Effective grassroots organizing

Updated June 2010

This is a brief overview of a presentation on effective grassroots organizing developed by the AVMA State Legislative and Regulatory Affairs Department for the Twelve State Veterinary Leadership Conference in Oklahoma City on September 9-10, 2005. This presentation is geared to state and local advocacy. If you wish to discuss any of these topics in more detail, please contact the AVMA. If you need assistance with grassroots activities relating to federal lobbying, contact the AVMA Governmental Relations Division in Washington, D.C.

Getting Started: What Do You Want to Accomplish?

In order to create a legislative agenda, you must identify the issues that are most important to your organization and your individual members. In order to successfully advocate for these issues, you will need to create and execute a strategic plan. This plan should contain your top priorities and goals, as well as benchmarks and target completion dates. While you should commit the plan to writing, be prepared to revisit it often. Be flexible, making changes and adjustments as necessary to better achieve your goals. If you are targeting a specific issue or a specific section of a piece of legislation, you may create a smaller, more specific plan for that issue.

In identifying your issues, you should look at the guiding principles of your organization, as well as past, current and future issues affecting the veterinary profession in your state. You may want to look at past, current and anticipated legislation to determine which issues will come to the forefront first. Consult with your membership and examine how these issues affect individual veterinarians and the organization as a whole. Then, decide on your top ten issues and rank them in order of importance. Though you will track your top ten priorities, you will probably only work to advance your top three. However, this may change, depending on what occurs during the legislative session.

Draft a document indicating your top priorities and set a timeline with benchmarks for achieving your top three priorities. Take some time to assemble a brief summary of each of your top three issues. This summary should reflect why these issues are important to your organization, individual veterinarians and the general public. You should also take note of the other advocacy organizations that will be affected by your priorities. This will give you an idea of who could potentially be a coalition partner.

Know the Mechanics of the Legislative Process

In order to be effective, you must know how your local and state government works. In addition to reviewing local and state websites for a basic overview, attending city council and county board meetings is advisable. At a minimum, you should know the following:

  • Where initiatives originate (elected officials, government staff and outside interest groups).
  • Where agendas are posted/available.
  • Where copies of legislative measures are available.
  • What committees will consider your issues.
  • What rules apply to meetings (Robert's Rules of Order or some other set of rules)
  • Who staffs the committees that will consider your issues.
  • How to make a Freedom of Information Act request.

Laying the Groundwork to Advance Your Priorities

Designate a point person (or several) for local and state government issues. This individual can be a professional lobbyist, association executive or volunteer member, depending on the VMA's resources. Your point person can gather information, attend meetings, track the movement of issues as they pass before different committees or regulatory agencies and form relationships with legislators and staff. Hopefully, after building relationships with legislators and staff, you will get a "heads up" before an issue reaches critical mass.

If the issue has already taken the form of a bill or ordinance, get a copy of the measure and analyze how it affects your state VMA and your members. Research the current law in your state, inquire if other states have adopted similar measures and ascertain the legislation's origin (at whose behest was this introduced). Create talking points that advance your position on the legislation and a summary that is about three sentences in length for use in various materials.

After creating your talking points and summary, identify the proponents and opponents of the legislation. Think about how various interest groups may be affected by the legislation and look for allies in those organizations who may have a position similar to yours. And, remember to monitor your opposition.

For the long term, create a one to two page position paper that gives a brief snapshot of your top issues and positions. Update this paper as necessary, and mail it to your elected officials at least once a year. You may also want to create a questionnaire, based on your issues, to submit to elected officials and candidates approximately ten months before the next election. You can publish the results in your newsletter before the election so others know where legislators stand on issues important to the veterinary profession.

Another long-term project is tracking how your legislators vote. Keep track of their positions on the bills that affect you. This information can be used to build support for your position, and may be used in connection with the questionnaires discussed above to create a voter guide for your members.

Communication: Get the message out!

In communicating with members, be sure to convey what veterinarians have at stake if the measure passes or fails. While your members may pick up quickly on the impact of an issue on their profession, you may need to adjust your message so that non-veterinarians can also understand your position. When communicating with non-veterinarians, specifically legislators or the press, refine your position statement so that it is a quick read and easily understood by lay persons. In addition, the statement should address how the measure affects pet owners and the general public.

Media

The media can help you advance your agenda and make the case for support or opposition to proposed legislation. Use any opportunity you have to incorporate the media into your strategy and tap into a wider audience. A well-placed article can generate momentum from the general public and put pressure on decision-makers to adopt your position.

In order to quickly disseminate press alerts, articles and press releases, create a media list of local and state newspapers, TV and radio. As you gather the contact information for your media list, include the costs for running ads and contact information for reporters and editors. Update this list on a regular basis.

