Wednesday Jun 20

Organizing + Lobbying = A Power Tool: Part One


The dictionary defines lobbying as seeking “to influence the thinking of legislators or other public officials for or against a specific cause”—by which we mean to influence their decisions (since fathoming what they’re thinking can be very swampy). But influencing decisions also sounds a lot like organizing. So, are organizers lobbyists too?

In this part of our two-part article, we look at some potentially problematic aspects of organizing and lobbying, including: choosing coalition partners, setting campaign priorities, targeting decision-makers, generating a campaign plan, preparing lobbying arguments, and meeting with decision-makers.

Choosing Coalition Partners

Coalitions are vital to grassroots organizing and to lobbying decision-makers in larger arenas, such as metropolitan, state, and federal jurisdictions, and major corporations. It may be tempting when formulating policy to think of ourselves as the “brains” of the policy initiative, since we did the research and analysis to produce the policy proposal—as if the will somehow come along to organize the coalition or that it will organize itself. We may believe the issue will be so compelling, other organizations will want to jump on board. But that kind of thinking can be risky. We can easily end up leading a parade with no followers. It’s possible to alienate potential allies by excluding them from the policymaking. If they don’t own it—if it doesn’t represent their interests in the way they want them represented—they won’t invest in it.

Moreover, when choosing coalition lobbying  partners we can’t afford to assume other organizations are unfriendly because we have seen them that way in the past. Whoever supports our position now is potentially a coalition partner, enabling us to escalate our power, even if we have disagreements on values, principles, policies, or practices. Winston Churchill promoted this idea during World War II. Referring to the Soviet Union, he maintained that any enemy of Nazi Germany was a friend of Britain, no matter their past political differences (which were substantial between the U.K. and the U.S.S.R.). Such coalitions make it possible to achieve broader objectives, which in turn reach underlying conditions that generate multiple, seemingly irresolvable issues. Nonetheless, we want to understand the histories, ideologies, and interests of coalition partners. Beyond discerning the potential for common goals, it gives us an idea of their limits on any specific issue—how far we can rely on them—and how other organizations may react to our alliances with them. When building a coalition, we want to keep in mind that every choice of a coalition partner will result in both winning and losing support elsewhere.

Setting Campaign Priorities

Every proposal we regard as positive is negative by others’ ideologies and interests. Taking a position on a policy proposal, like choosing partners in a coalition, leads potentially both to gaining and losing allies. Moreover, politics is about compromise, so even with allies we not only get less than what we want when we win, we also get some of what they want. And much of the bargaining over differences goes on within our own organization and coalition, which is surprising to some inexperienced leaders and organizers.

There is often tension between alienating the constituencies of individual member-organizations and alienating coalition partners. Successful coalitions balance their various member-organizations’ interests and ideologies to achieve unified leadership and objectives. If we take a position on an issue or action-plan that gives away too much of our organization’s principles or policy preferences to the coalition, we undermine our credibility with our own constituency. If we take a position that gives away too little, we distance ourselves and become a marginal player in the coalition.

The position taken by the member-organization has other implications. On the one hand, hanging on to principle or policy, when the result of caving would create outrage among our own supporters, can stiffen resistance and win new support, energizing the campaign. On the other hand, giving up something to the preferences of coalition partners can strengthen the coalition. By setting aside our organization’s priorities, we encourage our coalition partners’ support in the future on issues of special interest to our organization.

Targeting Decision-Makers

In grassroots issue-campaigns, we aim all our actions to influence a decision-maker. The inclination of many organizers and leaders is to target high-level decision-makers who, they may argue, can have the greatest impact on policy decisions. But it’s often preferable initially to target officials at the lowest-level of decision-making with the authority to implement our proposals. The rationale for this approach may or may not be obvious. The higher we go, the more power we need, because higher officials typically represent larger constituencies. When we start high, the higher officials may ask us if we have tried to work out a solution with lower-level officials, sending us back to do so if we have skipped that step. And, if we’re less experienced, it makes sense to learn by targeting lower-level, less sophisticated decision-makers.

