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Political Lobbying and Why It’s Necessary

Published: Dec 13, 2019

At any given moment, there are thousands of registered (and unregistered) lobbyists present in Washington DC. 

Pick any two of them at random. Though they both may be donning the standard lobbyist attire: Near identical button-down shirts and business suits, chances are the interests they are representing are going to be quite different. In fact, they might be polar opposites.

You may find that one individual is representing the pharmaceutical industry, fighting for their right to set prices for drugs at whatever margins they see fit. The other may be lobbying to advance Medicare-for-all legislation in order to provide free healthcare for all.

The point, being – lobbying is a hallmark of democracy. No matter what side of the political spectrum you lie in, you need to lobby to effect social change. 

What’s the difference between lobbying and advocacy?
The line between advocacy and lobbying can get blurred.
In essence, an advocacy campaign is undertaken to support a cause or proposal. It may not always involve legislative changes.
A lobbying campaign, on the other hand, is done specifically to bring about legislative change.

Knowing how to lobby is critical to the success of your campaigns. Read on to find out.

What is political lobbying?

Political lobbying involves advocating for an interest that is influenced by a decision made by government officials (ex. passing of a law). 

Every stage of an advocacy/lobbying campaign aims to strategically exert pressure on lawmakers in order to gain a favorable outcome.

In the U.S., lobbying is considered so essential to the functioning of its government that it is protected by the First Amendment. 
“Congress shall make no law abridging the right of the people peaceably to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The importance given to lobbying in the constitution opens up plenty of possibilities:

For advocacy groups, lobbying can help them get laws passed even when their preferred party is not in power. By mobilizing people, they can build momentum for their future campaigns.

For the average constituent, the ability to lobby means that they have the ability to effect change no matter who is in power by allying with like-minded individuals.

What are the benefits of lobbying?

The sole purpose of lobbying is to influence action from lawmakers in order to enact legislation.

Towards that end, political lobbying helps organizations and individuals:

  • Offer solutions that they would like to see enacted
  • Enable constituents to become politically active
  • Represent the voices of the many
  • Express viewpoints of a minority group

It should be noted that all the effort that goes into lobbying has the added advantage of building relationships with lawmakers. These relationships will help campaigns in future lobbying efforts.

We’ve talked about how lobbying can help advocacy groups get positive legislation passed. The flip side is that lobbying can be used to advance private interests.

This is largely seen in corporate lobbying, where businesses pump money to pass legislation that is beneficial to their business (regardless of the cost it could have on the society/environment). 

Due to this, lobbying efforts by corporations have a poor reputation. 

This is especially true among social progress groups that are often at loggerheads with businesses over issues of the environment, healthcare, and social justice.

“Lobbying, or seeking to influence a public official on a specific issue, is not inherently a bad thing. But problems arise when a corporate interest behind a lobbying effort doesn’t match public interest.”

Soni Sangha

In many cases, corporations may present a public stance on an issue, while behind the scenes working in very much the opposite direction.

Take the case of Big Tobacco, that has warned the general public of the rise of illicit tobacco trade in countries like South Africa. In reality, the industry has been implicated in the illegal smuggling of tobacco products, as well as in efforts to curb laws that could help solve the problem.

Corporations can and do spend more on political lobbying than their nonprofit counterparts. This means that they can have an undue influence on issues that may affect many people.

That raises the question – Why is lobbying legal, if it allows corporations to override the will of the people and directly influence lawmaking (especially with the help of money)? 

It should not be possible to both lobby and still make a donation to a lawmaker. The current reality is that it is entirely possible.

But corporate lobbying does not necessarily have to be self-interested in nature, especially if their efforts are being steered by advocacy groups under mutual agreement.

It is often the case that corporations, with their established political contacts, wider legal leeway, and experience in lobbying, can make the biggest impact for social causes.

In 2005, 6 national sales directors for Mary Kay, made an effective political statement, driving pink Cadillacs to the U.S. Capitol. They were there to convince legislators to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act. Since the 1980’s the company has advocated for more than $500 million in federal funds allocated to combat domestic violence, assault, and stalking.

For nonprofits, the fastest way to get to lawmakers and enact real change involves recruiting corporate partners with experience in political lobbying. 

While the debate may continue on whether or not lobbying should have the protections it does, there is no doubt that lobbying is a powerful medium to drive social progress.

Who can lobby?

Lobbying can be undertaken by:

  • Individuals
  • Corporations
  • Interest groups
  • Governments

However, each of these categories have their own do’s and don’ts (or strict limitations) when it comes to lobbying.

Nonprofit organizations that allocate a “substantial part” of their efforts towards political lobbying are at risk of losing or disqualifying themselves from a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status.  