You may also want to use the media in creating positive press for your state VMA and your members, e.g. articles on veterinarians donating time to worthy causes, fundraising efforts by your VMA for service dogs, etc. Try to send press releases with a picture, if possible, on a regular basis. You may also consider writing op-eds, letters to the editor and even feature pieces concerning items on your legislative agenda. Tie those into news stories in the paper you are writing. Also, try to send editorials on a regular basis and vary the submitting authors on these editorials. Be sure to check with your local newspapers before submitting materials to ensure that they conform with any requirements the newspaper may have. Most newspaper websites have guidelines for submitting materials, so you may want to visit their websites. If the guidelines are not on the website, call the editorial section, and they will be happy to give them to you.

Listed below are some other avenues you may use in order to generate media attention for your state VMA and its members.

  • Inform state and local media that you and members of your organization are available to comment on news stories.
  • Create photo opportunities for local officials and notify the media.
  • Purchase radio, newspaper or TV ads to advance your views. Use a simple script and stay on message. Also, find out if your local media outlets would consider running a public service announcement free of charge.
  • Partner with local service organizations to host fundraisers or other events benefiting animals or public health and publicize your participation.
  • Organize public forums to discuss issues that reflect the intersection of veterinarian and civilian interests: taxes, small business issues and public health concerns. Invite elected officials and veterinarians as panelists. Invite the press. If the press fails to come, send them an article discussing what transpired at the forum with a picture. You may also want to solicit non-veterinarians who attend to join a mailing list to keep current with veterinary interests. In addition, you may create special publications or sections of current publications specifically for the non-veterinarians who join the mailing list.

Volunteering

It is important that your membership be involved in legislative advocacy. Motivate them by emphasizing the impact that supporting or opposing issues will have on their profession and their livelihood. When contacting your members via phone or e-mail, have ready a list of activities, the dates on which they will occur or must be completed and an estimate of how long the task will take to complete. Listed below are some activities in which you may ask your members to participate.

Getting Your Membership Involved

  • Create a letter to the editor template or a list of talking points on specific issues that individual veterinarians can personalize and send to their local papers.
  • Work with local legislators to form a veterinarian issue advisory committee.
  • Create a yearly "Friend of Veterinarians" award (you must track how legislators vote in order to do this), and have members vote on a local and/or state legislator to honor.
  • Go to events like fundraisers and local charity events to network with influencers.
  • Create a voter guide with candidate profiles.
  • Organize a day to lobby the local government or the state capitol and follow it with a legislative reception. Invite legislators, constitutional officers and your membership. Make sure you have a sizeable number of your members at the reception.
  • Volunteer for political campaigns.
  • Let legislative staff members know that your organization would like to provide testimony at committee hearings.
  • Be involved in local service organizations.
  • Support and encourage veterinarians who run for elected office.

Political Campaigns

What you and your members can do for campaigns:

  • Sponsor or write letters to the editor.
  • Walk precincts to campaign for a favored candidate.
  • Coordinate efforts to put up and take down campaign yard signs or identify yard sign locations.
  • Participate in a phone bank to call registered voters.
  • Host a campaign event.
  • Join a campaign committee.
  • Assist with a fundraiser.
  • Send "friend to friend" post cards.
  • Be a poll watcher on election day.

Remember to be mindful of and compliant with all relevant state election laws that pertain to PACs, associations and individuals.

Building relationships outside your organization

Legislators

Legislators are always eager for positive press and exposure to more voters. In general, they will be receptive to photo opportunities, sponsorship of good legislation and participation in any event you hold that has a sizeable number of attendees. It is important that you build positive, working relationships with legislators well in advance of tapping them for support or opposition to your issues. Your goal should be to become the trusted expert they turn to for information on veterinary and animal issues.

One simple way to open the dialogue is to approach your legislator at his/her district office when the legislature is not in session and offer to be a resource for veterinary and public health issues. Ask the legislator if he/she would like to have an advisory committee composed of several veterinarians in his/her district that meets quarterly to discuss upcoming issues or legislation. You should have a list of veterinarians willing to participate in the committee prior to approaching your legislator.

You will also want to take advantage of any pre-existing relationships that individual veterinarians have with legislators, they may prove to be invaluable. In addition, establishing working relationships with legislators who have not supported your goals in the past may prove to be important in the future. Don't burn bridges ... build them!

Building Coalitions

In order to maximize your lobbying and grassroots efforts, coalition-building is very important. There is strength in numbers. If legislators are receiving a large number of phone calls, letters and e-mails advocating your position, they are more likely to give your issue and your position greater consideration than if they receive no communication at all. Work with coalition partners to amplify your voice. Some ways of ascertaining potential coalition partners include the following:

  • Speaking with your legislators about a bill's proponents and opponents.
  • Attending hearings to see who testifies for or against bills.
  • Monitoring the media to see who is quoted as for or against a bill.
  • Networking with other organizations.
  • Working through a lobbyist.

Remember ... you are not alone. There is a good chance that another state VMA has experience with your issue and can share valuable information. The AVMA offers assistance with background research, legislative drafting and analysis, strategy, identifying coalition partners, grassroots training, and on certain state issues, will even write letters and testify on behalf of all of veterinary medicine.