“Vox populi, vox Dei” or “the voice of the people is the voice of God.”
The phrase alludes to the power of majority opinion and how it can be hard to ignore.
Leveraging that voice to bring about necessary change is the essence of grassroots lobbying.
What is grassroots lobbying?
Grassroots lobbying refers to any attempt by an individual or organization to influence legislation through public opinion.
Direct vs. Indirect (grassroots) lobbying
The IRS describes the two variants of lobbying:
First, what is Direct Lobbying: It is “any attempt to influence legislation through communication with any member of a legislative body (i.e., a Congressman or Senator) or any government official or employee who may participate in the formulation of legislation.”
Communication is considered lobbying when it specifies a certain piece of legislation and expresses a view on the legislation.
Second, Grassroots lobbying is “the attempt to influence legislation through attempts to affect the opinions of the general public.”
Similar to direct lobbying, it must specify a piece of legislation and express a view on it. Additionally, it must also “encourage the recipients” of the communication to take action with respect to that legislation.
|Indirect/Grassroots Lobbying||Grasstops/Direct Lobbying|
|What is it?||Communication with a legislator that expresses a view about specific legislation.||Communication with the public that expresses a view about specific legislation and includes a Call to Action.|
|Who advocates?||Constituents/Voters.||Lobbyists/Prominent citizens.|
|How is it done?||Uses public opinion to influence lawmakers.||Involves building personal relationships with lawmakers.|
|Lobbying methods||Patch-through calls, emails, petitions.||Face to face meetings.|
Knowing what is direct lobbying and what constitutes grassroots lobbying is an important distinction in campaign strategy.
Who organizes a grassroots lobbying effort?
Grassroots lobbying can be undertaken by 501(c)3 nonprofit organizations, companies, trade unions, advocacy groups, interest groups, and grassroots lobbyists.
|Note: Who is a grassroots lobbyist?|
A grassroots lobbyist specializes in mobilizing large groups of people towards a cause through methods such as patch-through calls, rallies, and town halls.
Cause-based nonprofits can participate in grassroots lobbying by asking constituents and supporters to write to or call lawmakers. They do so by:
- Distributing pamphlets
- Buying ad space
- Making calls
- Sending texts
|Note: By opting for a 501(h) election, nonprofits can have a better idea of their rights and limits when it comes to legislative lobbying activities rather than the vague rule of “no substantial part of their activities.”|
In this case, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit can participate in lobbying limited only by the financial expenditure on that lobbying.
Grassroots lobbying can be used readily by businesses that have a large public presence or those that deal with taxation, government appropriations, and economic development.
While generally being experts in direct lobbying, if corporate interests behind an issue match the public interest, they will find it easier to gather support for their campaigns.
501(c)(4) advocacy groups
Social welfare groups have more room to engage in direct and grassroots lobbying. For example, Labour unions that fall under 501(c)(4) status may leverage their members to stage sit-ins and protests to persuade lawmakers to avoid cutting funding for certain programs in the budget.
While undertaking grassroots lobbying, advocacy groups must note the following:
- Lobbying cannot be the primary focus of the advocacy—The funds used for lobbying should constitute less than half of their total budget.
- Lobbying for legislative change is less restrictive than lobbying to get candidates elected. Money must not go to funds tied to a candidate’s campaign.
- The money going towards lobbying efforts are not tax-deductible.
|Note: Public/government agencies are barred from using public funds for grassroots lobbying, in a similar way that they are prohibited from using public funds to influence voters in an election. Private groups can do this—public agencies cannot.|
The benefits of grassroots lobbying
Showing that there is popular support behind a particular issue is one way to convince lawmakers to take action. That is where grassroots lobbying is more useful in comparison to direct lobbying.
Related reading>> Political lobbying strategies and techniques
Grassroots lobbying can also help by:
- Increasing public support for an issue among constituents
- Offering solutions that the public would like to see enacted
- Enabling constituents to become politically active
- Representing the voices of the many
- Expressing viewpoints of a minority group
How is it done?
Communicate with supporters and ask them to:
- Come to a rally
- Sign a petition
- Call or email a legislator
You can do that through the following channels:
That means TV, radio, and newspapers. Use these spaces to encourage public action on legislative issues.
- Convince the editorial boards of traditional media channels to take a stance on an issue.
