Get Leverage with Grasstops Lobbying

It’s one thing to have organized pressure coming from “real” people and having them relay their real concerns and real stories to elected officials. That the essence of “grassroots” lobbying. But it’s even better to pair that with community leaders who matter to the elected officials or other politicos that you’re trying to influence.

That’s where the grasstops lobbying comes in.

It’s lobbying by people who matter to other people who matter, and it can be a force multiplier and add a new dimension to your efforts. It’s not that grassroots pressure doesn’t matter. It does because numbers matter. But if you can match a local organization’s grassroots with a similar network of grasstops leaders, you will see a tremendous leap in the ability to influence legislators.

Grasstops lobbying is effective for many reasons.

It Promotes Accountability

While many legislators may deceive themselves into thinking that they can ignore or fool the average constituent, they don’t usually feel the same about “Mr. Big” – and they don’t want to get on his (or her) bad side. These are people who are thought of as pillars of the local community, organizational leaders or opinion leaders, and they influence other people – which is why politicians usually like to keep happy. They are people who can make life easier for them if they stay on their good side.

It Breaks Through Barriers

Sometimes elected officials can become insulated from grassroots pressure. While many legislators don’t like being bombarded by letters from constituents, they may choose not to read them. But they can’t afford not to take a phone call from the president of the largest employer in the district or the pastor of the largest church.

Similarly, the number of phone calls coming into a legislator’s office eventually becomes irrelevant. All that registers in their mind is that they got a lot of phone calls. However, several calls from key community leaders or even a personal visit will stick out in their minds.

Examples of Potential “Grasstops” Community Leaders:

  • Pastors
  • Large employers
  • Other elected officials
  • Political party leaders
  • Former staffers to other elected officials
  • Major contributors to the elected officials you’re targeting
  • Civic or other advocacy organization leaders
  • Newspaper publishers
  • Opinion leaders
  • People who have credibility with the media
  • Neighbors, relatives or friends (of the elected official)

Think through the list of names that come to mind. Who has the most influence with the officials that you’re trying to influence? Who represent a constituency that your targeted officials can’t afford to ignore? Whose phone calls have to get returned?

The rule of thumb is to identify those who can get directly to your targets, and not just to their staff. Identify those people and approach them about joining your efforts. Some of them might even be classified as “strange bedfellows” politically speaking, but that’s even better as it makes your effort look more diverse.

Keep a running list of the people that you identify, what they care about and who they can potentially influence. It will be a good reference for you when the next issue campaign comes up.

When you get your new contacts involved, make sure that they are informed. They’re probably busy people, so the more that you lay things out and make it simple, the more likely they will be to help. Then incorporate them into your overall lobbying plan.

Grasstops lobbying can be just the leverage you need to make your grassroots efforts pay off.

The Power of Numbers in Grassroots Lobbying

depositphotos_13429686-Standing-out-concept-dialog-bubblesWhen it comes to grassroots lobbying, there is power in numbers. And numbers can come from a quality grassroots organization that encourages supporters to directly contact their elected officials.

The thing that makes phone calls and letters so effective is that they are short and quick means of relaying your message.  Changing the mind of your officials may not be accomplished with one phone call or one letter, but a thousand phone calls or letters voicing similar opinions will have a major impact on how most elected officials will vote on any given issue.

The most important aspect of basic grassroots lobbying is multiplication.  Once you have taken the time to make contact with an elected official on an issue, find at least ten others to call or write their elected officials too.

Even on the hottest issues, most federal representatives rarely receive more than a few hundred calls, and they represent well over half a million constituents – and state and local officials represent a fraction of that.  If there are one hundred people in your group and each one identifies at least ten others to contact their elected officials, you would generate over one thousand contacts – enough to scare the daylights out of most any politician.

In politics, that’s power!

Remember, no matter how stupid you may think politicians are, they all know how to count. They know that “numbers” on any given issue can possibly mean “numbers” on Election Day. And that gets their attention.

In the end, it’s all about the math.  Use it to your advantage!

