Remote work is hard enough, but for lobbying and advocacy professionals whose bread and butter is connecting with people and building relationships, the distance makes it even harder.
And for an industry that revolves around funding and raising capital for the most important candidates and causes, the COVID-19 pandemic has put live events and networking in a precarious situation.
After almost a year of remote work for most in the public affairs industry, we’ve put together some ideas, strategies, and best practices from government relations and advocacy professionals on hosting virtual events, fundraising, and getting in front of the right people even from the comfort of your own home.
Find what your advocates value the most about your event
We have a little over 60 national spring and fall walk programs that we were able to switch over to a virtual program. I think our advocacy summit event lent itself a little more to the virtual format where we were presenting content and running panel sessions and group trainings, which is all well suited to a webinar setting. A walk, however, is more of a celebratory event where there's a physical togetherness component to it. So it's been a little bit of a challenge but the team has done a great job of figuring out what our constituents and our advocates value the most and how we can try and replicate that virtually.
I think it’s not only about recreating the events that were supposed to happen in person but also looking for opportunities to do new things.
Everyone's very understanding of what's going on and the reality that we're in, whether it's constituents or members of Congress or any stakeholders. Even if you don't have everything fully ironed out and you can't do exactly what you want to do, I think people are really appreciative of your efforts.
We saw this with our constituents; many people were expecting there not to be an advocacy summit from the Lupus Foundation, and when we came to them with the idea of going digital, people were really into it and did really creative things to help us promote it and participate themselves.
Boost participation by limiting attendance. Make it exclusive!
We are putting together a few “virtual healthcare happy hour” events to visit and discuss upcoming legislative policy in place of our usual state-wide legislative dinner tour. We are offering several time and date options and are limiting attendance to 20 or less so attendees have the opportunity to engage and ask questions.
In terms of PAC fundraising, we are using virtual platforms that allow us to present an in-demand speaker on topics that are of interest to our PAC members and relevant to the work we do. By taking our questions from our membership, we have greater attendance and engagement.
When hosting an event, have an active and engaging facilitator
Believe it or not, the virtual fundraising agenda has been much more engaging as long as the participant list is kept to a maximum of 12 to 15.
Before, when you used to have hosts or co-hosts, usually they would get 30 minutes before the dinner with someone and then general attendees would get the round table. We now make sure the senator or the congressman/woman has a bio of the people in the meeting and questions in advance, which they actually call out during the meeting. That seems to work very well and I've had several that have said they like these virtual fundraisers more. They don’t have to spend a whole night in it, don’t have to travel somewhere — the time investment is more manageable.
So, as long as you have a very active facilitator that's engaging the people, making sure they feel like they have time to talk, and sets the rules of the game, you can have a very productive fundraiser virtually.
I think you are going to see a new wave of fundraising happening, that's going to be a mixture of virtual and on-site. I don't think we can fully go back because there are some people that enjoy it.
Incorporate a tangible experience during your events
In the cigar world, a smoke or "herf" is a gathering of enthusiasts. We have done virtual herfs featuring specific cigars that are either available for pickup or shipped directly to the attendee. We are in a unique position as an association representing a luxury product that is a form of entertainment. Nothing beats a live event, but this has been a positive supplement where we have been able to add depth to the personal story of our participants and advocates in these forums.
We have done virtual events, interviews with high profile members, advocacy briefings, and just as many fundraisers virtually as we would do in a regular year. We have also done a select few in-person socially distant events with five to 10 people. Not everyone is going to attend a physical event and we made accommodations early on to offer a range of opportunities to connect with our association directly while taking necessary health and safety precautions.
Enable attendance from a wider, more diverse audience
Many events that would normally raise revenue for organizations have been adapted into virtual events. I have personally seen some of these, such as the Women in Government Relations (WGR) Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Summit, to have been quite successful in a virtual format, as they have become accessible to attendees who may not have otherwise been able to attend in-person.
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