Whether you work at a nonprofit, association, or corporation, policy has a significant impact on your organization. The only way to manage that risk/opportunity is by proactively working with legislators and your advocates.
Your ultimate goal as advocacy, public affairs, and government relations professionals is to enable your organization to conduct business and protect its interests. To do that effectively, you have to develop a robust legislative strategy.
Here are a few recommendations on how to get started developing a successful legislative strategy.
Decide on Legislative Priorities
To build a legislative strategy, you first need to decide what your legislative priorities will be. This sounds obvious enough but the process is not so cut and dried. Will Krebs, vice president of policy and government relations at Project Lead The Way, a non-profit organization in the PreK-12 education space, recommends starting with identifying what the desired outcomes are for your legislative work.
“What is it that you want to accomplish in the space? And how does that sync up with your organization's mission?” he says. “It can't be advocacy for the sake of advocacy. It ought to be attached to what you're ultimately trying to accomplish.”
To do this, you have to marry your business needs with your clients’ or members’, as well as your key legislators’ priorities. “We don't make legislative strategy in a bubble,” says Chris Spence, managing director of federal government relations at TIAA, a Fortune 100 financial services organization.
Spence suggests starting internally. He and his team rely on their internal business leaders to understand what’s important and what the government relations team should be focused on. “As government relations professionals, our job is to build relationships in Washington, D.C. with regulators, with lawmakers, with Hill staff,” Spence says. “That's also our job internally, to build relationships with the business so that they know they can call us, they know we're around, they know what we're doing.”
For example, if one of your organization’s key goals is to increase sales, you should collaborate with your sales team “to understand their barriers and their opportunities so that those are reflected on your policy framework,” Krebs says.
You should then reach out to your external stakeholders to ensure your policy agenda is not only based on how your organization perceives the issues. “We also really try to take the approach of making sure that it's inclusive, that our conversations and our research represent a wide swath of voices, experiences, etc.,” Krebs adds.
Determine How to Measure Outcomes
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Building a legislative strategy also includes thinking about how you will measure success since reporting is a big part of the job for government relations professionals, according to our 2021 State of Public Affairs Industry Survey. Measuring your outcomes can be hard as you are sometimes at the mercy of unpredictable political forces.
As you draw out your legislative priorities and goals, make sure you associate those with advocacy success metrics you can track. When possible, use hard numbers, though we know that’s not always feasible, so try identifying milestones such as meetings with key stakeholders, or the introduction of specific legislation as your success indicators. Metrics can be subtle but try to be as clear as possible when you lay them out.
“The metrics are probably more qualitative than they are quantitative,” says Greg Polk, global vice president of government relations and citizenship at Stanley Black & Decker. “If we see a change in the way that an issue is being discussed or talked about, if we see that decision-makers or policymakers are starting to carry our message, or that our trade associations have now adopted our position, those I think are indicators that we have changed the thinking or influenced an issue.”
Identify Influential Lawmakers
“I think the best case is to be able to influence policymakers in such a way that they build legislation to incorporate your objective,” says Krebs, instead of waiting for legislation to come around and then try to add your demands to it. To do that, you need to identify those key lawmakers who could be champions for your issues. Spence recommends starting with committees of jurisdiction related to your issues and Krebs adds building relationships based on open communication and authenticity.
“I think good lawmakers are very mindful and receptive to conversations with people who have a genuine, well-thought solution to their issues,” he says. “Really seeking to understand, listen, and identify those points of alignment, and then building on them is pretty crucial.”
While working with those legislators you know could be aligned with your organization is the most common way to move the needle on your issues, you shouldn’t be too quick in dismissing those who oppose them.
“We know who aren't our advocates and I firmly believe in going and talking with them as well,” says Anne Valentine, vice president of government relations at United Way of Central Indiana. “We want to find out if there's any area where there is common ground, even though they aren't going to likely support the bill.”
This strategy can work in two ways: you can change a legislator’s mind on your issue, or at least be able to show them the value of your issues and why you care so deeply so that they don’t stop your progress so vocally.
“You may not get them as a supporter but can neutralize them,” Valentine says. “They might not be as vocal because you've helped at least opened their eyes to why you're advocating for it and they might just say ‘you know what? I’m not gonna fight them hard on it.”
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Track Relevant Legislation
“Legislation is a means to an end so you can move forward with specific policy objectives,” says Krebs. “You decide on which pieces of legislation are a priority based on their alignment to your objectives.”
To do this, many government affairs professionals rely on legislative tracking and policy monitoring technology to stay on top of any legislation relevant to your issues at the local, state, and federal level, and never miss any updates relevant to your legislative strategy.
“Not only does FiscalNote allow us to track the legislation, but it's also where we go to record our actions, which allow us to maintain compliance with state laws, nonprofit laws, etc.,“ says Krebs, a FiscalNote user.