How to Target Your Grassroots Lobbying Efforts

grassroots lobbyingOne of the most important questions to answer before starting any grassroots lobbying campaign is “who” are you going to lobby?  In pretty much every campaign there is a limited amount of time and resources available, and you want to get the most out them both.  That means targeting them where they can make the most difference.

It all starts with a list.  And that means some research, organization and coordination with your allies.

Use the following guidelines:

Start a Target List

Make a list of every elected official who has any bearing on the success of your effort.  Such as every member of a committee that is dealing with your issue, or every member of a full legislative body (or council) if you’re preparing for a final vote on something.  Make note of whatever you know about their position on the issue.  If necessary, find past votes on similar issues that can help predict their behavior. Add in any general impressions from lobbyists or legislative allies you may be working with.  Lastly, depending on whether legislators are up for reelection, the narrowness of their former election victories may be a factor in how they are likely to vote as well, (they all want to get re-elected!).  Make note of it.

Organize the List

Next up, you need to organize the list according to the initial information that you have on each official.  Some elected officials will definitely be with you, and some will definitely be against you, and – depending on your vote count – it’s not worth spending a lot of time on either group.  Rate them a scale of 1 to 5: (1 = absolutely with you, 2 = leaning with you, 3 = undecided/unknown, 4 = leaning against you, 5 definitely against you). Add the numbers up to gauge how you are doing, (the lower the total the better).

Your job is to focus on the votes in the middle – the potential “swing” votes. That means focusing your lobbying time and resources on the 2’s, 3’s and 4’s.

Update and Work the List

Successful grassroots lobbying on most any issue is a constantly evolving process right up until the final vote is cast. It’s not a one-time thing where you speak up and then go home.  It requires consistent follow up.

As you and your allies lobby the same target list, information will be coming from every direction if everyone is doing their job.  Of course some legislators have been known to tell one thing to one group of people and something different to others, (imagine!), so targets will move up and down the scale depending on the most up-to-date intelligence.  You have to keep things straight in order to gauge where you stand – and whether you might need to consider compromising if you think you will lose, or change direction and fight another day.

Consider using a notebook (or even a spreadsheet if you want to get sophisticated) with one page to keep track of each targeted official.

Key Information for Tracking Officials:

  • Who made each contact with them
  • When it was made
  • What the official said about their position
  • How it rated on the scale of 1 to 5

This will help you keep up with each official’s “evolving” position over time, and if someone needs shoring up.  It will also help you get a feel for which arguments are working and which ones aren’t – and what objections need to be overcome.  Remember, the argument that you might think is the most persuasive may not be the same one that actually works, (and it may be different for every elected official).  Pay attention to what they say actually moves them and adjust accordingly.

Since maintaining multiple lists will only breed confusion, one person should be designated as the “List Coordinator”.  All information should then be passed through them, and they should be touching base with allies on a regular basis to keep it up to date, as well as send out updates and let allies know who needs to be targeted and when.  Since everyone can’t be at city hall or the state capitol all the time, it’s better to pick a list coordinator who is close to the action and who has the time, (even a lobbyist, legislative staffer or friendly legislator if they’re on your team).

As General George Patton once put it, “Information is like eggs; the fresher the better”.  When it comes to lobbying, the information you gather is only as “fresh” as the degree everyone works to keep it up to date; and it’s only as useful as the degree that you actually put it to use.

Make sure that your grassroots lobbying strategy and tactics revolve around it.

How the Legislative Process Works

Legislative ProcessLegislating is a messy business. As Otto Von Bismarck once said, “Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made”. But it’s a messy business because it involves people who represent lots of other people with different points of view. And this process has to accommodate them all.

There are a lot of moving parts (and people), and many steps along the way that an idea must take before it can become a law. The result is that it is more difficult to change things than it is to defend the status quo. But knowing how the process works will make you be better equipped to have an influence on the things you care about when the time comes.

Here’s a basic breakdown. Generally speaking, the legislative process begins with an idea or a concern, which might have been passed on to a lawmaker by someone in the general public, or initiated by the lawmaker themselves.

