When regulators moved to reduce the federal food stamp program three separate times this year, Food Policy Action mobilized to oppose each effort. The work had an impact—both on the government and on advocates who stepped up.
“It can be very hard to move people to action,” said Karen Spangler, director of policy and program operations. “Right now, people can be very skeptical of whether their action can make an impact, given the state of the world.”
Asking supporters to take action multiple times “can really wear down even active members of the public,” she said.
Spangler was not alone in her assessment. The 2019 Advocacy Survey showed that more than half the respondents (53 percent) say it is difficult to move people to action and almost a third (31 percent) said they could use help explaining why their issues matter.
Spangler was part of a panel that discussed the survey results in our latest webinar, Inside the 2019 Advocacy Survey. She was joined by Eric Steenstra, the president of Vote Hemp, and Katrina Yoshida, policy engagement manager at ACE Scholarships. Singer Crawford, head of digital partnerships at Phone2Action, moderated.
To learn more about the 2019 Advocacy Survey, hear the full webinar.
Spangler said that the answer to keeping her advocates motivated was to emphasize victories and explain how the organization makes an impact. “We try to address some of these challenges by articulating to people why their particular action will make a difference,” she said.
For example, in the regulatory arena, where the food stamps battles were fought, Food Policy Action emphasized that regulators are required to read the comments that advocates submit. “They are offering this personal experience, their story,” Spangler said. “It’s not going to be in vain, even if it might feel like it.”
Steenstra at Vote Hemp, which works to promote the benefits of growing hemp as a crop, said his organization nurtures advocates.
“Our goal with all of our advocates is to move them up the advocacy ladder,” he said. “A lot of times they start out following us on social media and becoming aware of the issue. Our goal is to get them to be more engaged. Our ultimate goal is to get them to take action.”
But engagement is not the only challenge advocacy professionals face. Staffing and funding both ranked among the top five challenges. Respondents also weighed in on political polarization, with more than half (52 percent) saying it makes advocacy harder.
“It hasn’t been easy to get members to step out of line with their party for common sense solutions,” Spangler said. “For us, it has made it more difficult to make progress.”
Steenstra said his organization tries to work with lawmakers in both parties. “Sometimes, we would tailor our messages to members based on their interests, but in general we always saw this as a nonpartisan issue and we work very hard to get both sides of the isle to support it,” he said.
He points to victories like the 2014 Farm Bill, which passed with bipartisan support, as proof that progress can be made. “It wasn’t easy,” he said. “It is very difficult, especially on certain issues that tend to be affiliated with one side or the other. But I think there are ways to work, even in this difficult polarized environment.”
In such a tough environment, how advocacy organizations define success is critical. The survey showed the top answer to that question, at 36 percent, was the number of messages sent from advocates to public officials. It ranked far higher than actual legislative or regulatory action, which was the number-two answer at 20 percent.
Of course, the two are heavily intertwined, as Yoshida with ACE Scholarships explained. “Ultimately, defining success for us would be passing legislation,” she said. “Sometimes that takes thousands of emails or calls to a legislator to do something. Sometimes, it just means a few key dedicated people showing up at the capitol and sharing their stories. At the end of the day, we want to pass legislation. The means can look different.”
To learn more about the 2019 Advocacy Survey, download your copy.
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