For Joseph Arite, director of legislative relations at GTL, a legal mutual reserve company based in Illinois, policy monitoring is a big part of his team’s overall legislative strategy. From tracking particular bills to specific words that find their way into proposed legislation.
“We follow and track legislation that may impact how we sell [our products],” he says. “We also track and monitor and make sure what types of languages are in any type of insurance legislation that comes down.”
Arite, also a FiscalNote user, relies on the tool from a stakeholder management perspective as well. GTL offers several products and services and therefore they have multiple legislative priorities to work on. This means keeping track of a lot of meetings with a lot of legislators. Having a central place to marry their legislative tracking with their stakeholder management, allows them to build and execute on their entire legislative strategy.
“FiscalNote gave us the ability to track the conversations that I've had with different legislators across the country, when we had it, what we discussed, if there was follow up, what else we needed to do. So we use that feature from FiscalNote to help us with the advocacy,” says Arite.
Include a Grassroots Strategy & Mobilize Your Advocates
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Grassroots advocacy has traditionally been the focus of nonprofits and associations. However, mobilizing a group of people to express their views and concerns on an issue is also a powerful tool in the corporate advocacy playbook, especially since they have a ready-made grassroots advocacy list to take action in their employees. No matter your organization type, you should consider incorporating grassroots into your legislative strategy.
It’s important to communicate with lawmakers how the issue affects people at the constituency level and what better way to do it than hearing it directly from them? Identify what issues in your legislative strategy could benefit from a larger push and inspire your supporters to make their voices heard with legislators, then plan to activate a grassroots campaign around those issues.
“Grassroots is always a tool in the toolbox but we wouldn't necessarily utilize it for every issue,” says Laura Prugh, government and community relations manager at Stanley Black & Decker. “It depends on the issue and you have to gauge whether it would be something that would further your effort or not.”
Email is one of the most effective ways to activate your grassroots supporters but don’t burn people out, Valentine recommends. Plan to keep your advocates informed throughout the year using newsletters and social media, and share your successes. However, reserve most of the communication power to the times when you actually need them to take action.
Participate in Lobby Days
Gathering your organization and advocates either locally, in Washington, D.C., or virtually to meet with lawmakers and get their support for your issues is a powerful tool in your advocacy arsenal. If you have an actively engaged grassroots network, having some of them meet with legislators and tell their stories in their own words is very valuable.
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“I absolutely think that it's a critical piece because we put the constituent in touch with their member and that's impactful. And it's a memorable interaction, it creates a really long tail over the course of the year because, for a long time to come, we are linking back to those interactions,” says Polk.
But, even if grassroots is not part of your legislative strategy, you can still have a valuable and impactful lobby day by either partnering with another organization or leveraging your internal champions.
“A lot of times we'll do [fly-ins] in partnership with a trade association that we belong to,” says Spence. “But when we want to do it internally, the way we'll go about it is really just identify if there's an important issue for us and identify a business partner or an executive who's well versed on the issue.”
Building relationships goes beyond lawmakers, advocates, and your internal business partners. You also have to build trust with related organizations and associations that are working on pushing the same issues you are — including, in some cases, your competitors.
“The folks you are out there fighting against to get business, we're kind of working right alongside them in D.C. because, at the core of it, we have the same interests, the same things we want to see get done,” Spence says.
There’s strength in numbers and this is particularly true in government relations. Building coalitions elevates and amplifies your voice as an advocate and can show the true value of your issues across different parts of the same spectrum. Make sure you identify opportunities in your legislative strategy to partner with other organizations to champion legislation and move the needle on your issues.
Create an After Action Report
Reporting on your legislative strategy can be tricky. Dealing with unpredictable political forces can be challenging since there are so many things out of your control. Also, in most cases, advocacy work is a long-term play and can be hard to measure.
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This is why it is important to report on your legislative strategy on an ongoing basis so that you are not only able to pivot in the right direction and make sure your goals are still aligned with the business, but also prove the value of your government relations work and keep everyone informed of the process so there are no surprises in the end. Here, the relationships you build internally can have a big impact in granting you a seat at the table and enabling the perception of government relations as a vital function in the organization.
Valentine recommends checking in with your internal and external (when it makes sense) stakeholders at the beginning, midpoint, and post-legislative sessions. “It's just a 30-minute call and we'll talk about what we've worked on and where we are,” she says. “It's an opportunity for us to build that trust with them, as well as ensure that our priorities reflect what they would want us to be working on.”
Execute Effective Legislative Strategies with FiscalNote
Issues management is at the core of FiscalNote’s solutions. Our full suite of tools allows you to build your legislative strategy from top to bottom. From defining and organizing your issues and identifying the key lawmakers you need to influence, to mobilizing your advocates and reporting on your success, FiscalNote is with you for every step of your legislative strategy.
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