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Political Lobbying and Why It’s Necessary

Published: Mar 22, 2024

Political lobbying is big business in America. There are an estimated 12,000 registered lobbyists in Washington, D.C. These are the ‘professionals’ who lobby the interests of their clients for a fee and submit their documents for verification. They spent a mind-boggling $4.6 billion in 2023 on their various efforts. 

The unofficial number can easily be triple that. After all, a handshake, a quick chat with an old buddy, or even a nod across the room during a crucial vote can be considered political lobbying. 

Statistic: Total number of registered  lobbyists in the United States from 2000 to 2023 | Statista
Find more statistics at  Statista

However, no matter what side of the political spectrum you lie in, you need to lobby to effect social change. 

Advocacy Vs Lobbying: What is the difference?

To give a simple example, advocacy involves informing the public about the dangers of plastic straws and encouraging customers in bars and restaurants not to use them—through education, protests, and the occasional viral video of a straw being removed from a turtle’s nose. 
Lobbying (for the same issue) involves holding meetings with government officials, legislators, and candidates who stand for election – influencing the actions of the movers and shakers so that the government bans plastic straws in the entire state. 
Both seek to bring about change around a particular issue. Advocacy tries to change societal behavior while lobbying changes government policies. All lobbyists advocate some cause and are usually paid for it. But not all advocacy groups lobby the government directly—they typically pay a lobbyist to do that.  
Read more: Advocacy Vs. Lobbying: Their Unique Roles, Examples and FAQs

What is political lobbying?

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

Though every state has its own definition of lobbying, broadly, political lobbying is the attempt to influence legislation or regulation in any way – having it discussed, passed, amended, or vetoed.

In America, lobbying for your cause is seen as a vital aspect of participatory democracy since every cause has the same freedom to lobby as any other. Also, since political lobbying can happen in the open, it allows advocacies to make their cause irrespective of who is in power – having laws passed at any period of governance.

Which action is an example of political lobbying?

To be clear, if a legislator tries to drum up support for their bill in the House or if a private citizen calls their Senator to advocate for a cause, this is not considered ‘political lobbying’. There is a lot of common sense at work here, but generally, individual or private efforts to influence one particular legislation are not considered political lobbying. 

Instead, the bi-partisan, cumulative work of lobbyists (who are legally defined and regulated) over the years toward a very specific overall goal is seen as political lobbying. 

Again to give an example, you calling your Senator to ask for a new national park is not lobbying. 

Here’s a real-world example of political lobbying: In 2005, six national sales directors for Mary Kay made an effective political statement by driving pink Cadillacs to the US Capitol. They were there to convince legislators to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act. Since the 1980s, the company has advocated for more than $500 million in federal funds allocated to combat domestic violence, assault, and stalking.

In the end, it is just a matter of scale. 

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

Lobbying requires a lot of effort, but it also has the added advantage of building relationships with lawmakers. These relationships will help campaigns in future lobbying efforts.

Why is political lobbying legal?

“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, Fortune Magazine

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. This is a problem because, in many cases, corporations present a public stance on an issue, while behind the scenes working in the opposite direction. This puts them at loggerheads with social progress groups over issues of the environment, healthcare, and social justice. 

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

It should not be possible to lobby and still donate to a lawmaker, but it is entirely possible.

Corporate lobbying does not necessarily have to be self-interested, especially if advocacy groups are steering their efforts under mutual agreement. But they usually are. 

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

For nonprofits, the fastest way to reach lawmakers and enact real change is to recruit 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?

The short answer – anyone. The long answer is – anyone can hire a lobbying firm or lobbyist to lobby for themselves, a specific cause, as part of a special interest group, or for a particular slant in any and all legislation. 

There are three barriers to you and your friends showing up to lobby for yourselves. 

  1. You may lack legal and procedural expertise to argue about the legislation you want and the exact people you need to make the argument to. 
  2. You may lack the time and/or money to live in Washington, D.C., or anywhere else and lobby for your cause full-time, including hosting get-togethers, attending committee meetings, keeping track of related legislation, etc. 
  3. You may be unable to meet the legal regulatory requirements imposed on lobbyists (especially regarding financial statements). 