What is a substantial part? These decisions are often made on a case by case basis by the IRS after a review of the organization in question.

Further limiting the influence of nonprofit organizations in politics, they are not allowed to participate in elections for or against politicians to public office.

Nonprofits that find that influencing government decisions is necessary to advance their cause get around these restrictions through indirect involvement. They do this by conducting workshops and distributing educational pamphlets to supporters.

Advocacy groups with 501(c)(4) status (social welfare groups) have more room to engage in political lobbying, with the following things to note:

  • 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.

How much does lobbying cost?

Every year, corporations spend over 3 billion dollars recruiting lobbyists to influence congress. The top industries in lobbying in terms of money spent are:

  • Pharmaceutical (177 million)
  • Business associations (120 million)
  • Insurance companies (111 million)
  • Technology/Internet (105 million)
  • Oil and gas (102 million)
  • Electric utilities (92 million)
  • Securities and investment (73 million)

Nonprofit organizations and advocacy groups also lobby in the form of more cost-efficient methods such as grassroots advocacy.

While corporations, nonprofits, and advocacy groups can engage in lobbying at various levels, the actual process of making connections and building relationships with lawmakers to ensure successful lobbying is done by individual lobbyists.

What are lobbyists, and what do they do?

We can define lobbyists as individuals that work to influence policy on behalf of other individuals, or more commonly, organizations.

Lobbyists typically have a deep understanding of how the legislative process of the body of government they are trying to influence works. They also have knowledge of the cause they are lobbying for.

Who can be a lobbyist?

A lobbyist can be anyone with an understanding of the lawmaking process, or someone who has established connections with lawmakers. 

Lobbyists tend to hold degrees in the realm of law, communications, finance, business, public relations, or political science. Graduates who are interested in getting involved in political lobbying often participate in government internships to get a head start on building relationships with lawmakers.

In general, lobbyists may be:

  • Policy experts
  • Attorneys
  • Or even former government officials

In fact, it is not uncommon for former government officials to become political lobbyists after leaving elected offices.

This phenomenon is referred to as the revolving door. Half of retiring senators and a third of retiring House members go on to become lobbyists. These lobbying positions are often offered as a reward for voting in favor of legislation that benefits certain industries. 

Here are the top industries by percentage of revolvers:

revolving door political lobbying

Image credit:

John Boehner is, however, an interesting exception. The former speaker of the house was named as the chairman of the National Cannabis Roundtable, an organization that lobbies for pro-marijuana policy. This was despite his opposition to marijuana legalization while in office.

In the case of grassroots lobbying, lobbyists can be normal citizens who are aligned with a cause.

Do they get paid?

Though some lobbyists may work on a voluntary basis, most are paid by the individuals or organizations that commission them. They may also be salaried employees of a lobbying firm that is hired by an organization.

The more influential and experienced they are, the more likely they are to receive hefty compensation for their efforts. 

Lobbyists that have spent 5 to 10 years developing valuable contacts can expect to earn salaries nearing $100,000.

Former government officials (as mentioned earlier), high profile lawyers, and PR executives are more likely to pull higher salaries.

What to look for in a lobbyist

While having meetings with legislators is certainly a part of the job, it is not all there is to lobbying government.

It is important for an organization to recruit lobbyists that align with their objectives. Organizations may want to find lobbyists with expertise in:

Grassroots organizing

A well-organized grassroots effort can overwhelm lawmakers with calls, emails, and face-to-face interactions with their constituents, leaving them no choice but to listen. 

A lobbyist who is experienced in grassroots organizing can mobilize large groups of people towards a cause through methods such as patch-through calls, rallies, and town halls.

Legislation monitoring

You will want to be aware in advance when legislation that you are interested in is going up for vote. Skilled lobbyists in this regard will be able to identify and analyze new laws and whether they will positively or negatively affect your cause.


If securing grants from government organizations is a part of your objectives, lobbyists can help you craft proposals that fall into prescribed government guidelines. They can also play up aspects of your organization that may appeal to these legislative bodies.

Strategic planning and communication

Lobbyists can often take on the role of consultant for organizations, molding a consistent message that they want to put across to lawmakers and supporters of a cause. A lobbyist can influence the strategies your campaign undertakes.

Types of political lobbying

Depending on who is carrying out the lobbying campaign and their objectives, a campaign can fall under grassroots or grasstops lobbying.

Grassroots/Indirect LobbyingGrasstops/Direct Lobbying
Who advocates?Constituents/VotersLobbyists/Prominent citizens
How is it done?Uses public opinion to influence lawmakersInvolves building personal relationships with lawmakers
Lobbying methodsPatch-through calls, emails, petitionsFace to face meetings

Grassroots lobbying

Through grassroots (or indirect) political lobbying, organizations raise awareness about issues among their supporters and get them engaged in the process.