The Federal and State Level:

Committees: The vast majority of legislative work is done on committees. As soon as any measure is introduced by any lawmaker it is usually assigned to the appropriate committee that deals with that subject matter. Public hearings begin here, changes are made, and delays or even defeats are possible.

In most cases committees are where legislation dies, as most bills never make it out. If you have lawmakers friendly to your cause on the committee, they may be able to either help “kill” a bill you don’t like by keeping it bottled up in committee, or help get it passed out to the “full body”.

At this point in the process, members of the committee considering the bill you’re concerned about are your targets for grassroots lobbying pressure. Committee Chairman are even more valuable, as they can usually control which sub-committee (if any) the bill may be referred to and whether or not the issue is even heard by the whole committee, (such as deciding whether or when to schedule hearings on the issue, or an actual committee vote). They can also be critical in influencing how other committee members will vote.

As a grassroots activist, you can have an impact at this stage by personally contacting committee members and attending hearings on the proposal and speaking out to help shape public opinion.

The Legislative Calendar: Once favorably recommended by a committee, a bill is scheduled by legislative leaders (usually by a “Rules Committee”) for floor debate by the body. Your involvement at this point could include contacting the key decisions makers, such as the Speaker of the House, Senate President Pro Tempore, Rules Committee members or legislative aides involved in these decisions. Focus on the people controlling the legislation.

Debate and Floor Action: Once a bill passes out of committee it is usually put on a schedule for debate by the full chamber (such as a House or Senate). At this point, all members of the legislative chamber can have an influence on the final outcome by participating in debate, offering and voting on amendments, and then ultimately voting on the bill itself. (At the local level, passage by an entire council or board is usually the end of the process.)

Referral: In cases at the state and national level, where the legislature is divided into two bodies, (House and Senate), when one chamber passes a bill, it is then referred to the other chamber for consideration, where the process starts all over again. This presents you with either another challenge or an opportunity, depending on which side of the issue you’re on, (offense or defense).

Conference: Conference committees are usually comprised of two or three members from each legislative chamber, and are created when there are differences between the versions of a bill passed by both bodies. The purpose is to iron out these differences and submit back to both chambers a version that they think can pass. Because there are so few of them, conference committee members can have a tremendous impact on the final shape of a bill, meaning you can concentrate your lobbying activity on a very small group of lawmakers at this point.

Final Vote: Once the conference committee report is submitted, each chamber will then usually hold a final vote on a bill. If it passes both chambers with a simple majority it is then forwarded to the chief executive, (the President or a governor).

Executive Action: Usually the chief executive is required to take action by a certain time (either with a signature or a veto) or the bill automatically becomes law. Some states allow a “line-item veto,” which enables some provisions to be vetoed without killing the entire bill. If the bill is vetoed, the legislature has an opportunity to attempt to override the veto, (usually by a 2/3’s super-majority). This could make a huge difference to your strategy, depending on whether you’re on “defense” or “offence”. A strong expression of support or opposition at this point could help a chief executive decide whether to sign or veto a bill.

The State Level:

Although the state legislative process is very similar to the federal level, there are some differences. Generally, state legislatures have shorter legislative sessions than Congress, and state legislative officials have either very little or no staff. And the fact that these bodies are smaller and closer to home gives organized conservatives enhanced opportunities for activism and influence.

The Local Level:

While many of the same elements apply at the local level, there can be wide variances in the process in various cities, counties or school districts. The biggest difference from the federal and state level is that there is usually just one chamber to deal with, (a council or a board), rather than two. Of course that means few people to lobby…and officials who are elected from smaller districts and are more susceptible to organized local pressure.

To research how the process works in your area (or for your county or school board), contact your local council or board member and ask for information.


One of the most important things to understand about the legislative process is that it is designed to move slowly…and that’s a good thing! A slow, multi-step process helps prevent the passage of bad legislation. And considering how many bad laws we have on the books despite that fact, imagine how much worse it would be if things moved fast.

