Tim Ebner is communications director and press secretary at the American Forest & Paper Association in Washington, DC. He is a member of ASAE’s Communication Professionals Advisory Council and a former Associations Now senior editor.
At any moment, an association’s key issue could be the issue everyone is talking about: a hot topic of debate, a headline-grabbing news story, or a major legislative or legal victory. Three associations explain how they seized upon moments of opportunity to build longer-term success.
At any moment, an association’s key issue could be the issue everyone is talking about.
Maybe it’s a hot topic of debate, a headline-grabbing news story, or a major legislative or legal victory. Or it might have built gradually and steadily, like a technology trend boiling into a disruptive force.
Whatever the issue, associations can leverage these turning points into seize-the-day opportunities for membership growth, partnership, and advocacy. Such moments came last year for associations in three spheres: hemp industries, blockchain technology, and sports betting.
How did they respond? What new doors opened for their members and their mission? And what lessons do they offer for other associations that may find themselves in the same position? Here, leaders in these organizations tell how they’re building on their momentum to take advantage of new opportunities for long-term success.
Issue: Hemp Legalization
Turning Point: Passage of the 2018 farm bill
Opportunity: Rapid membership growth
“Today is the day!” That was the subject line of a December 20 letter from Geoff Whaling, chair of the National Hemp Association, to NHA members, celebrating a milestone in the organization’s long battle to legalize hemp growing in the United States. On that day, President Trump would sign the Agriculture Improvement Act, known commonly as the Farm Bill of 2018.
The law, which went into effect January 1, legalized the cultivation and sale of hemp, a botanical relative of marijuana, for commercial uses. It opened the door to a new wave of hemp-related businesses, including those producing cannabidiol (known as CBD), and ushered in new opportunities for hemp growers and producers of consumer products, such as hemp-based foods, and commercial goods like bioplastics.
The legislation marks a critical turning point for hemp industry associations as well. Since it was enacted, NHA membership has skyrocketed by 42 percent, says Executive Director Erica McBride Stark, “and my phone keeps ringing off the hook.”
“While our perseverance has certainly paid off, there’s also a bit of ‘be careful what you wish for,’” she adds, “because now, we have to work toward building and supporting a fast-paced industry.”
For NHA and other hemp trade groups, the initial challenge in this next chapter is welcoming new members while expanding programs and services that will increase their engagement.
“It’s great to be in the spotlight and grow, but you also have to be able to manage and plan for that growth at the same time,” says Hemp Industries Association (HIA) Executive Director Colleen Keahey Lanier. “That can be complicated. We’re at a point now where we are quickly starting projects that have long been sitting in the queue.”
That includes the formation of a 501(c)(3) foundation that will serve as the association’s charitable arm for purposes of industry research, member education, and consumer-focused awareness. It will also support a legal defense fund for hemp-based businesses.
“The challenge for us ahead is that there are still state-by-state laws and rules and regulations that haven’t been remedied or match the federal law,” Keahey Lanier says. “We also recognize that there’s a lack of education happening among state and local law enforcement [officials], who might attempt arrests or seizures of hemp products.”
Staffing is another issue. HIA has only four full-time staff and will look to make several new hires this year.
Keahey Lanier also says there’s room for more member engagement opportunities. In 2014, HIA launched several membership categories for farmers. Though initially small and less involved than other member groups, the farming categories have increased from approximately 100 to 400 members, and HIA plans to add eight training programs for farmers looking to adopt agricultural practices that will make them eligible to apply for the U.S. Hemp Authority’s Certification Program.
“We’re excited to expand and broaden our member programs, and hopefully it encourages more farmers to join,” Keahey Lanier says.
“While our perseverance has certainly paid off, there’s also a bit of ‘be careful what you wish for.’”
Issue: Emergence of blockchain technology and cryptocurrency markets
Turning Point: The crash of cryptocurrencies and the launch of the Blockchain Association
Opportunity: High-impact advocacy
Forming a new association from scratch has a unique set of challenges, but doing so when your organization’s issue is a subject of heated debate and critical questions can make the spotlight feel a little hot.
That’s how Kristin Smith, director of external affairs at the Blockchain Association, describes the situation her organization currently faces.
Both her industry and BA are newcomers to public policy conversations. Last year proved to be the industry’s turning point. BA launched on September 11 in the midst of a yearlong crash in the value of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, which are traded using blockchain technology.
