Advocacy is more complex than you may think. The perception of advocacy specialists has become fused with that of the lobbying industry: besuited individuals in smoke-filled rooms, cutting deals that can make or break their respective industries. However, the reality of advocacy is much more mundane, but its impact is felt in communities around the United States. Used as an umbrella term, advocacy includes many people, organizations, tools, tactics, and tech that are deployed to gain public support for a cause or policy. The term “advocacy” is often used in the context of “grassroots advocacy,” whereby non-professional lobbyists engage with lawmakers or regulators.
Critically, advocates exist in both the private and public sectors and are employed by many different types of interests groups, trade associations, non-profits, and companies. Think of advocacy as a hybrid of government relations and communications, central to a wide number of issues that range from underserved communities, environmental development groups, and tech companies tackling privacy issues.
IVY Magazine sat down with Joshua Habursky, the director of advocacy at the Independent Community Bankers of America and the founder/chairman of the Grassroots Professional Network, to explore what it actually entails to get started and be successful in the advocacy world. He is a frequent presenter and writer on advocacy communications topics and an adjunct professor at the Reed College of Media at West Virginia University, where he teaches strategic communications courses. You can find him on Twitter at @JoshuaHabursky.
What is the Grassroots Professional Network (GPN)? What specifically is your mission?
The Grassroots Professional Network is an organization that I founded three years ago to, quite honestly, learn how to do my job in grassroots and advocacy communications. We focus on case study learning and discuss techniques that can be used across issue areas and at any organization. GPN has quickly grown from a brown bag luncheon to an organization that currently has over 12,000 participants in 2017. We’ve built out several established series events with major media outlets and universities, webinars, and a regional conference series that has already had events in LA, Las Vegas, and Chicago. The organization is run exclusively on a volunteer basis, and we do not charge admission to attend most of our events. The goal is to connect, educate, and professionalize the advocacy and grassroots industry. Our motto is “take risks and prosper.”
Lobbying is seeking to influence a public official on an issue. Advocacy is trying to get someone to support a cause or policy.
What are some of the current projects that GPN is working on? Are there any key areas of focus for 2017?
We just wrapped up our first AdvocacyTech Conference in Chicago with Campaigns & Elections this week and our “Agora” outdoor marketplace with The Hill and George Washington University a few weeks ago. Those were two of our more premium events and we have another two marquee events planned before the end of the year with a regional conference focusing on trade in Dallas and our 2nd annual Microsoft Data in Advocacy Summit. Our focus areas currently are:
2. Diversity & Inclusion
3. Technology & Innovation
4. Civic Engagement
What does advocacy mean? And how does it work in both the private and public sector? Are there different types?
Advocacy is an umbrella term that includes many people, organizations, tools, tactics, and tech that are deployed to gain public support for a cause or policy. The term “advocacy” is often used in the context of “grassroots advocacy” whereby non-professional lobbyists engage with lawmakers or regulators. Advocates exist in both the private and public sectors and grassroots professionals are employed by many different types of interests groups, trade associations, non-profits, and companies. I think that advocacy is also a hybrid of government relations and communications.
What are the first steps for someone entirely new to the world of advocacy? What do you need to be successful?
There isn’t a set formula to starting a career in advocacy. Some professional organizations offer certificates, and colleges and universities are now starting to offer more courses in grassroots organizing or mobilization. As the industry grows, more institutions and offerings will be available and you will see standardization and an overall professionalized sector.
Not everyone agrees on the means to get there, the solutions, or what takes priority, but most forms of advocacy seek some type of improvement that would have tangible benefits for society.
There are certainly some character traits and experiences that are advantageous to have, such as working on Capitol Hill or being outgoing. You have to be a strong communicator to succeed both online and offline, long-form and short-form. You also have to approach your work with enthusiasm and cheer people on to take action on many issues. Sometimes these issues could be a complex regulatory action, and you have to provide enough context to explain it clearly. However, you also have to make it interesting enough for a person to take time out of their lives to write, call, petition, or meet with staff on these issues. It is also really helpful to connect with experienced grassroots professionals and constantly have a finger on the pulse of what is going on in the industry.
Can you point to a personal story of yours that illustrates an important aspect of advocacy work?
In my career, I have worked in a grassroots role in transportation, healthcare, and financial services for national organizations, which shows that communication is really key and you don’t have to be a policy expert in a particular area. Each time I meet with an advocate or member to discuss how they can better communicate with elected officials, the experience is incredibly rewarding. It is gratifying to see people engage on issues that they care about and helping them gain the confidence to be involved in a process that can be intimidating, confusing, and complex.
It’s difficult to choose one personal story because at each organization there are unique projects and campaigns that are specific to the organization. When I was working at the American Motorcyclist Association it was fun fighting noise ordinances and rallying riders to attend town hall meetings wearing their gear. When I was at the American Diabetes Association, it was great working on a lobby day with advocates from across the country coming to DC to meet with Members of Congress to tell their story and why research funding is so important. At the Independent Community Bankers of America, I enjoy every day because the membership is engaged, informed, and very participatory in our grassroots activities. I also get to work on a lot of creative campaigns and leverage unique imagery to explain an issue and spur action.
