The Future of Nonprofit Lobbying

* Editor’s Note: During the next 10 days The NonProfit Times will publish commentaries looking to 2021 and beyond from some of the sector’s most accomplished leaders. All of the commentaries are available in The NonProfit Times’ digital edition on this website.

Hindsight might be 20/20, but this year demands a closer look to the future. The year 2020 has brought incredible disruption to Washington, D.C., advocacy work, and nonprofit organizations at large.

The health, safety, and financial implications of the COVID-19 pandemic have been disastrous and are ongoing. The overnight transition to remote work rocked a profession that relies on face-to-face relationship building and gridlock in Congress has delayed major relief measures. How have these elements impacted Washington, and what should we consider for the future?

With COVID-19 and the transition to virtual work, lobbyists have moved from the halls of Congress to the Zoom waiting room. Successful advocacy in Washington has traditionally relied on personal relationships and interactions. The transition has made it much easier for advocacy professionals to bring constituents to virtual meetings, and to be a resource to Congressional offices overall. Virtual meetings have reduced transit times and other distractions and enabled lobbyists to cover more ground. To maximize the opportunity, you don’t have to be perfect, you just have to be diligent and persistent.

In addition, historic changes in remote voting by proxy in the U.S. House of Representatives and virtual hearings in the U.S. Senate means that members of Congress are spending more time at home and outside of Washington, so conversations and relationship building are more difficult. It is unclear when dropping by a Congressional office will be an option again. From online committee testimony to virtual meetings, expect that some virtual engagement is here to stay.

Another unknown for the future is how the regulatory environment will change. More than 10 years have passed since the Obama administration’s ban on hiring lobbyists and the protest by Tony and Heather Podesta, wearing a Scarlet L, in the spirit of Hester Prynne, the protagonist of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter.

Now, in the debate over COVID-19 relief, lobbying has further come under attack. While for-profit companies and their lobbyists were included in the Paycheck Protection Program, nonprofit associations were excluded out of a concern that they were merely lobbying organizations. This shows a fundamental lack of understanding about the role of associations in American life — elevating quality of life, advancing the economy, and educating the workforce, for example.

Despite our critical importance to the industries and professions that drive economic growth, nonprofit associations remain one of the few sectors of the economy left without a financial safety net during this crisis. Congress should see association and nonprofit lobbyists as institutional memory, leaders in their field with access to the greatest minds of the profession or service. From the largest nonprofits to associations representing an industry or professional, nonprofit lobbyists serve a critical need.

Another force to contend with in recent years is how technology has turbo-charged grassroots. While technology has flattened the cost of citizen engagement, in doing so, the traffic of messages to Congress has increased exponentially. From texting campaigns to social media to Congress, technology has helped us reach advocates where they are to increase activation rates. The downside for lobbyists is that it is more difficult to cut through the noise and be noticed by Congressional offices.

In The Future of Citizen Engagement: Coronavirus, Congress, and Constituent Communications, The Congressional Management Foundation found that social media and grassroots campaigns still matter, but that personal calls and emails are more important. Going forward it will get even harder to cut through the noise. Grassroots will help show a Congressional office your issue matters, but the competition has increased.

In the fight to be noticed on Capitol Hill, compelling data is more important than ever to make your case. Tying research to the district or home state is critical for an effective message. When nonprofit associations were excluded from the Paycheck Protection Program, data from the ASAE Research Foundation quickly helped to change the conversation and convince Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle about the critical need to support associations.

Data and constituent engagement are the most powerful tools we have to make our case. In the virtual environment, the best lobbyists will take advantage of technology and share infographics, constituent videos with research, and other virtual tools that make virtual meetings more engaging for busy Congressional staffers.

In addition to these elements, the election has brought change to Washington, D.C. While Some lobbyists are optimistic about the chance for bipartisan legislation. Despite the polarization, members of Congress can still work together to pass major and impactful legislation. As President Ronald Reagan famously said, “The person who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is a friend and an ally — not a 20 percent traitor.”

Many in Washington will remember that as vice president now President-Elect Joe Biden and Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ken.) worked together to pass legislative packages during the Obama administration. The passage of the SECURE Act last year to bolster American’s retirement savings, and the bipartisan introduction of SECURE 2.0 is a further example of this bi-partisan lawmaking.

Trust, reputation, and relationships still carry the most weight in the nation’s capital.


Mary Kate Cunningham is senior vice president, Public Policy at ASAE – The Center for Association Leadership in Washington, D.C.