“It’s fair to say that the cryptocurrency and blockchain industry had a pretty wild ride in 2018,” Smith says. “There was a tremendous amount of attention on the valuation and purpose of cryptocurrencies, and there was regulatory and enforcement action taking place.”
BA was founded by about a dozen industry players in the technology and financial sectors who wanted a bigger role in policy conversations. The primary mission is to educate policymakers and influence financial regulations that will affect blockchain and the cryptocurrency market.
There are plenty of misconceptions about what blockchain is and isn’t, Smith says. For instance, many people associate blockchain with Bitcoin or Ethereum—just two of the many cryptocurrencies that transact in the blockchain. The reality is that today’s blockchain industry encompasses an ever-widening circle of individuals and businesses that conduct transactions using a distributed ledger system with a decentralized authority that functions in either a public or private setting, Smith says. The technology’s proponents say one of its key advantages is a high level of cybersecurity.
With so many new and innovative players in the space, BA decided to start with a narrow focus.
“Our membership is narrowly defined as people who work in the crypto and public blockchain industry,” Smith says. “We may change in the years to come, but right now, we’re looking to achieve advocacy gains through a group of members who are the experts.”
In December, BA members played an instrumental role in informing the Token Taxonomy Act, a bill that would change the Securities and Exchange Commission’s 72-year-old definition of securities and narrowly define tokens—a digital unit used in cryptocurrency marketplaces.
“That bill defines what a token is and isn’t and excludes it from the definition of securities,” Smith says. “It helps give the [blockchain] industry a sense for which tokens must comply with securities laws.”
Advocacy on the bill will continue this year, Smith says, but getting it introduced on the House floor was an important first step.
The bill “helps to spell out some of the nuances of blockchain,” Smith says. “We realize it’s a complex subject and comes with many questions, which is why our strategy has been and remains advocacy through education.”
“Right now, we’re looking to achieve advocacy gains through a group of members who are the experts.”
Issue: Legalized sports betting
Turning Point: Supreme Court ruling in Murphy v. National Collegiate Athletic Association
Opportunity: Grassroots coalition building
For the American Gaming Association, effective advocacy with coalitions led to a U.S. Supreme Court victory on a defining issue for the gaming industry: legal sports betting nationwide. And now those coalitions have more work to do.
Last May, in Murphy v. National Collegiate Athletic Association, the Supreme Court struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) of 1992, which had limited legal sports betting to four states where it already existed at the time. The 6-3 ruling opened the door for every state to consider legalizing sports betting and gave many casino and gaming operators a major advance on an issue they had been fighting for through the American Sports Betting Coalition.
Sara Slane, senior vice president of public affairs at AGA, says the first sign of a turning point came in 2014, when National Basketball Association Commissioner Adam Silver wrote a New York Times op-ed supporting legalized sports betting. With a big name on board with its message, AGA saw an opportunity to sway public opinion on regulated sports betting.
“Instead of running up to Capitol Hill and trying to lobby Congress, we took a step back by launching an aggressive communications campaign to build consensus,” Slane says. “We talked about the huge illegal market created by sports betting and why the status quo was not acceptable.”
So far, a handful of states—including New Jersey, the state that challenged the federal law—have legalized sports betting, and Slane says many more are likely to consider taking action this year.
“You have 10 states that already have prefiled bills,” she says. “This wasn’t something that happened overnight. First, we had to seed the ground and talk about the problem in a way that proved to be most effective with the broadest group of stakeholders.”
AGA worked with casino operators, state lotteries, tribal bodies, local law enforcement, and national sports leagues to build consensus around a federal repeal. “We realized that if we broadened our tent beyond just a singular interest of the casino and gaming industry, we could accomplish and achieve much more,” Slane says.
Now, with PASPA gone, the work of AGA and its stakeholder groups has only just begun, she says. The current strategy is based on a more localized “hub-to-spoke” relay of information whereby AGA will direct resources to states where legalization is now in play.
“We’re able to tap back into the coalition model as more states consider sports betting,” Slane says. “This year is going to be a transformative year, and we’ll continue to drive consensus by keeping in constant communication with both our members and regional stakeholders on the ground.”
“Instead of running up to Capitol Hill and trying to lobby Congress, we took a step back by launching an aggressive communications campaign to build consensus.”