We have yet more choices when targeting decision-makers. Direct targets are the actual decision-makers. Intermediate targets, such as an elected official’s staff director, transmit our proposals to the direct targets. Indirect targets are individuals and organizations that can influence or control direct targets—for example, business contributors to an elected representative’s campaign. The contributors, typically unused to and uncomfortable with public pressure, push the representative to focus on the issue and our proposal.

Generating a Strategic Campaign Plan

A strategic campaign plan builds on a projected timeline—a beginning, middle, and end—which ties together actions and events, like research and accountability actions and escalating media tactics. The campaign plan guides our monthly, weekly, day-to-day, and hourly decision-making and activity. But the adage about planning still applies: planning is everything, but plans are nothing. So, we test the plan regularly for its relevance, updating it as necessary to accommodate the unexpected.

The strategic plan serves to achieve specific objectives, both wins and “builds” in the lingo of organizers. Wins describe the external objectives we’re pursuing, like new policies, practices, or resources from public or private organizations or institutions—which can result, for example, in funding for new low-income housing, establishing a civilian police review board, or creating a jobs-training program. “Builds” describe our internal objectives, like increasing the number of our leaders, improving our recruitment of new members, or diversifying our sources of funding.

A strategic plan is based on an assessment of a campaign coalition’s internal environment and on the external action field. We want to calculate potential support, indifference, and opposition among the members and leaders of the coalition’s member-organizations. So the plan communicates the campaign organization’s ideologies and resources, for example a review of campaign history and values and an inventory of strategic assets, including estimates of potential turnout in public actions; supportive relationships with allied organizations on the main issue(s) of the campaign, and likely responses of third-party organizations (e.g., media, research institutes, public commissions, etc.) The plan also includes an estimate of access to non-public intelligence on expected opposition. We make a similar assessment of relevant organizations and institutions in the external action field, recognizing that no one ever won a conflict by underestimating the opposition.

Ideally, the plan assesses public awareness of the troublesome condition we want to remedy, the demographic makeup of those who define it as a problem, and potential responses to incipient campaign issues among the population we want to organize. It’s preferable that, rather than trying to agitate interest from scratch, the organizing can at least stimulate and shape unarticulated consciousness, when citizens are aware of a troubling condition but have yet to talk about it with one another.

A strategic plan must identify potential “handles”— predictable times when resources flow or realities shift for a decision-maker. So, for example, we might plan an action or other tactic linked to the timing of an upcoming election. The election can draw into the public’s consciousness both the issue and an elected official’s position on it immediately before he or she faces the voters, creating pressure to support our issue or position. We may calculate the timing of a campaign to take advantage of the approval of an annual budget, deadlines for signing contracts, when legislation becomes law, etc.

We develop the campaign’s strategic plan during  lengthy discussions by the leaders of the campaign organizing committee and the coalition’s organizing staff, which we guide with a series of analytical questions along the following lines:

1. What will arouse the campaign’s constituency?

• What is the basic condition we want to remedy?

• How and by whom is the condition identified as a problem?

• How can we cut our action on the problem as an issue?

2. Who are our potential allies?

• What are their potential stakes?

• What resources can they bring to the campaign?

• How will this campaign affect our traditional allies?

3. Who are our potential adversaries?

• What are their potential stakes?

• What resources can they bring to oppose us?

• How will this campaign affect our traditional adversaries?

4. What are the most likely strategies and tactics of our adversaries?

• How do we expect them to define the issue?

• What action tactics and strategies do we expect them to use?

• How do we expect them to approach and conduct negotiations?

5. How can we go outside the experience of our adversaries?

• How do they expect us to define the issue?

• What action tactics and strategies do they expect us to use?

• How do they expect us to approach and conduct negotiations?

6. Who are the third-party players, such as  independent public-interest research organizations, print and electronic media, and nonpartisan voters’ leagues?

• How will they cut the issue?

• Do they have a biased track record on this issue?

• Do we have any friends among them?

7. What’s the proposed campaign’s potential gain and loss in organizational mileage?

• How will this affect our membership?

• Will it build the leadership?

• Does it give us a fundraising handle to leverage resources?

8. What’s our assessment of the strategic resources required to win?

• People, allies, handles, intelligence and information.

9. What’s our assessment of our current and potential strategic resources for this issue?

• People, allies, handles, intelligence and information.

