Analysis Updates

Mastering the ‘dark art’ of advocacy

Advocacy can be a useful tool to boost member engagement and influence change. But what does it take to be effective?

In the hyper-connected information age, where we have access to more knowledge (and people) than ever before, how can associations attract and retain members? The answer, according to some association leaders, is advocacy.

“Advocacy is a process of persuasion and influence that leads to change,” Tom Symondson, CEO of the Victorian Healthcare Association, says. “But members don’t necessarily know what good advocacy is.”

“A fundamental part of advocacy strategy is advocating to your members about advocacy,” he says. “As association leaders we need to educate members about what is likely to be effective and, more importantly, what is likely to be ineffective.”

Symondson advises sitting down regularly with members to talk about how your association is advocating for their interests. This should be an open discussion, where you gather feedback and engage members.

“Advocacy is a dark art — usually behind the scenes and no one hears about it. Explain what you’re doing, try to be as open as you can, and build trust with members,” he says.

But how can we ensure that our advocacy efforts are effective? For Symondson, it comes down to understanding the rules of engagement and your role as the voice of your members.

“Associations and peak bodies are almost always ‘David’ in a David and Goliath Battle. The challenge is identifying your Goliath.”

He adds: “More often than not, your Goliath is not quite as big as you think it is. I often hear people say: ‘Nobody will listen to us because they don’t think we’re important’ — size is not the issue. You have to identify your innate advantages and stop trying to ignore your innate disadvantages.”

Taking time to build relationships with key government and community stakeholders is another major factor that Symondson says cannot be underestimated.

“If the first time a government minister hears of you is after you’ve sent a disgruntled letter identifying a problem, then you’ve failed before you’ve begun… you don’t want be seen as throwing stones.”

Advocacy vs service offering

Sara-Jane Evans, head of membership and commercial services at the Property Council New Zealand, says advocacy is an essential service provided by the 43-year-old association, and a recent restructure brought this to the attention of association executives.

“Our key services are advocacy, events and research. A restructure in 2017 highlighted that advocacy is our core reason for being and that our events and research must be a platform to support this. Following a member survey, we realised that we weren’t telling the right story and we weren’t getting the [advocacy] message to members.”

Expert panel (L-R): Evelyn Balmeo Salire, Colin Fruk and Sara-Jane Evans speaking at the 2018 Associations Forum National Conference

As a result, the Property Council, which has 550 members and five branches across New Zealand, split their communication efforts into two distinct roles: Public affairs, to influence government, key decision-makers and stakeholders; and member communications, to create relevant, localised stories for members to engage with.

Evans explains: “We had to recognise that we’re targeting two very different audiences. We did an overview of all the collateral we were producing and started again. We used market segmentation to get the message right.”

Brand awareness is another critical factor when it comes to engaging members about advocacy. For Evelyn Balmeo Salire, secretary general of the Philippine Retailers Association, ‘tangible services’ must support advocacy work. “Goodwill will only take you so far, but services will pay the rent,” she says.

“Goodwill attracts people to events, but services will keep them coming back. We provide tangible services, such as conventions, seminars, forums; and intangible services – this is advocacy, where we speak on behalf of the industry.”

The Philippine Retailers Association represents 80 per cent of the country’s retail sector, so visibility is key. “Branding is important as competition increases,” Balmeo Salire explains. “We have to be visible as much as possible. Members need to see us on panels and our logo at events, so they know we are everywhere. We want our members to be proud of the organisation.”

Colin Fruk, general manager, membership engagement at the Chamber of Commerce and Industry Queensland, agrees that branding and communication are crucial to an association’s survival.

“We’ve been around for 151 years — that comes with a lot of legacy and reputation,” he says. “Everyone knows of the Chamber of Commerce, but no one knows exactly what we do, which is one of the big challenges we face.” Six years ago, the association was in “dire straits”, so executives had to do something dramatic to turn it around.

“It’s really important that people understand what value they can derive from your organisation,” Fruk says. “We had to build and implement a new value proposition into our business and communicate that to members. Value leads to loyalty. Don’t expect goodwill from members; you have to work at it every day.”

For the Chamber of Commerce, this meant a ‘back to basics’ approach that concentrated on what the chamber was best known for: Industrial relations and HR compliance. The chamber now offers streamlined HR advice to members. This fee-for-service model funds the Chamber’s advocacy work.

“A lot of our members still don’t realise that we are an advocacy organisation,” Fruk says. “People aren’t willing to pay for a voice any longer. They are willing to do it themselves, often through social media, so we had to find a way to fund our essential advocacy service.

“We have a competitive offer in the market in terms of membership, but the long-term goal is to establish trust with members and then offer extended services [at an additional cost]. Membership is just an entry point. Upsell is the long game.”

The 2019 Associations Forum National Conference will take place in Canberra, Australia on 15-16 July.