How to Build an Effective Grasstops Advocacy Program

oboyle-grasstops advocacy April 3, 2023 By: Austin O'Boyle

Grasstops advocacy is necessary for associations to have success on Capitol Hill moving forward. For organizations newer to the concept, here’s a success-driven roadmap to follow.

At the height of the pandemic, organizations were mobilizing advocates to connect with lawmakers to push for a variety of legislative concerns, such as financial assistance, Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan coverage, and other issues.

At the federal level, members of Congress received millions of emails and hundreds of thousands of phone calls. Congressional staffers participated in up to 15 Zoom meetings daily addressing constituent concerns.

According to a Congressional Management Foundation (CMF) survey of senior Congressional staff, 63 percent state they are receiving more communications from constituents than before the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the pandemic, organizations that implemented effective grasstops advocacy programs were able to cut through the noise and garner Congressional attention for their legislative priorities. While I was manager of grassroots engagement at the National Apartment Association (NAA), our grasstops program grew by 88 percent in 2022 alone. Key contacts were a huge part of our in-district advocacy efforts where we held over 225 in-district meetings in 2021 and 2022.

Grasstops advocacy is essential for any association, as grasstops focuses on leveraging relationships between your members and lawmakers to get your message directly to the legislative office. While grassroots is a more wide-ranging, volume-based approach, grasstops advocacy is targeted and focused on member relationships.

When looking to start or build up an effective grasstops program, there are three main pillars to keep in mind: identification, education, and mobilization. These pillars provide a roadmap to build a grasstops infrastructure that delivers results.

Identify Advocates

The core of any grasstops program is finding member advocates who have relationships with lawmakers or are motivated to cultivate relationships with legislators and staff. Organizations can identify these individuals through surveys, lead-generation campaigns, and peer-to-peer programs. Content such as handbooks, videos, websites, and other items can help your member advocates expand and foster relationships with lawmakers.

By building an infrastructure around cultivating relationships, organizations broaden their reach beyond the finite group of members who have existing relationships.

Train and Educate

A comprehensive training and education program will help member participants gain confidence and develop the tools to advocate for your organization and industry. Include the following elements for a well-rounded advocate education:

  • Educational content. Provide advocates with a video training series (made using Zoom or other free video services), “how-to” handbooks, webinars, one-pagers, issue talking points, infographics, and other engaging content.
  • Organizational footprint. Arm advocates with data about your organization’s membership footprint by state, legislative district, key committees of jurisdiction, and relevant constituent representation.
  • Advocacy training. Virtual, in-person, or hybrid training will help advocates get ready to make their voices heard.
  • Peer-to-peer training programs. Empower your top-performing grasstops advocates to help train their peers within their state or district.

Remember to create and introduce educational content throughout the year to engage advocates.

Mobilize Frequently

After assembling your team, educating them, and introducing them to policy issues, it’s time to mobilize.

Most organizations only mobilize grasstops advocates when they need something. Often, legislative offices never hear from advocates outside of these last-minute asks. However, it’s important to develop a standardized outreach method to ensure advocates continue building on their relationships and acting as a resource for legislators.

Advocates should educate and inform legislative offices about broad initiatives, as well as the importance of the association and its membership on an ongoing basis to cultivate relationships. This way, when it is time to mobilize advocates with a critical ask, there is an established foundational relationship.

Setting a standard mobilization schedule, such as monthly or quarterly outreach, will help advocates build their confidence and strengthen their relationships with legislators. It will also keep advocates engaged, committed, and ready to act when critical issues arise.

Another component of mobilization is year-round advocacy. Acting on a grassroots campaign and attending your fly-in won’t cut it when it comes to being a top-tier grasstops advocate. Give participants year-round opportunities to interact with offices such as in-district meetings, social media advocacy programs, annual fly-in, standardized quarterly outreach, and grassroots campaigns. Member participants will gain confidence, build stronger relationships, and be more effective when they advocate year-round.

Grasstops programs are an essential strategic tool for successful political engagement. Following the three core pillars will help your organization build and execute an effective program. Although building an effective grasstops program takes time, associations want to have genuine relationships in place when it matters most.

Austin O'Boyle

Austin O’Boyle is director of advocacy at Aristotle.