In the third episode of our mini-series, "How to Grow Your Grassroots Advocacy Network", our guest, Brian Cannon, Executive Director of OneVirginia2021, discusses the basics of lobbying and how branding influences grassroots advocacy. Brian brings over a decade of experience in non-profit leadership, community building, fundraising, and bipartisan advocacy for state policy issues. Click below to view the second installment of a three-part web series:
Can you tell us a little bit about how your General Assembly session went? And maybe some of the highlights?
We had highlights and lowlights. I will say we went into the General Assembly session with about 35 thousand supporters, but because of what we were able to do over the session, we have about 46 thousand- so we had an almost 30% increase in our supporters, mostly because of the software of Muster. I’m serious, I’m very happy to plug you guys for that. We had a lot of success in the state senate, we had more success in the state house then we’d ever had before, but not enough to push us over the finish line. But, what we take from that is - it’s not just one and done, we’ve got a couple more years to get redistricting reform in Virginia, to fix the process. But, you’ve got to count your wins. You have to count every little step as a win. And you’ve got to give your supporters a chance to have their voice be heard by their legislator because I think, you know, we’re a conduit. I can go out and I can have a conversation with a senator or a delegate and they appreciate that, and then maybe I’ll tell them something about the policy they didn’t know, but when they hear the passion from the people back home about this issue, that’s what’s really going to drive their decisions. We’re just a conduit for that passion. And the easiest way to do that is through Muster, through emails, through phone calls, no one called the General Assembly more than we did this session and I’m really proud about that. We do regular emails and petitions like that as well. We had a really great social presence throughout session. And we had a lot of people show up at lobby day because they felt engaged, because they were able to make calls, it was a great session for us. I hate losing at the end of the day, but there were so many little wins that stacked up so it was a pretty good one for us.
Are there some insights you gained this year about growing your advocacy network that you’d be willing to share?
Sure, well I think the first hurdle you’ll face that we did too- so our bill passed the state senate, most reform bills do, but they die in the state house, and they die in a little subcommittee with seven people on it. Well, I don’t have a lot of people necessarily in that seven member subcommittee or if I do, it’s still only 1/7 of all the people that are in our network. So, one of the questions that every organization has to answer for themselves is: are you going to ask all of your supporters to pour in and call or email those 7 people in that subcommittee, because if they’re the ones who kill the bill, that’s it for the day and it’s for the session, or are you only going to ask the supporters you have in those 7 districts to call them. We do a mix of both. I get a lot of pushback from doing the broad one into just the seven people and I tell them, “you guys are making a decision for the whole state”, I feel very comfortable with our position there, I certainly understand when a legislator says, “you shouldn’t be doing that- I don’t want to hear from people who aren’t in my district”, and I tell them, “you’re a delegate for the Virginia General Assembly, you’re not just a delegate for your locality, you’re for the whole General Assembly and they’re making a decision on this. I would say another thing I learned is a lot of the time these people get moved off these subcommittees, so it’s not that you only want to focus on those 7 people, you have to think about the full spectrum of support so you can’t let other people ignore their delegates because it’s not before them yet, you’ve got to let them know and give them solid things to ask for, like “you’ve got to help us get this to the floor” because we want a floor vote, “if it got to the floor vote, where would you vote?” A concrete ask. And the other thing I learned this session- we had so many new supporters, and they are all fired up, and this is a political kinda heavy season anyways, we’ve had some supporters be really rude to delegates. And look, you can’t stop all that, we’re all adults here, but I can stress to people that you can ask them to be polite. And every communication we are now asking people, please be polite. It’s not that you can’t be forceful, it’s not that you can show how angry or upset you are if they took a no vote - that’s what happened, one guy was a supporter and then he took a vote against reform and everyone was really upset by this and let him have it within the realm of reason, and then a couple people were out of line and that really soured our relationship with that particular delegate. It doesn’t move the needle forward. I’d love to take whoever wrote that out-of-bounds email off of our advocacy list because I don’t need that kind of advocacy. The delegate wouldn’t reveal a name, which is probably proper for him. But it taught us that we need to go out of our way to say that you can be forceful but you have to be polite.
What’s the big picture of growing an advocacy network?
First of all, we try really hard to respond to our people. We’ve now got about 47 thousand around the state. We try really hard on Facebook and via email to respond to them as quickly as possible. If they’re making comments on Facebook, we want to follow up, even if it’s just “liking” their comment, I think it’s a good way to engage and sometimes there are trolls on social media, and it’s about finding a way to take them and show with a conversation with them to get them to come around to your side, now that’s not always going to work, but the number of people we’ve taken who adamantly thought we were some stealth partisan organization are now some big supporters of ours. It’s probably not hundreds, i’d say it’s 25 or 30. Those people are great. You want trolls to be on your side, so engage with them and it also teaches everyone watching that thread on Facebook, because they’ve probably got some of the same questions in their mind, they just probably aren’t rude enough to say them like that. So you’ve got to engage and give them the tools to do it. You need regular communication that would make you and your mother proud. One of the things I’ve learned in the past two years in this job is that our supporters are willing to run through walls for this cause, the only thing that stops them is that nobody is telling them which wall to run through. If we say we you to work 3 or 4 hours for a poll, at a precinct on election day for us, people will do that, we had 200 some people do that. If we say can you chip in 5 bucks and tell us you’re with us today, we’ve really got to fund this next advocacy campaign, even if you’re just really honest and say look, we need gas money, people will respond to that- you’ve just got to tell them which wall to run into, and then make it easy for them to do it. And I think the amount of people willing to run through walls for redistricting reform has been overwhelming for me and really empowering to see this, and just connecting all the dots here, and I think that’s how you find success here, you’ve got to ask people, you’ve got to make it easy and you’ve got to give them confidence in their mission.