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What Effective Political Advocacy and Eating Your Vegetables Have in Common

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Thursday, September 20 2012

Shayna Englin speaking at Personal Democracy Forum 2012 in June. Englin argues there is an "advocacy gap." Photo: Esty Stein/PDM

A newly released research report has found empirical and anecdotal evidence of a deep gulf between what congressional staffers need from the advocacy community in order to shape policy and what the advocacy community actually does.

The report, "The Advocacy Gap: Research for Better Advocacy," from Englin Consulting, Fission Strategy and Lincoln Park Strategies, surveyed staffers on Capitol Hill and what they said are effective forms of contact and input, and then surveyed 4,000 members of advocacy organizations who had signed up to take action on behalf of those causes or organizations. The researchers asked those people, who they call activists, what they think effective action is, and what they do in practice. It turns out that taking effective political action is a bit like diet and exercise: The activists understand what the most effective actions to take are, but tend to take the easiest, least effective forms of action, like sending messages through their advocacy organization rather than showing up in person at their member of Congress' office or at a town hall meeting.

"The activists know what everybody else knows too, but there's something in the way they're being mobilized that there's this disconnect," said Shayna Englin, of Englin Consulting and Fission Strategy, in an interview. Both are consulting firms to non-profit and advocacy organizations, with Fission focusing on online and media strategy.

What are the most effective forms of advocacy? For anyone who's written or worked on Capitol Hill, it seems obvious: Members of Congress listen primarily to their constituents, and everything else is noise.

Showing up in person to talk to your member of Congress during their office hours, or during town halls, is more effective than shooting off an e-mail to a congressman not representing you, and not on a committee that has jurisdiction over the issue that you're writing them them about. Also, members of Congress and their staffers are human, and so relate to people that they know and have a relationship with better than to thousands of notes from individuals whom they don't know, and don't have a relationship with personally, or as their Congressman. That is -- not all lobbyists are dirty, rotten scumbags bent on shaping federal legislation for their deep-pocketed donors. It might actually be helpful to have a representative to lobby for your interests, and to speak for you on your behalf to Congressional staffers.

Oh yes, and when you contact your member of Congress, make sure that you have a specific request for action that you'd like them to take, like action on a specific piece of legislation. As professional advocates, don't just use them as virtual targets in exercises to build large e-mail contact lists.

While all that might sound obvious, the survey found that in practice as reported from conversations with both those on the Hill and with activists, the effective actions aren't undertaken as much as the easier things. And that insight, and Englin's recommendations, are what are causing controversy in the advocacy community.

For example, 95 percent of activists surveyed said that they send a message to an elected official through an organization that they support whenever they are asked. But only 67 percent of those same group of people said that they think that is "very effective." Almost 80 percent of the activists surveyed said that they think attending an in-person meeting with their elected official is "very effective," but only 26 percent of those surveyed said that they do that whenever they are asked, or regularly.

The activists surveyed included people from the lists of the Ocean Conservancy, Greenpeace USA, The Humane Society of the United States, people who had used the congressional contact application, POPVOX, the National Council for Community and Education Partnerships (NCCEP,) Credit Union National Association, National Association of Realtors, and the Friends Committee on National Legislation.

The findings of the report provide more detail and more numbers than those presented first this June at Personal Democracy Forum this year, Englin said.

She said that she had just given two talks on the report in Washington D.C. within the past 24 hours, and the response has been varied: In some cases, advocates walked up to her and started shouting at her, she said.

Why the controversy? Because the common wisdom is that organizations need big e-mail lists to be both powerful, and to enable large groups of people to be able to take relatively easy forms of action to start them on the engagement "ladder." Also: It's cheaper to ask people to sign online petitions than to ask funders for more money to employ organizers to mobilize people to attend townhalls and rallies.

Despite this, Englin said that the findings point to changes that advocacy groups should begin to implement.

"For most places, you go to a Web site for something that you care about, your zip code, for example, in the 'Take Action,' section, and you're probably given a petition to sign, and maybe send a note to your Congressman -- what if instead of that, you put in your zip code, and the site explains where the district office is, what the office hours are, how to get there, and here are the bills that are currently in some sort of process that we should care about?" she said. "There are some things that we could do to drive people to take more high-impact activities."

Also, she said, advocacy groups should start making distinctions between list-building for the sake of it, and real-advocacy.

"Internally, people often say: 'We need to do list-building, we need to give people on our list something to do, let's ask them to sign a petition to Congress,'" she said. "But every time we say: 'sign this petition to Congress,' it first of all trains out activists to do the easy, ineffective things, and it just increases the noise level to Congress, so that when we have a real ask, it's not differentiated from the thing that [our list building.]

"What we should be doing is building a big list, and then mobilizing for advocacy."

The report is full of other interesting findings, such as how Capitol Hill staffers view social media communications (they don't know what to make of social network communications because they can't tell which of the communicators on those networks are their constituents.)

In affect, these organizations have held up a mirror to themselves in public, collectively, to examine if they're being effective -- an act of bravery that Englin acknowledges and praises them for.

The next step, she says, is for advocacy groups to think of some new metrics by which to measure their effectiveness, such as measuring and giving more weight to high-impact activities, such as "number of people who showed up at the last townhall."

While much of the report is common sense to inside-the-Beltway types, social media shouldn't entirely be discounted, said Alan Rosenblatt, the Center for American Progress and the CAP Action Fund's associate director for online advocacy.

While many on social networks might not be members of Congress' constituents, they can and do have effects on swaying public opinion about members, and on mobilizing people to fundraise through vehicles such as Act Blue.