Davon Gray is senior director of political affairs at the American Institute of Architects in Washington, DC, and a member of ASAE’s Government Relations and Advocacy Professionals Advisory Council.
Government relations professionals spend their days advocating on behalf of their associations, but sometimes they can get caught up in the minutiae of politics. A stint on the campaign trail reminded one association exec of the importance of face-to-face conversations and being passionate about members.
Earlier this year, I ran for the Board of Supervisors in Prince William County, Virginia. Unfortunately, I lost by 14 votes. Although I was disappointed, it was an awesome experience that I will never forget. It also provided me with lessons that I have used in my job as an advocacy professional. Here are two that I think can also help you in your advocacy role.
We live in a world of emails; texts; and social media likes, shares, and comments. All of this is meant to influence. But if you want to influence voters or your advocates, there is no substitute for direct personal contact.
In campaigns, voters love to hear from a candidate personally. By the time my campaign ended, I had learned to love door knocking. I am sure the only reason that I lost is because I didn’t get to all the doors.
If a voter was not there when I or my team knocked, we left a small note with my brochure saying, “Sorry I missed you.” I felt encouraged and proud of my team’s efforts when I saw my brochure in the hands of voters standing in line on election day. Time after time, voters would say, “I’m here because you came by personally”.
As advocacy professionals, we often find ourselves sacrificing quality of relationships for quantity of people who show up for fly-ins, respond to action alerts, or participate in other activities. There’s nothing wrong with those activities, because they are the equivalent of the election day polls. But consider that every year new people, especially young professionals, come into the associations we represent. Our goal must be to never ask them to come find us, but for us to go find them.
In campaigning, that means knocking on doors and hearing about hopes and dreams, rather than just discussing policy. In advocacy, it means personal calls and one-on-one conversations at conventions or leadership meetings. It takes time, but it always yields positive results.
The second lesson I offer is to be passionate about people. The word advocate means one who speaks on behalf of another. To speak on someone’s behalf, you must be passionate about what they want.
Unfortunately, candidates can often do more talking than listening. When I knocked on a person’s door to ask for their vote, they would often share their hopes and dreams for their family and the community way before revealing their political affiliation, if it came up at all. My mantra became “people over partisanship.”
As association advocacy professionals, we constantly try to get our members to realize that what we do is not about the politics of Washington, DC, but about their profession and the communities that are affected back home. Before you tell your association members what’s going on in Washington, listen to what’s going on in their world, both personally and professionally. You will be surprised with the difference it will make when you advocate for them on the Hill, to government agencies, and internally within your own organizations. Knowing their stories gives you a story to tell.
Here are some questions to ask to help you get to know the members you are advocating for better:
In addition to finding out about the members you are advocating for, share with them what you are working on. Specifically, tie your work back to their needs and how it will help them personally and professionally.
Finally, I would encourage you to consider running for public office. It is the thrill of a lifetime and a great way to focus your skills as an advocacy professional.