyone engaged in advocacy can tell you, no two agencies or branches of government function the same way. What may work in Congress may not work with the executive branch, yet most associations with a complex membership and set of interests must engage with both. As such, associations working with AMCs will have a leg up in how to effectively engage with various levels and branches of government.
The often unsung heroes of advocacy are the ones who make the arrangements. Logistics is a critical and often forgotten part of any association’s advocacy campaign. However, many associations can’t afford full time meeting planners and delegate all of the logistics and technical skills advocates need to get things done, to the advocates. Yet the skills of an advocate are different than a graphic designer or trip planner. An advocate can help you craft a great message and arrange a meeting, but their skills, and most importantly their time, would be ill-suited for arranging hotels, travel plans, or designing a handout. This isn’t to say some advocates aren’t great meeting organizers, but that is more the exception than the rule. Cash-strapped associations often don’t have these types of talents in-house and either rely on consultants or hope their staff can figure it out – often with mixed results. AMCs solve this problem by pulling their resources and only drawing upon the operations team when needed – similar to a consultant who already knows how your association works, what its budget is, and whom they need to speak with in order to seamlessly execute your event.
In today’s wired and connected world, people expect things to happen quickly and accurately. With the automation of many processes, members expect their associations to be engaged in advocacy, social media, and arranging fly-ins to Capitol Hill, and rightfully so. Despite advances in technology, effective advocacy and association management is more than a clever tweet, it’s the day in and day out work and creativity that keeps associations relevant and current. That is why associations working within an AMC have a clear advantage in retaining talent, boosting creativity, and producing effective advocacy work.
This blog post is part of a Government Relations series from MCI USA government relations talents. To find out more about our talent’s expertise, contact Bill McClellan, Senior Associate, at firstname.lastname@example.org or Alison Teitelbaum, Associate Vice President, at email@example.com.