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Associations Must Relentlessly Focus on Messaging and One ‘ASK’

During my first year of practicing family law, I think I spent about two weeks preparing for my first big motion. A motion is a proceeding in which one of the parties involved in a legal dispute makes an application to the court for the purposes of obtaining a ruling in their favour. They are very common in litigation and can take anywhere from a matter of minutes to several days to argue. This one was scheduled for half a day.

In my preparation, I meticulously arranged all of the arguments I wanted to make, aligned them with the facts supporting my client’s position and ensured that they were backed up by case law. As I nervously rose to my feet and began to make my submissions, I distinctly remember a feeling of confidence slowly begin to take over. After all, I knew exactly what I wanted to say, I had it all written out and if anything, I was probably over prepared. But all that came crashing down after speaking for about 15 minutes when the judge interrupted my self-assessed brilliant prose with one very simple question – “Mr. Clarke, what is your point?”

I had no idea how to answer her question. In fact, I had never even contemplated it. I had assumed, incorrectly as it turns out, that all I had to do was make my position known in a compelling way and Her Honour would be so moved by some of all of my arguments as to declare me victorious. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

In this article, I will briefly outline the process for developing the core of an effective advocacy plan with a focus on the one thing I didn’t have some 20 years ago when I stood in that courtroom: focus.

The ability to effectively advocate is a fundamental requirement in the not-for-profit sector as you seek to represent the interests of your membership, whether it be with key decision-makers in government or other stakeholders that have an impact on your issues. Yet advocacy remains an activity in which few association executives are trained to engage, and more specifically, trained to engage in a manner that is relentlessly focused in its messaging, tools and one ‘ask’.

We begin discussing the importance of focus in advocacy with a definition of the word itself. According to the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, advocacy is verbal support or argument for a cause, policy. While that might be focused, it’s unfortunately not all that clear. So more simply, advocacy is telling your story to someone, through various means, with the express purpose of compelling that person to do (or not do) something. It is a process that almost always takes time to realize tangible results and the way it is done is very personal to your own style and comfort level.

There are three steps to create the foundation of an effective advocacy plan and as you will see, each step requires focus to ensure you don’t lose sight of your objective.

1. Key messages. The first thing you need to do if you are going to advocate to anyone about anything, is determine what you need to say, either in writing or orally. These are your key messages. I recommend three key messages that explain the salient points of your issue in easy to understand language. Each of those key messages should consist of 25 words or less and be written in a clear, compelling, concise (focused) and consistent manner. They represent the essence of what you want a decision-maker to remember and respond to around the issue presented to them.

To ensure even greater focus, I suggest people craft their three key messages to answer the following questions:

i. What is the problem, challenge or issue? Or what are we here to talk about?
ii. What is the impact of the problem? Or why is this problem important?
iii. What would it look like if we solved the problem? Or what’s in it for the decision-maker?

Lastly, make sure that the language you use in your key messages is focused on how you want the recipient to perceive your issue. Use subjective language, not just facts, to frame the problem in such a way that people will be drawn in by the words you’ve chosen.

2. Advocacy tools. Once you’ve decided what you want to say, you need to determine the means or vehicles through which you should deliver your three key messages. I call these advocacy tools, and they represent the core of any effective advocacy plan. Anything your group uses to communicate with employees, members, supporters or people outside the organization is a potential tool. Examples include texts, emails, in person meetings, websites, newsletters, petitions, postcards, news releases and, of course, social media.

With your advocacy tools, you want to create what is known as a layering effect, to layer each tool on top of the next in a very focused manner in an attempt to elevate the noise level around your issue. You don’t want to just randomly start trying everything you can think of to get your key messages in front of decision-makers. Instead, determine which advocacy tools you are able to use or need to develop, and then begin to link them together in a way that focuses on systemic layer building.

It’s also important to give some thought to developing advocacy tools specifically for grassroots action. Social media and various e-advocacy programs are good examples of ways in which your members or supporters can become engaged at the local level with their elected representatives, for example. It’s an important component you’ll likely want to build in to the various advocacy tools at your disposal.

3. One ‘ask’. This is the goal of any advocacy plan, to be able to ask a decision-maker for the one thing you need them to do, not a list of what you want from them. It is at this stage that most people engaged in advocacy particularly fail to be focused enough in articulating what exactly they need. Instead, they present a wish list of all of the things they want from the person to whom they are advocating. It may sound contrary to what most of us believe, but in advocacy, the less you ask for and the more specific you are, the more likely you are to succeed.

Your ‘ask’ also needs to be tangible, something that can be measured, and this is where you cannot be too focused. For example, if your ‘ask’ is to have a piece of legislation amended to include the word shall instead of may, making an action required instead of optional, this is both significant and very specific. That’s the level of precision that every ‘ask’ should seek to encompass.

Needless to say, I lost that half-day motion. But the lesson that I learned about staying singularly focused on the objective at hand has always stuck with me in my advocacy work throughout the years, as well as the teaching and training that I currently provide to people across Canada. I strongly encourage you as an association executive to invest the time and effort to build a focused advocacy plan that will serve the best interests of your members. If you do so, you will greatly enhance your ability to be successful on their behalf.