How Do We Bring Advocacy Into the 21st Century?

Written by Dennis Sadler on February 11, 2019

In an age of hyper-transformation fueled by advances in technology, the association industry’s advocacy efforts must evolve past merely “mobilizing members” to amassing an expanded base of supporters to advance our legislative goals. This evolution requires both a shift in thinking and a recognition that technology provides a platform for value creation. Technology no longer sustains back-office operations, but delivers value directly to the surrounding community.

The board of my association, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, came to understand this when they determined the systems of bylaws and founding documents that were created a century ago no longer serve the organization.

An important part of their conversation about contemporary structures for the association is the language we use to describe who we serve. Previously, the board used the terms “members” and “membership” as stand-ins for all the people that we serve. We illustrated for them that one of the most important things we’re engaged in is advocacy for public education. We don’t advocate only on behalf of people that pay us dues. Everyone that serves in the education space is one of our stakeholders. And with the right technology-enhanced outreach, they can also become our champions.

Traditional associations rely on the easily identified and quantified mass of members to persuade lawmakers, and they often define success by the number of member contacts. Shifting our thinking from “members” to “stakeholders” can present a crisis in challenging conventional notions of who we serve. But progressive associations embrace the opportunity to gather support beyond their members with an eye to garnering “wins”—diverse constituent contacts to lawmakers that will move the needle on legislation our associations champion. If we can get 20,000 of those people to go to Capitol Hill or call their legislators, that’s just as valuable as mobilizing the majority of our members.

To respond to this attitude shift, we engaged in a software change. The providers we chose for our new advocacy platform spoke our language. They weren’t talking to us about how to get members to act on our behalf. Instead they spoke about creating a grassroots group of advocates of the legislation and policy our organization is pushing forward. They also aimed to amplify our voice through multiple channels to engage the larger public, including social channels, and promote direct engagement where most consumers spend a majority of their time – their smartphones.

That change was fantastic for us, and we saw the number of people participating in our action alerts increase threefold just from this change in technology and shift in thinking. We have only scraped the surface of what is possible, but indicators are favorable and we look forward to watching the experiment progress.

Dennis spoke in the “Busting the 7 Myths of Entrepreneurship in Associations” session during SURGE Optimism 2018, an interactive virtual conference hosted by on November 7th-9th. Click here to watch the sessions on demand.