From a strategic standpoint, the key thing to remember is that a long process makes it far easier to play defense rather than offense. That means that it is easier to defend the status quo than it is to get something passed. In order for a bill to become law, it must “win” at virtually every step in the process, whereas those trying to “kill” the legislation often only have to win just once.

Knowing how the process works, understanding when, where and how (and on whom) to bring the heat is vital to having an influence on public policy at any level in our system. At each step there are different people who can advance or hinder your cause.

Invest the time in getting to know the players at each step along the way. It will pay dividends later.

The Fundamentals of Grassroots Lobbying

grassroots lobbyingWhen you are working to try to influence elected officials there is a long list of things that you can do, but there is a shorter list of basic grassroots lobbying principles that you should keep in mind in order to be more effective.

Here’s a checklist…

Identify Your Targets

Before you start storming barricades, find out exactly where elected officials stand on your issue, and then relentlessly focus your time and attention on those who are undecided or persuadable. When you are able to focus on just a few officials who themselves represent a small number of constituents, this gives you tremendous leverage.  (see tips here)

Get to Know Them

Just like every other area in life, personal relationships matter. How well do you know the people that you are trying to influence? The better you know someone, the more likely that you will know how to approach them. What’s important to them, and why? How do they usually come down on most issues?

Get to know them on a personal level if possible, (it’s always harder to say no to someone you know). That’s why being involved in the political process helps.

Finalize Your Message

Before you set out to lobby or campaign on any issue, you need to settle on “what” you want to say. Frame your message in a positive light. Give them the information that they need about your issue. Let them know why it’s important to the people that they represent, which should make it important for them. And make it easy for them to say “yes”.  (See tips here and here)

Play to Your Strengths

Choose the grassroots lobbying methods that make the most of your current and likely resources. Whether its post cards, petitions, email, phone calls, personal visits or all of the above, be sure to choose tactics that best fit your strengths and what you and other supporters are most capable of doing successfully.  (see tips here)

Don’t try to do everything. Focus. It’s better to do a few things really well than to attempt to do a lot and only manage a half-way job. It doesn’t help your case to look ineffective.

Be Personal and Spontaneous

Generally speaking, the more personal and/or spontaneous the contact is, the more effective it will be – but the harder it may be to generate big numbers. For example, a stack of thirty postcards can be viewed as just “pieces of paper’, but thirty personal letters, or thirty people showing up at a meeting, (or at their office), creates a more vivid and lasting impression. It’s easier to get thirty people to sign postcards, but harder to get them to write their own letters or go to a meeting. Don’t just go for “quantity” because it’s easier. Try to focus on “quality”.

Let Them Know What You Will Do

Of course we always want to let politicians know how we “feel” about various issues, and well we should. But it can be even more effective if you let them know what you will do. For example, let them know that you intend to contact every registered voter in your neighborhood; or have ten people write letters to the editor; or have everyone in your church show up and protest outside their office for a week; or that you will contact everyone you know to organize an effort to recruit someone to run against them in the next election if they don’t support your efforts. Also be sure to let them know what you will do to support them if they support your issue.

Be careful not to come across like a hothead and ramp things up too quickly. Depending on where they are on the issue, slowly turn up the heat and build pressure.

Multiply Your Efforts

The more the merrier, so enlist others in the effort, (why should you have all the fun – or do all the work?). The larger your group of fellow malcontents becomes, the more resources (including time, money and extended networks) that you will have to draw from. Actively recruit! Don’t be shy. If you are upset about it, chances are someone else is too.

Build a Team

More people means more (and hopefully better) grassroots organization and a bigger impact. Once you’ve got a group together, organize it – and don’t forget to delegate! The more organized you are, the better that you can leverage the resources that everyone brings to the table.  It also helps build the conservative political farm team.  (see tips here and here)

Say Thank-You

Most people don’t contact a public official unless they are upset about something. If you take the time to thank those who do right – even publicly – they will remember it. It’s a cheap investment that can pay big dividends down the road.


No matter what grassroots lobbying techniques or tactics that you might decide to use in your efforts, they will all generally revolve around these principles. Think of this as the basic checklist.

Make sure that you’re covering the basics!