I hear the lament every time I speak before a group of government relations professionals, specifically lobbyists: “What happens if we ask our grassroots to contact their legislators and they say the wrong thing?” or, the ever-popular, “How can we trust them to say the right thing?” It is sometimes used by the unenlightened government relations professional as an excuse for not engaging in grassroots activity. No matter what the rationale, it’s a spurious reason to ignore your grassroots potential.
While about one percent or less of grassroots volunteers have an agenda opposite of the larger organizational cause, I truly believe that the rogue advocate does not act intentionally, rather, he or she simply doesn’t “know better.” When people know better, they do better. It’s our job to help them know and do better.
What’s good about these people? They are direct, assertive, and comfortable speaking their mind. These are great qualities, which, when properly channeled, can be an asset to your organization. Every advocacy group has had or will have an experience with rogues. Our challenge is to positively engage them in activity that will mitigate, and even eliminate, their unfruitful words and deeds.
I find that when this challenge occurs repeatedly in an organization, especially with Key Contacts, the staff has not done a proper job of recruiting, orientating, and training their Key Contacts. One effective way to ameliorate this is to ask the right questions before you bring someone on as a Key Contact.
“Interview” Potential Key Contacts
It is a regular practice in most non-profit social service volunteer organizations to conduct volunteer interviews to determine volunteer strengths, goals, etc. I’m still amazed that many association and corporate grassroots professionals don’t do the same thing.
Interviewing potential Key Contacts over the phone or in person will help you spot any ‘’red flags” that could negatively impact your organization. You have to explain the organization’s expectations for Key Contacts, and your success metrics. Volunteer research shows that the most productive and satisfied volunteers are ones who are properly trained, oriented to the expectations of the organization, and doing what they do best for the organization. It’s no different with grassroots advocates.
Develop Your Troops
Most organizations have some type of written guidelines for appropriate legislative communications, whether a manual, a “Do’s and Don’ts” brochure, etc. But we still have rogues running around. Why? Part of the reason is that we rely only on those good written resources to carry the message. They are essential, but you have to be with these folks in person to align their objectives with organizational goals. The most influential communications take place face-to-face. That’s what we tell our grassroots activists to do with lawmakers, so we should be willing to do the same thing with them.
Urge all of your new and seasoned Key Contacts to attend training. It doesn’t end there, however. Be proactive at the training. During training breaks or at lunch, ask your potential rogues if they have questions or don’t understand certain legislative communications “rules.”
If you have properly interviewed, trained, and provided role descriptions to your Key Contacts and are still having difficulties with them, here are my recommendations:
Don’t Ignore Them
I have always espoused that we shouldn’t spend too much time with our poor performers. Doing so can send a negative message to our stars. However, particularly if the loose cannon is a Board member or otherwise active and influential volunteer, you can’t ignore the situation. Too many times we discredit their behavior and complaints because of one infraction. However, if we don’t directly address the inappropriate behavior, we can’t expect it to change.
Ask For Their Input
Too often, we ask for help from our grassroots activists without asking them how we can help them.
A brief phone call to ask, “How are we doing?” “What are our next steps?” and “How can we make your activity with us more productive?” can be very increase rapport & cooperation.
Focus on their comments that may reveal any frustration about your goals or policies. These conversations can alert you to potential trouble spots. Further, this is a relationship-building effort that will pay off in the future.
The Value of Criticism
It’s not easy to criticize a volunteer, but it is vital to dealing with the rogue. So, let’s call it “offering a critique.” The rogue can be assisted by offering a critique when we observe or learn of the negative behavior.
The minute you observe or hear about a grassroots loose cannon who carried the wrong message, or behaved inappropriately with lawmakers or community leaders, you have to directly address it in a timely fashion. By timely, I mean within 24 hours.
As with positive feedback, it must be delivered quickly and with certainty.
Cite observed behavior, not rumors. Point out any positive observations as well.
Appraise and Reward
You should have some type of evaluation or appraisal mechanism in place to recognize your stellar performers. This mechanism sets an example for all Key Contacts and grassroots volunteers by demonstrating what the organization values. People have to know what stellar performance looks like.
Reward and recognition is more than annual luncheons and plaques. It’s the time you take each day to “catch someone doing something right.” You’ve got to pay attention and seek out the positive behaviors and results.
Don’t Expect Perfection
I am aware that a good advocate on a bad day can negatively impact your organization’s reputation and hamper your lobbying efforts. However, don’t expect them to communicate like you do. You are a professional, they are volunteers. Maybe they don’t use the exact lexicon you do when articulating an issue. Don’t sweat it. You don’t want the human version of form letters meeting with lawmakers anyway.
The Open Door Policy
Encourage your volunteers, the good and the average ones, to come to you with ideas or frustrations. If your rogue knows they can speak to you freely, chances are they will share concerns with you before anyone else.
When to Cut the Cord
I always advocate spending more time on your grassroots stars than your under achievers. Thus, you should not hesitate to disengage (translation, “fire”) a Key Contact when necessary.
When is it time? It’s time when they still engage in inappropriate activities after they have attended a training session, and after you have offered a direct, specific and timely critique. Two strikes and they’re out.
You aren’t the only one with this dilemma. It’s a grassroots fact of life. While we can’t totally eliminate the possibility of errant legislator communications, if you employ the above tactics, you’ll have fewer loose cannons in your grassroots arsenal.