Our interview series GrassScoops features grassroots advocacy changemakers from leading associations, nonprofits, and corporations each month. This month, we spoke with Adam Nielsen, Director of National Legislation and Policy Development at the Illinois Farm Bureau, a grassroots, statewide organization dedicated to enhancing the people, progress and pride of Illinois and its farming community.
Can you tell us about your professional background and experience in advocacy?
I spent 15 years as a radio and TV news reporter before becoming an “advocate” and joining Illinois Farm Bureau (IFB) as a media spokesperson. At about the same time, I ran and was elected to the Normal, IL town council and served three terms. Then, about 10 years ago, I became the National Legislative Director for IFB. In addition to that role, I also inherited our advocacy program which was just a fraction of what it has become. Since I took over that program, we’ve put a lot of energy into expanding our advocate base and learning what works and what doesn’t, often by trial and error.
In implementing digital tools for grassroots advocacy, what were you most surprised about?
There’s a lot of competition out there. But even now, most of the tools are designed for people who use computers and laptops, and not for our mobile devices, which is where everyone is today.
What grassroots advocacy initiative(s) have proven most fruitful for your organization?
Our calls-to-action allow our members to rally behind our policy positions which are member-developed and at the core of our Farm Bureau mission. They’ve learned that it’s both easy and critically important for them to engage their elected officials and be heard. It’s important for an organization’s leaders to embrace and promote the importance of advocacy. It’s no coincidence that in the areas of our state where leaders have made advocacy a top priority, that’s where we find our highest levels of engagement.
Can you tell us in detail about one of the digital campaigns you’ve run?
It wasn’t a big campaign and took little time to rollout, but it was an important local land use issue. Our members were opposed to a proposed rail line for a variety of reasons, including the loss of prime farmland. They were passionate and well-organized, and worked with their non-farm neighbors. We targeted our members in the impacted area of our state and asked them to urge their state and federal elected officials to take a public stand against the proposed rail line. The campaign generated more than 200 contacts. Our elected officials unanimously opposed the project which was rejected by the federal Surface Transportation Board. Our elected officials’ public opposition to the project was highlighted in the board’s opinion. That was a satisfying win for all property owners, especially for our members in that region.
There are sometimes misconceptions about rural communities and farmers being uninterested in digital tools. Can you please speak a bit about that and what your experience has been?
That’s funny. Farmers are early and avid adopters of technology. Twenty years ago, our members were completely unavailable for advocacy during the several weeks out of the year when they were planting and harvesting their crops. Technology has changed that. Now GPS is driving their tractors and combines. Like everyone else, our members are always on their mobile devices. As staff, we needed to find new tools to take advantage of our members’ year-round availability.
If elected officials in a part of the country are already pro-agriculture, do you think it’s still important for an organization like Illinois Farm Bureau to have grassroots engagement? Why?
Of course we’d like to think all of our members of Congress are pro-agriculture! For the most part they are, but we’ve got a lot of issues and we’re always in competition with every other interest group for our elected officials’ attention and efforts. We preach the value of getting to know elected officials on a first-name basis. We do fly-ins and frequently hold in-district meetings. Our industry is tailor-made for “show and tell.” Staying in contact is critical. But sometimes, when you have to make a point quickly, you just have to be able to overwhelm elected officials with pure numbers.
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to an organization that wants to increase their advocate list?
Your leaders have to embrace the value of advocacy and they have to lead by example. A couple of other pieces of advice: keep your message simple, and make it easy and painless for your members to engage on their time. Phone2Action allows us to conduct an advocate sign-up activity anytime we have a group of people together with their mobile devices.
What ways do you find most effective for engaging your existing advocates?
Keep them informed. Remind them that their voice really does matter. I work on national issues, but every once in awhile, it doesn’t hurt to give your volunteers a local issue to engage on. Celebrate your victories. Call attention to and reward your top advocates.
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