Having a compelling personal story and being able to convey that story is important for anyone that wants to advocate on any issue.
What’s the difference between advocacy and lobbying? The latter has a mixed image in the public sphere — what’s needed to change that?
Lobbying is seeking to influence a public official on an issue. Advocacy is trying to get someone to support a cause or policy. The word “Advocacy” has a Latin origin and was originally defined as: “To summon or call to one’s aid.” Lobbying and advocacy are sometimes used interchangeably, but the perception is that “Lobbying” is more related to hired professionals as opposed to average citizens engaging/advocating with elected officials.
I think “Lobbying” has had a negative image as a result of a few people exploiting influence and the subsequent news stories, and even movies and TV shows, that portray the industry as being unethical and taking place in the shadows outside of the public eye. I would counter that careers in both advocacy and lobbying are honorable professions protected by the 1st Amendment. People influence and advocate for issues and causes that they believe in, or represent industries that have a significant impact on society. Lobbying isn’t all about fundraisers and steak dinners — a lot of lobbying is learning an issue and being able to convey that issue effectively. I think the public image of lobbying can be improved by greater transparency, stronger commitment to ethics, and educating people about what is actually means to lobby without the misconceptions and stereotypes.
How can advocacy be socially responsible?
At the core of advocacy, it is all about social responsibility. People seek to change something to improve society or something within a smaller sphere, like an individual industry. Not everyone agrees on the means to get there, the solutions, or what takes priority, but most forms of advocacy seek some type of improvement that would have tangible benefits for society. Some government relations departments even employ community relations staff that lobby elected officials, but also work to impact communities positively through grants, events, and the like. I think that this makes a lot of sense for organizations to do. Efforts in this space would also improve the overall public image of lobbying.
Data, analytics, case studies of peer organizations, and the history of effective advocacy is important to know, but sometimes you just need to trust your gut and go with something new.
Can advocacy be crowd-sourced? How can you advocate for a cause without being a specialist?
Yes, advocacy can definitely be crowd-sourced, and the scale and reach off this type of advocacy is a force multiplier for professional lobbying. Grassroots advocacy and professional lobbying are two essential ingredients for a sound government relations strategy. You do not need to be a specialist to be an effective advocate for a cause. Having a compelling personal story and being able to convey that story is important for anyone that wants to advocate on any issue. People have power, and when people collectively voice their opinions, change can happen. Advocacy can start out as something as simple as tweeting at an elected official, or be as intensive as testifying before a committee in Congress. It can be an online petition or in-district meeting. There are many ways to advocate and the communications channels to take action have proliferated. The barrier to entry is very low and crowd-sourced advocacy has proven to be effective.
For someone looking to get started, what resources can you recommend they check out?
If you are looking to pursue a career in grassroots or advocacy, I highly recommend reaching out to seasoned advocacy veterans to meet for coffee and discuss their techniques. Make sure you meet with a variety of organizations, large and small, to give yourself a better sense of how resources are deployed. GPN also offers a lot of free resources to help get people started, like our free monthly webinar series with CQ Roll Call or any of our conferences or luncheons.
In terms of written content, Bloomberg Government, The Hill, CQ Connectivity blog, and the Congressional Management Foundation have put out a lot of articles and studies on the different aspects of grassroots, advocacy, and lobbying. Advocacy software companies like Phone2Action and FiscalNote also host webinars and high-quality live events. You will have to work a lot with the advocacy software company and maybe an outside public affairs firm on advocacy projects and a lot of their staff that you interact with will have recommendations and share tips and tricks.
Advocacy is a growing and evolving industry, so I would also recommend taking some risks and testing out techniques on your own. Data, analytics, case studies of peer organizations, and the history of effective advocacy is important to know, but sometimes you just need to trust your gut and go with something new. If you only want to be a general advocate for an issue, do some research on an interest group or association that represents a particular cause or industry.
Outside of my professional work in advocacy, I am a fan of electronic music, so I will sign petitions and write editorials about the economic impact of festivals and address health and public safety concerns. In that sense, I am an electronic music advocate that passively engages in grassroots, usually to voice concerns on local legislative and regulatory actions.
Is GPN changing the advocacy game? What are the advantages of being part of this organization, and how can the IVY community help get our voices out there?
I would like to think that GPN is changing the advocacy game. The organization is bold, nimble, and adaptive. We have a very unique organizational structure and are led by a team of people that live advocacy every day in their own organizations. We filled a significant void to service small non-profits who don’t have budgets for extensive travel or dues, and we are not profit-oriented. We are on year three and people initially told me that I would get tired after a year and that the group would fall apart. It has already exceeded their expectations and my own expectations. We have enough experience now to make changes, learn from our mistakes, and not take offense when someone isn’t completely satisfied with an event or program. GPN is quickly becoming a known entity in DC and around the country, and I hope to take the organization to new heights next year.
The IVY community and GPN have a lot of synergy, and I hope to work on some co-hosted events in the future. I would recommend signing up for our email list at www.grassrootspros.org and following us on social media to hear about upcoming events.
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