Their goal is to encourage and enable supporters to reach out to their representatives through email, direct mail, social media, and telephone in order to share their stance on an issue.

The most common way this is done is through patch-through calls.

Take the example of National Equality Action Team or NEAT, an advocacy group focused on LGBTQ+ issues.


They ran successful patch-through calling campaigns using CallHub to reach out to supporters and then connected them to their local elected officials to express their stance on equal rights for the LGBTQ+ community.

Since grassroots advocates are less experienced than lobbyists, it is important to make sure they are up-to-date on your campaign and the message that they need to communicate to lawmakers.

If trying to influence a specific piece of legislation, grassroots advocates will need to know:

  • The related bill number
  • What the government is doing about it 
  • The specific action the representative should be taking

Grasstops or direct lobbying

Grasstops advocacy involves enlisting the help of individuals who have established relationships with the decision-makers you are targeting. These individual lobbyists take the effort to have direct meetings with lawmakers with the goal of influencing them to vote in a certain way.

Note that in the context of corporations, grasstops advocacy is most commonly referred to as direct lobbying.

Examples of this might be industry lobbyists, political donors, current and former leaders of the decision-makers’ political party, or other influential people meeting lawmakers to influence change. 

A fairly recent example of grasstops advocacy would be comedian Jon Stewart spearheading the passage of the 9/11 first responders bill.

9 11 jon stewart lobby

Credit: Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call

In a well-publicized and emotional campaign, he joined the voices of hundreds of first responders to convince congress to vote to extend medical funding for the victims of 9/11. The new legislation extended the life of the fund through to year 2090

Grasstops advocates reach out to the targeted decision-makers in a number of ways, like in-person meetings, and emails/letters.

Political lobbying methods and techniques

For organizations that are planning to use the voices of their supporters in order to influence policy decisions, as in the case of NEAT, there are certain methods of outreach that are tried and tested.

Patch through calling

Patch-through calling helps organizations connect constituents and voters to their elected representatives.

Volunteers can tutor supporters about issues and take them through exactly how to carry out a conversation with their representative on a call before patching the call to the right representative.

patch through calling

With patch-through calling, volunteers can communicate the specifics of the message they want to put across to supporters before transferring their call to a legislator’s office.

A calling platform like CallHub can allow you to have volunteers make patch-through calls to contacts by simply uploading the contact list to the software.

Petitions and polls

Polls and petitions can get the attention of lawmakers, especially if public opinion is in line with what the lobbyist wants to achieve. 

Even individuals can harness the power of grassroots advocacy.

Valerie Wood-Harper produced a petition on, demanding an investigation into the death of her disabled brother Quinten. The campaign received media attention, eventually leading to the passage of a law.

change org campaign

The Quinten Douglas Wood Act of 2014 allowed child welfare officers in Oklahoma to classify disabled children in the same category as infants and those unable to communicate.

In the example above, was the platform used to create the petition that eventually led to the passage of the law. Organizations can also run polls to supporters and constituents through phone calls and text messages to present them to legislators.

Rallies and protests

Rallies are an effective tool as they tend to gather more media attention than other more under the radar lobbying/advocacy methods. This attention can put pressure on policymakers to adhere to the will of their constituents.

Advocacy group organized protests around the world, getting supporters to take action towards climate justice. 
In Minnesota, they used text messages to rally supporters, get them to sign petitions, and recruit them for face-to-face meetings with lawmakers.

350 org campaign

Read their story

Tools like CallHub can allow organizations to reach their supporters through calls and text messages. 

CRM’s like Action Network and NationBuilder help organizations maintain databases of their volunteers and supporters.

Face-to-face meetings

Direct lobbying is most commonly done through lobbyists having face to face interactions with lawmakers. In order for this lobbying method to be effective, the advocate needs to have a good relationship with the lawmaker, and if not, needs to be particularly influential.

A good relationship can be built by having lobbyists:

  • Meet with decision-makers 2-3 times a year
  • Interact with them on Social Media
  • Contact lawmakers before key votes


While lobbying is much maligned as a process, it is effective.

Sure, there are faults with the current ways in which lobbying works in most countries. But, in order to get things done, organizations and individuals need to work within the system.

Corporations that are interested in social responsibility, can do so by forging deeper alliances with nonprofits that are working on important issues. And that means going beyond simply donating money and asking the nonprofit to do the actual work in solving the problem.

The best way to do that is political lobbying on behalf of a cause. 

Vice versa, for nonprofits, it may be better worth their time if they requested time and effort from a company’s executive staffers and government relations representatives to lobby on their behalf.



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