Lessons Learned from the Senate “Blank Slate” Grassroots Campaign
August 13, 2013Now that the dust has settled on round one of the tax reform battle – a fight we can expect to last the full 15 rounds, by the way – it’s time to take a look back and evaluate our performance. Our goal was for Alliance members to generate both high-quality and high-quantity contacts with U.S. Senators and convince at least a few of them to include support for continuation of the fraternal 501(c)(8) tax exemption in their responses to the Senate Finance Committee’s “blank slate” proposal. The “blank slate” concept, you’ll remember, is one that eliminates all existing exemptions, credits and preferences from the Tax Code – including those for home mortgage interest deduction and charitable contributions – and requires those affected by such actions to make a compelling case for maintaining them. Campaign Analysis Looking at the raw numbers, you’d have to call the campaign a success. More than 5,500 individuals participated in the effort, sending Senators more than 10,000 emails. All 100 U.S. Senators received at least one email from a fraternal representative – demonstrating the scope of our impact in communities and the potential of our political clout – and Senators from key fraternal states (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas) received hundreds of emails from both CEOs and constituents. More importantly, the feedback that Alliance members received verified the cumulative impact of our political advocacy initiatives. Many CEOs received responses from Senators and their staff pointing out that they were aware of fraternals and the good work we do because they had met with an Alliance delegation at our 2013 “Day on the Hill” event held in conjunction with the Presidents Mid-Year Meeting. The effort we’ve made to have member society CEOs meet personally with key lawmakers over the past few years is really paying off. And while most Senators kept their feedback to the Finance Committee confidential, we know of at least a handful that specifically supported continuation of the fraternal exemption in their responses. Predictable and Surprising Results The “blank slate” grassroots campaign yielded some predictable outcomes and one very pleasant surprise. Thrivent, which has been building its political advocacy network methodically for years, generated thousands of emails to Senators from its local chapter leaders. If you’re a local chapter officer of Thrivent, communicating with public policymakers is part of your responsibility. It’s an institutional model of effective political action that every society can emulate. And thank goodness the fraternal system can rely on Thrivent to pull more than its fair share of the weight on these projects. Sons of Norway demonstrated that even a small society can have a big impact, with more than 1,600 emails sent by members of this society. And the secret to their success lies in electronic media. Sons of Norway does an exceptionally good job of capturing email addresses for anyone affiliated with the society. This gives the organization the ability to contact people immediately, without having to wait for a newsletter or magazine publication date or delivery of “snail mail.” In addition, Sons of Norway has a robust presence on Facebook and a popular blog, giving them multiple ways to reach their membership in the way they want to be contacted. Opportunities to Help Ensure Future Success But when you get beyond the surface of the raw numbers, you discover the latent opportunities for effective political activism hidden within the fraternal system. The vast majority of emails sent through the Alliance’s web-based grassroots system were sent by employees and agents of member societies. With the exception of Thrivent and Sons of Norway, most societies did not tap into the largest and potentially most powerful source of grassroots strength: local chapter leaders and individual members. The Alliance is committed to working with members to find out why and enhance our ability to respond to future political threats. We’ve asked representatives from member societies who were active participants in the grassroots campaign to participate on a teleconference next month to explore what worked and what didn’t when it came to motivating our key audiences to email their Senators. Was it simply a lack of email addresses for many of these individuals, or are their other issues – not enough lead time, fear of asking members to engage in political activities, not a serious enough threat – that kept Alliance members from pulling out all the stops on this campaign? Want to join that conversation? Contact me at email@example.com and I’ll send you the date, time, dial-in number and access code for this teleconference. The more the merrier as far as I am concerned. Don’t get me wrong, 3,500 individuals and 7,000 emails is impressive. But from a potential reservoir of 9 million people across the country, we need to do much better than that if we’re going to be able to withstand a serious and sustained threat to the fraternal exemption.