10. Is the timing propitious?

11. What unconsidered  options do we have to achieve our objectives?

Once in use, we measure a strategic campaign plan against milestones, such as completion of research actions; turnouts for first meetings with decision-makers; accountability actions; voting commitments on our issue by individual decision-makers, and official introduction and adoption of policy or legislation proposed by our coalition. We know the difference between the promise of a decision-maker made under pressure to support our issue or position; the enabling steps the decision-maker takes to fulfill that promise, and the decision-maker’s actual implementation of the promised policy or practice.

Elected office-holders learn quickly that political promises often make front-page news, especially when they make them in response to large-scale grassroots actions, while failures to fulfill political promises disappear in a wilderness of mainstream-media indifference. So, as a practical matter, we expect to organize follow-up meetings and actions to collect on the promises made by decision-makers.

Preparing Lobbying Arguments

The essence of lobbying is to convince decision-makers to modify their definition of the situation. We evaluate our argument on whether it persuades a specific audience, not on whether we think it represents the truth (which, by itself, is not politically influential).

We assess the position of the decision-maker relative to our issue. Is the decision-maker an active ally, whose interest we want to maintain with attention and information? Is the decision-maker an implacable opponent, who we’re not interested in reaching, because pursuit tends to harden his or her position? Is he or she an unengaged decision-maker, who we want to get involved with a limited commitment that we can build into a larger commitment? Or is he or she an ambivalent decision-maker, who may initially be an opponent or apathetic, and who we avoid debating while keeping up a stream of information that supports our point of view?

To generate lobbying arguments, we ask ourselves several questions:

• What is the decision-maker’s present policy focus and what do we want it to be?

• What are the decision-maker’s definitions of reality and how might we alter them?

• What are the decision-maker’s related value preferences and what more resonant values can we propose?

Meeting with Decision-Makers

Experienced organizers know that three steps are essential in preparing for meetings with decision-makers. The first is one-to-one organizer prep-sessions with key campaign leaders, which are gauged to deepen their understanding of the issue, meeting agenda, process, and discipline. The second is a planning meeting in which the campaign organizing committee clarifies and sets the details of the agenda and process. These details include: introductions and credentialing, and who’s going to handle them; questions to the decision-maker, and who’s going to ask them; and much more. The third step is a role-play rehearsal exploring the decision-maker’s possible reactions and how to handle them.

We look at our plans for the meeting with the decision-maker through the decision-maker’s eyes. We want to stay focused on the decision-maker’s interests, which we do by reviewing all the points of our policy presentation from the decision-maker’s perspective. We want to make it clear to the decision-maker that his or her constituents will welcome the policy-position we’re promoting.

We keep in mind that throughout the meeting, our organization and leaders will be sized-up by the decision-maker. So, we pay close attention to what we’re communicating, implicitly or explicitly, about our political savvy and power. This means carefully considering how we articulate our credential. The conversational tone we take with the decision-maker throughout the meeting should be friendly but businesslike. It should never have a hint of apology or fawning. Even our apparel should not be too casual—no shorts, sandals, t-shirts, etc.

Meetings with decision-makers should include members from our organization or coalition prepared to give brief personal testimony about the human pain—the individual injury or injustice—caused by the problem. It’s one thing for a decision-maker, say a city council member, to dismiss or downplay theoretically the need for additional funding for shelters to house battered women and their children who are fleeing from violent partners. It’s quite another thing if several such women are present with their children and recount their experience (without personally attacking the council member).

It pays to take a few minutes at the start of the meeting to introduce all our people to the decision-maker, one by one. Each should mention one personal fact that establishes him or her as a constituent of the decision-maker, such as where they live, their interest in the issue, or the faith community of which they are members, which strengthens our credential.

Immediately following introductions, we present our credential, ideally with clarity and without bragging or false modesty about our support. It should easily translate into numbers of voters in the mind of the decision-maker. The credential should include: the number of people represented by our coalition, the numbers and types of organizations participating in the coalition, an accounting of recent successful campaigns and actions that received media coverage, and a listing of allied legitimizers and gate-keepers (e.g., the Catholic bishop, a union president, a well-known corporate CEO, etc.).