- Contribute guest columns, blogs, and op-eds talking about your cause.
- Appear on television and radio talk shows.
- Pay for ad space.
Use email if you have a list of supporters that you can segment and send targeted messages to:
- Personalize emails depending on the information you have on your contacts to make a stronger appeal.
- Send email campaigns to all your supporters at once, or segment your contact list for more targeted messaging.
- Add visual elements to your email that can create an impact.
You can use phone calls to educate supporters and connect them with lawmakers (through patch through calling)
- Talk to constituents about the issue and legislation and give them talking points on the call.
- Patch them through so they can convey their message to the legislator’s office.
National Equality Action Team or NEAT, an advocacy group focused on LGBTQ+ issues used patch-through calling campaigns to reach out to supporters and connect them to their local elected officials to express their stance on equal rights for the LGBTQ+ community.
Texts are a convenient way of spreading the word among your supporter list. 95% of millennials send messages daily, so if you’re reaching out to supporters in that bracket, this is the ideal channel.
- Have one on one conversations about your grassroots lobbying effort with peer-to-peer texts.
- Send urgent updates with a text message broadcast.
Because of its capacity to broadcast a message to a supporter base, social media is a powerful tool for grassroots advocacy lobbying.
The most prominent advantages of social media advertising are:
- Reach a large audience immediately (with a petition ask, for example).
- There are plenty of opportunities to expand your audience base by asking supporters to share your posts.
Levels of grassroots lobbying
Every state, city, and county has its own lobbying laws. This can be a difficult maze for organizations to navigate. Here’s a brief distinction between different levels of grassroots lobbying and what they involve:
Local lobbying involves tackling more “on the ground” issues, rather than issues of policy. For instance, whether a grant should be given to X or Y, or whether a particular kind of development or business should be allowed in the town.
Municipalities may require that organizations that plan to lobby at a local level maintain and file lobbying reports. Organizations and individuals should check with city clerks about local lobbying restrictions and requirements.
Knowing the makeup of a state legislature can help you run targeted grassroots campaigns.
The positions of authority within a state legislature include the:
- Speaker of the House
- President of the Senate
- Committee and Caucus chairs
- Majority and minority floor leaders and whips
|Note: NCSL has a directory of state legislature websites.|
Lobbying laws and what constitutes lobbying can vary across states. This includes questions like what is direct lobbying or whether grassroots lobbying comes under the laws for each state, etc.
Here’s how each state defines lobbying:
|Note: NCSL has provided a table with definitions for lobbying, lobbyist, and other relevant terms in all 50 states.|
They have also tabulated reporting requirements for expenditures in each state.
Grassroots lobbying at this level is done to influence lawmakers in the House of Representatives and Senate, as well as members of the Executive branch of government.
Unlike at the state level, federal law does not mandate the disclosure of grassroots lobbying (under the Federal Lobbying Disclosure Act). That means grassroots lobbying that aims to influence federal policy does not have to be reported in states.
|Note: Under the Tax Code, for a 501(c)(3) nonprofit no more than 25% of lobbying expenses can be for grassroots lobbying activities, at the federal level.|
Stages of grassroots lobbying
Researching and assessing current resources
Effective grassroots lobbying is built on a foundation of research. At the beginning of your campaign, identify the right advocates for your cause, the most persuasive points to put across to decision-makers, and the most impactful tactics you can use to gather support.
Here are some things to consider at this stage:
- Find out how laws/regulations apply to your efforts.
- Identify and assess opposition to your cause.
- Map out the financial and political resources at your disposal.
- Identify your allies and supporter base.
- Augment your understanding of the legislative process (of a bill becoming a law, for instance).
|Note: How does a bill become a law?|
There is a general path that the legislative process follows, with the grassroots being able to affect legislation at different stages of the process:
1. A bill is introduced by a legislator.
2. The bill is assigned to a committee.
3. The committee hosts public hearings.
4. The committee acts on the bill (e.g., amend, send to the House or Senate for debate, or drop)
5. The bill’s merits are discussed by the legislature and voted on.
6. If the bill is approved, it moves to the next chamber, where the same process is followed.
7. If the bill is amended by the second chamber, changes must be approved by the first chamber.
8. Once enacted by the legislature, the bill is approved or vetoed by the governor/president.
Targeting legislators and allies
Targeting is about allocating the grassroots power you have to the lawmakers you need to influence. Work with your board and key staff members to understand which legislators and elected officials you need to focus on persuading and finding the key supporter groups that can influence these legislators.
