Why Aren't My Advocates Advocating?

By: Christopher D. Glen

Three problems that can prevent your grassroots network from activating and how to fix them.

You've got a long list of advocates who say they're willing to take action when important issues arise. But the last time you put out the call to action, only a few of your "regulars" actually responded. What's the deal?

It can be frustrating and confusing when your grassroots advocacy network fails to deliver. Let's look at three reasons why they're not coming through and how you can fix the problem.

They don't know why. They don't know why they should care. They don't know why they should get involved. They don't know how the issue affects them, directly or indirectly. These are simple obstacles to overcome; your advocates just need a little background mixed with a little big-picture information.

Let your advocates know exactly what is at stake for them. If a policy has a fiscal impact, this means less money for raises and benefits or possible layoffs. It could mean reduced funding for research, disappearing grant money, or program cuts. Whatever the potential impact, be upfront, honest, and direct about it.

You also need to let your advocates know they can't stay on the sidelines. The government makes the rules and regulations under which we all live and work. If your advocates want to have a voice, they need to be involved and advocate for themselves. Do your advocates like their current atmosphere? Great; be vocal against anyone trying to change it. Do your advocates not like their current atmosphere? Give them the power and tools to be the voice of change.

Lastly, let them know that advocacy is important because it works. Be sure to highlight past policy victories. If your organization is just getting started with advocacy, use a recent example from a similar industry or issue.

They don't know how. The vast majority of people are hesitant to become involved in advocacy for fear of doing it incorrectly. It's up to you to give your advocates the tools and know-how necessary for them to become highly engaged.

Correspondence with elected officials is the most common form of advocacy; as such, focus your initial training there. The thought of calling a legislative office is enough to put some into a panic. I've had to reassure many advocates over the years that the actual senator or representative would not be the person answering their call.

Train your advocates to properly address government officials, persuasively craft their messages, and properly follow up. Once they know the basics and make a few calls or write a few letters, their confidence and comfort level will grow.

The next step is having advocates connect directly with the legislator. Educate them on how to properly interact with legislators in public places, such as fundraising events or site visits. Teach advocates to set up and successfully plan office meetings with their legislators (role playing is a great way to do this). Be sure to let advocates know that office meetings don't always go according to plan; they need to know how to respond when meetings are cut short or take place in hallways.

When first-time advocates attend meetings with legislators, it's paramount that they be accompanied by someone with more experience. Let your first timers know that it's fine to just be present and listen. They will soon see that meeting with legislators is nothing to be afraid of.

They don't have time. Every organization has one or two advocates so committed to the cause that they will drop everything to get involved. Most, however, will not.

You need to make advocacy so easy and problem free that each action item takes just a moment to accomplish. Give your advocates absolutely everything that they need. If advocates have to look up a phone number or a web link doesn't work, participation goes down dramatically. To be clear, you need to hold your advocates' hands through the entire process.

Information that should be included in all advocacy alerts includes

  • Contact names;
  • Phone numbers;
  • Email addresses;
  • Fax numbers;
  • Street addresses;
  • Talking points;
  • Issue briefs/background information;
  • Precrafted messages.

You say your advocates don't need hand holding? I don't believe you. They all do. Your advocates are C-level executives and senior VPs? They especially need hand holding, not because they don't have the skills but because they are used to things being 99 percent done by the time projects get to them. It is imperative that executives participate. They are big-picture people; they help initiate ideas and strategic direction, and they sign off on them once completed successfully.

If your advocates don't know why or how to act, their participation will drop dramatically—not because they don't care but because they don't have time.  Don't let your advocacy alerts get pushed to the side because of poor planning.  Your cause depends on it.

Christopher D. Glen is a consultant with Gramen Radix, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Email: [email protected]

Online Extra: Advocacy Alerts That Activate

Christopher D. Glen argues that associations' advocacy alerts can get volunteers moving—or stop them in their tracks, if the information they need to act is unclear or missing altogether. Read his sample alert here.

Christopher D. Glen