Welcome to Unit 6 and I apologize for delaying this one. In Unit 6, we are going to discuss partnering with non-profits to be a better advocate. One big difference between paid lobbyists and citizen lobbyists–money! Paid lobbyists are being paid to do their lobbying and the citizen lobbyist has to fund themselves. One way we can begin to level the playing field is to hook up with non-profits that are dedicated to your cause. As a citizen we are outnumbered and outspent. Wait, let me clarify. I believe that there are more paid lobbyists than citizen lobbyists…it certainly feels that way as you walk around Washington. Citizens themselves certainly outnumber lobbyists, just not all citizens express their opinions to legislators. But we are outspent. The recent SCOTUS decisions have made it perfectly legal to “buy” a legislator’s opinion or vote, in terms of campaign financing, and there is just no way we can compete financially. Our citizen voice is the last currency that we have.
I discussed in an earlier lesson that if you want to spend time lobbying and spreading the word, starting your own non-profit may not be the best route. You then have to have a Board of Directors and by-laws and do accounting and fundraising…running a non-profit is hard work and time consuming. So ask yourself if you want to run a non-profit or do you want to do lobbying?
Non-profits who are dedicated to advocacy and lobbying understand the uneven playing field and have really upped their game in recent years. Many are regularly holding workshops, conferences, webinars and other training sessions to help their members become better advocates. Many are organizing group trips to state capitols and Washington, DC for lobbying and are even offering scholarships. I have been the recipient of several such scholarships and it has allowed me to take many more trips than if I had to pay for them all on my own.
Finding a non-profit that is a good fit
In previous units, you were asked to look for non-profits that were as passionate about your cause as you are, and to sign up for their email. For this unit, we are just going to build on that exercise. First, revisit your non-profits that you chose in previous lessons. See if they have a legislative or advocacy section on their website. Now, look around some more and see if they offer conferences or webinars or something like that. If this is something that really interests you, consider going. If you cannot find such services with this group, see if you can find one online that does offer it.
Many groups offer an event billed as “Conference and Lobby Day” to get more of their members involved.
In Unit 9 I am going to discuss what happens when you get discouraged, but being a part of a group is a good way to help with that. In a group you can encourage each other. Plus, if you truly find that advocacy and lobbying is not for you, the non-profit will have other areas for you to pursue–activities you can do and still be involved in the cause, just not lobbying. You may enjoy planning fundraisers or making phone calls or doing informational talks…there are many possibilities.
Last week a friend and I took my two boys to Rare Disease Legislative Action Week in Washington, DC. I applied for a scholarship but did not get one. That’s how it goes sometimes–they were only offering two scholarships per state and I was not chosen. Still, we chose to take advantage of lower hotel rates and other things offered. The networking opportunities are phenomenal and Washington, DC has great energy. It is amazing to be there, speaking up for your cause, and finding others from all over the country who are as dedicated to this as you are. With Facebook, you’ll find that these relationships can continue after you are home. It’s a great way to keep up with things that are going on with your cause around the country. I met a great mom at Rare Disease week and she told me about something in May that I didn’t know about, and I told her about a conference in July that I have my eye on. Fantastic networking, I mean it!
Fundraising and membership
Some of these groups will ask that you become a member. If you can afford it, try it for a year. They may give discounted rates to members or have other benefits. Plus, if the group does do lobbying and advocacy, and perhaps even has an office in DC or your state capital city, it’s nice to contribute to the cause if you can. In recent years the word “lobbyist” makes people flinch and grimace, because they think of dishonesty, payoffs, fancy dinners and more unethical stuff, right? But let’s not forget that there are many great lobbyists out there pounding the pavement for many great causes.
Deciding who to represent when you actually lobby
Despite being a member of several groups and having attended several conferences and lobby days as described above, unless that group is footing the bill, or I am there with the intent of lobbying for them, I go as “just me.” I will discuss this further in Units 7 and 8 when I talk about phone calls and visits. You will see, when you get to the in-person visits, many times there are groups walking around, all wearing the same shirt, all spreading the same message. And there certainly is value and strength in showing numbers. However, I have been told on several occasions that it is refreshing to just see “an ordinary citizen” come in and voice their opinion, and one who “has not been told what to say.” Personally that is a bit discriminatory, as certainly paid lobbyists are told what to say. But it’s something you need to examine and evaluate for yourself as you enter situations and how much you disclose. I can still share opinions and thoughts that are inline with a certain non-profit’s mission and goals, but I don’t always have to disclose it. Last week I went because of the RDLA group, but when we spoke, we spoke as just concerned voting moms.
To wrap up–
You cannot do this alone, unless you are independently wealthy. While lobbying and advocacy in it’s simplest form of phone calls and emails does not cost a ton of money…if you want networking, training and advanced skills with possible lobbying trips, partnering with a great non-profit is the way to go.