Here are the questions you should consider at this stage:
- Who proposed the bill you are trying to influence?
- Which committees are involved with the bill?
- How many legislators do you need to influence to ensure the successful passage of the law?
- What are these legislators most likely to be swayed by?
- How will you allocate resources to influence each of these lawmakers?
Planning – strategies and goals
Planning for your grassroots lobbying campaign involves defining goals and finalizing strategies for supporter and legislator outreach.
Make sure you tick these boxes:
- A documented plan for your campaign. It should outline your budget, goals, strategies, messaging, and roles of your campaign stakeholders.
- Create a timeline. At what stage of the legislative process are you going to enact each of your strategies?
- Set measurable goals that you can use to assess the outcome of your campaign.
Executing the campaign
If you haven’t prepared beforehand (by following the earlier steps), the execution stage can be the most confusing part of your campaign.
Some things to consider during and before execution:
- Do you have the right tools for calling, texting, and email campaigns? Who is managing those tools?
- Are your staff/volunteers trained on the tools you are using?
- Who is in charge of executing each aspect of your campaign?
Let’s take a closer look at the tools you will need in a grassroots lobbying campaign.
Grassroots lobbying tools
As we can see in the previous section, there’s a ton of work that goes into a grassroots lobbying campaign. It requires
- Maintaining a database of constituents
- Creating a website with resources/info
- Making calls
- Sending texts
- Sending emails
- Keep track of laws/legislators
Let’s talk about the tools that can help you with these tasks.
Online campaign management
CRM tools like NationBuilder, Blue State Digital, or The Action Network allow you to build websites for your campaign as well as manage your supporter database.
Some CRMs let you create petitions for supporters to sign and forms for volunteer registration.
Here are some other grassroots lobbying CRMs to consider:
Calling and texting outreach – CallHub
CallHub is a calling and texting tool that integrates with CRMs like NationBuilder, Action Network, and Blue State Digital so organizers can carry out surveys, patch-through calling campaigns, and organize events in real time. Campaigns can mobilize supporters from across the world with the help of volunteers making calls or sending peer-to-peer texts from the comfort of their homes.
- Use CallHub’s patch through calling feature to run campaigns with distributed volunteers, tutoring supporters on the specifics and connecting them with their representatives.
- Use peer-to-peer texts to have conversations with supporters, and ask them to sign a petition, come to an event, or send an email to a legislator.
Keeping an eye on the status of a bill is important through all stages of your grassroots lobbying campaign.
Tools like LegiScan let you :
- Track legislature across all 50 states.
- Create dynamic reports based on your monitoring list or issue areas.
- Embed and share interactive maps of the legislation you are tracking.
- create legislature monitoring groups with staff/board members.
Laws regulating grassroots lobbying communications
We’ve briefly gone over the laws regarding grassroots lobbying for different groups and levels of government in previous sections. Let us look at what regulations apply to the modes of communication you use to reach supporters and legislators.
All paid advertising on television and radio must identify the sponsor of the advertisement, and include certain disclaimers.
Paid ads fall under grassroots lobbying expenditure (and thereby are constrained by expenditure laws) if they:
- Are made within 2 weeks before a vote by a legislative body or committee.
- Reflect a view on a piece of legislation.
- Refer to the legislation or encourage the public to communicate with legislators regarding the legislation.
If a phone call or text message asks the receiver to “call their legislator” or “let the governor know” that the individual supports or opposes a particular piece of legislation or executive decision, the call may come under a state’s expenditure laws. (This is on a state by state basis)
Grassroots lobbying allows you to take on important issues and educate citizens in the process.
Why is the second part important?
An uninformed public gives lawmakers the leeway to push and codify harmful legislation into law. Grassroots lobbying helps keep them accountable.
Once you’ve read up on the regulations for grassroots lobbying with regards to what level of government you are trying to influence, you can start planning and executing your campaign.
Take a look at the other resources on our blog, that talk about organizing a community around an issue, methods to communicate with constituents, and messaging to persuade them to take action.