You’ve Not Hired A Lobbyist, but Maybe You Should
Many businesses and industries share a common bottleneck curbing their success, the reticence to hire a lobbyist. Hiring a lobbyist allows an organization, corporation, or association to be proactive in shaping legislation as opposed to reactive in trying to change legislation. Lobbyists serve as your representative to local, state, or federal government, acting as a very specialized account executive, in developing, modifying, or creating the laws that support your industry and the clients and community you serve.
State legislative sessions vary, but for some legislators, the session is only two to four months. During that time, lawmakers need to educate themselves, advocate, and vote appropriately on many different issues that will have lasting effects in the state. “Forty-six state legislatures hold regular sessions annually. The other four states—Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, and Texas—meet in odd-numbered years. Nine state legislatures have full-time legislators, which means that the legislature will meet throughout the year. All other legislators are considered part-time because they only meet for a portion of the year.” Time is of the essence in many states, which is why lobbyists offer such a valuable service to legislators, the service being education. Lobbyists provide a bird’s eye view of their specialty and the industry they represent, the impact of voting for or against their cause, which allows legislators to develop a more nuanced decision-making process, regardless of whether they agree with the lobbyist.
A prime example of how shifting the financial emphasis on government relations and the subsequent benefits it can provide is a California non-profit organization that provides home and community support for foster youth. Once 18, young adults in foster care are left to fend for themselves, often without even a driver’s license or an understanding of how to get one. Without a support network, foster youth struggle, on average more than one in five ends up homeless.
This 501(c)3 non-profit was initially fundraising to support ongoing and ever-increasing operating costs, which felt like running an uphill battle. Until they realized if they transitioned their fundraising strategy, they would have access to far more with far little. By hiring a seasoned lobbyist at approximately $30-$60K for one year, the organization could secure grant funding between $5-$7M. The fundraising went from helping 50 foster youth in one county to providing for every at risk foster youth in the state by changing the strategic focus and course of action.
Financial gains are one component of what a lobbyist can offer an organization, another is the influence over the legal environment in which they operate for increased efficiency and effectiveness. An example of a community that’s doing what it takes to preserve their culture through a government relations specialist is one you might not expect, The Burning Man Project (aka Burning Man). Burning Man is a registered 501(c)3 non-profit with a desire to bring experiences to people in grand, awe-inspiring and joyful ways that lift the human spirit, address social problems, and inspire a sense of culture, community, and civic engagement.
Burning Man is a yearly event held in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, where individuals gather to create a city of up to 75,000 people for about ten days. The event is held on federal land, and as a result, the federal government is seeking to be more involved in the execution and management of the event. The community of Burning Man is exceptionally committed to leaving the space exactly as it was found, and all safety, law enforcement, and public infrastructure are managed exclusively by volunteers.
The federal government is seeking to manage arms of the event like security; however, those that run the 501(c)3 feel it is an overreach by big-brother, and one that will likely damage the culture the community has built since its founding in 1986. The federal lobbyists that represent The Burning Man Project are hard at work advocating for the organization that has successfully run its event independently and setting a precedent for the future. Lobbyists aren’t always advocating for a change in the law, as in this case, they also fight for autonomy.
Much of the reticence behind hiring a lobbyist is based on strict adherence to visible ROI, swift progress, and actionable justification of funds. In our experience and the pace of government relations, these expectations are a real challenge for the industry to maintain. Drafting and changing legislation is not a speedy endeavor, but is it worth the investment? Yes! Many organizations, specifically corporations, utilize lobbying defensively as a way to fix an already legally problematic situation. To fully harness all the potential a government affairs professional can offer, businesses must incorporate the strategy early on as a proactive approach.
Katie McDonald is the chief operating officer of Echo Ridge, the parent company of Retaen. Prior to her time with Echo Ridge, Katie played an integral role in running one of the largest government relations operations in Silicon Valley. She is a graduate of the University of Colorado.