A common mistake of novice organizers when planning initial meetings with decision-makers is assuming the goal is to prove early on, by forceful arguments, that the decision-maker should support their organization’s proposal. A more productive approach is to spend little time talking and trying to persuade on the front-end of the first meeting. It’s preferable to ask challenging questions, the answers to which foster insight, allowing decision-makers to come to our conclusions and to our solution-strategy through their own reasoning.

This approach has us asking the decision-maker the same questions we asked ourselves to reach our policy position. For example, if the policy at issue is whether the legislature should act to decentralize long-term juvenile detention facilities, the approach might be to ask the decision-maker, a state legislator: “What do you think of the comparable costs of incarcerating juveniles in large, centralized, prison-like facilities versus small, decentralized, home-like facilities? Are you familiar with the comparable recidivism rates between centralized and decentralized facilities?” The predictable reaction of legislators is: “What are those comparisons?”—which, of course, we’re prepared to describe.

A related principle is that it’s always to our advantage tactically to have the decision-maker pursuing us—whether for information, support, relief from punishing publicity, or whatever—than for us to be pursuing the decision-maker. Those we pursue tend to run away faster, unless we have a deal to propose that’s in the compelling self-interest of the pursued. In the best of all possible scenarios, decision-makers conclude it’s in their interest to cultivate our support.

Equally or possibly more important at the outset is the value of this approach in building a relationship of mutual interest with decision-makers, whose investment in regularly meeting and working with us deepens with every penetrating question we ask that allows them to achieve greater insight into their institutional and professional challenges.

Throughout the meeting, we maintain our discipline to treat the decision-maker with respect and graciousness, despite any disappointment or annoyance we may feel. We never want to give the decision-maker reason to treat our people with anything but equal respect and graciousness, because doing so lets the decision-maker off the hook in responding to our questions. This guideline is easier to say than do, but made possible by pre-meeting role-plays.

In meetings with decision-makers we always ask directly for a commitment: “Will you vote for our bill in committee and if it comes before the full council?” If it’s too early to expect a commitment, we ask for a commitment on when the decision-maker will make a commitment: “Our members would like to know when you’ll commit yourself on this issue—for or against.” After our meeting with the decision-maker, we maintain followup whenever we have new information, additional coalition partners, etc., and we keep posing the commitment question.

While most lobbying guidelines are flexible, there are some iron-clad rules, such as: Never make threats or slam the door. Circumstances change, and there is the possibility that an unsupportive decision-maker will rethink his or her policy positions. Regardless of the reception we receive, we always want to be thorough, accurate, and honest in presenting information to decision-makers. While we don’t win the policy issue with good information, we may win the good will of a decision-maker for providing reliable information and insights. So, we may lose the issue but win the relationship for future campaigns.

Our information and arguments to the decision-maker don’t prove we’re right, only that our position is sensible and defensible and in the interests of many voters or other constituents. It helps that we can impose political costs, which incentivize the decision-maker to listen with an open mind to our proposal.

Maximizing the Power Tool

The fundamentals of using the power tool of combining organizing and lobbying discussed in this part of the article include:

• Investing in building a unified coalition;

• Doing a thorough inventory of your own resources and an action-field analysis;

• Knowing all the players, rules, procedures, and deadlines, inside and out;

• Taking the time to generate a winning strategy and strategic plan;

• Considering organizational mileage, and opportunities for both wins and “builds”;

• Targeting decision-makers commensurate with your actual power;

• Knowing the decision-maker’s position on your proposal before meeting;

• Planning and role-playing meetings and actions thoroughly ahead of time;

• Exploiting the timing of events that offer handles on your issue;

• Preparing to negotiate at the end of a campaign; and

• Expecting the need for follow-up to collect on opponents’ promises.

Part Two will run in 48.2.

Moshe ben Asher and Khulda bat Sarah are the founders and Co-Directors of Gather the People (, which provides resources for congregational and community organizing and development, Moshe has organized for ACORN, Citizens Action League of California, and one of the PICO projects (OCCCO); he was Assistant Director for Organize Training Center; and he teaches sociology and social work at California State University, Northridge. Khulda has organized for the North County Community Project and the Marin Congregational Organizing Project.

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