By Brett Weisel, Advocacy Manager at Feeding America
Last week I attended the Public Affairs Council’s National Grassroots Conference. It was once again a fantastic conference—high energy, educational, well attended, etc. However, as I chatted with my fellow grassroots professionals throughout the week, I couldn’t help but think how lucky I am to work at Feeding America. Being from a nonprofit, I have the luxury of having a good deal of freedom and flexibility in how I communicate with my key audiences—both to our online advocates and our network of more than 200 food banks.
I say that because I was surprised to hear about the level of restrictions that are placed on many grassroots professionals regarding how and when they can communicate with their members or employees, what they can say (for instance—making sure the language is vetted by their legal department), and institutional barriers that prevent them from truly growing their grassroots. At the conference, we learned from the Congressional Management Foundation that grassroots does matter and Members of Congress do listen to their constituents, making effective grassroots mobilization vital to any cause. While I understand why many companies place institutional restrictions on these types of communications, it seems to me that placing limitations on how, when, and which audiences we can engage to mobilize support prevents us from doing our job effectively. From my perspective, pointing out that I can’t do my job effectively is a pretty good argument to try to break down those restrictions and release the shackles.
Far too often, engaging and mobilizing grassroots is only done as part of an overall crisis management strategy. In addition, I think we are still so preoccupied with controlling the message that we forget the true nature of grassroots—that every day Americans can, and should, have a voice in the political process. If you are worried that your advocate is going to go completely off message, they’re probably not really an advocate anyway.
Most nonprofits live and breathe by our grassroots supporters, and we must do so on a limited budget. We don’t have PACs, nor do we have teams of lobbyists to unleash on Capitol Hill. We rely on our grassroots to carry our message. So what’s my advice to you if you’re looking to jumpstart your grassroots program? Look to the nonprofit community.
I think nonprofits and corporations can learn a lot from one another when it comes to effectively engaging our grassroots. The truth is, many large nonprofits are actually run like corporations and are far more sophisticated than most people realize.
Fostering a dialogue between nonprofits and corporations specifically around advocacy would be mutually beneficial, so I urge us to think about how we can learn from one another. And if you you’re looking for new ideas, don’t forget about the nonprofits!