It is easier to hire a specialized firm or person who has all of the above and inside connections in the halls of power to do your lobbying for you.    

And you want to know how good they are? Here are some numbers for you – 

According to Open Secrets, the lobbying firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck was hired by 323 clients in 2023, who paid them a total amount of $62.4 Million.

There are many restrictions, though. Who is defined as a lobbyist varies from state to state, and there are Federal laws as well (like the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995), usually relating to the amount of money they earn and the time they spend doing this before coming under the law. 

Few corporations lobby directly for themselves, mostly choosing to hire lobbyist firms to do the heavy lifting for them. 

Nonprofit organizations can lobby for themselves, but if they allocate a “substantial part” of their efforts to political lobbying, they risk losing or disqualifying themselves from 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status.  

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

Advocacy groups with 501(c)(4) status (social welfare groups) can spend almost 50% of their funds on lobbying, but no more than that. Also, they can’t fund a candidate’s campaign directly. 

What are lobbyists, and what do they do?

Lobbyists do political lobbying. They are individuals who 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 and knowledge of the cause they are lobbying for.

Who can be a lobbyist?

A lobbyist can be anyone who understands the lawmaking process or has established connections with lawmakers. 

Lobbyists tend to hold degrees in the realm of law, communications, finance, business, public relations, or political science. Graduates interested in political lobbying often participate in government internships to get a headstart 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 become lobbyists. These lobbying positions are often offered as a reward for voting in favor of legislation that benefits certain industries. 

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

Do they get paid?

Handsomely is the short answer. 

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 hired by an organization.

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

Lobbyists who 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

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

Legislation monitoring: You should be aware in advance when legislation that you are interested in is going up for a vote. Skilled lobbyists can identify and analyze new laws and determine whether they will positively or negatively affect your cause.

Fundraising: If securing grants from government organizations is part of your objectives, lobbyists can help you craft proposals that meet prescribed government guidelines. They can also highlight aspects of your organization that may appeal to these legislative bodies.

Strategic planning and communication: Lobbyists can often act as consultants for organizations, molding a consistent message they want to communicate to lawmakers and supporters of a cause. A lobbyist can also influence the strategies your campaign undertakes.

How do political interest groups and lobbying groups typically influence public policy?

Public policy is generally defined as regulations and legislation drafted and passed by the relevant government authorities at every level. Now whether you want to influence your local park and recreation committee or the President of the United States – the fundamental process is the same: 

  1. Generating public interest in the cause: Using all major mainstream channels, social media, and whatever specialized media the target audience consumes, groups try to build a case for their cause among the voters – who then indirectly make that known to the relevant authorities.
  2. Keeping in constant contact: Lobbying can be seen as a really complicated dating game if you consider how much attention a lobbyist has to give someone before their cause gains traction. From dinners and lunches to meetings at golf courses or during morning jogs to even just seeing them every day at their place of work, lobbying groups ensure they are in constant contact with the relevant people and constantly have the ‘right’ conversations. 
  3. Finding the money: Fundraising is the most potent work a lobbying group can do – i.e., the concentration (or denial) of funds. Lobbying groups raise funds for those who support them and withhold funds if things do not go their way. This is not considered ‘bribery’ since the lobbying groups do not directly give anyone cash in a suitcase. But the most successful ones make it clear that the next election campaign funds will be severely affected if certain legislation does not go their way.  
  4. Finding the experts: Generally, large policy changes are not made ad hoc. There are usually committee meetings where experts are consulted. Finding (and funding) the right experts for such meetings are major parts of the efforts of any lobbying group. 
  5. Helping with the paperwork: Even for those in power, from a small town’s park committee to the US House Committee for Defense Spending, battling through the reams of paperwork all government bureaucracy generates is a challenge. Lobbying groups often take the burden on themselves, sorting and crafting paperwork that helps their cause, reducing the burden on the ones being lobbied. 

How much does lobbying cost?

Every year, corporations spend over $4 Billion recruiting lobbyists to influence Congress. The top industries in lobbying in terms of money spent are:

Nonprofit organizations and advocacy groups also lobby through 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 ensures individual lobbyists do successful lobbying.

It would cost you millions of dollars to lobby successfully. So plan accordingly. 

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 lobbying

Through grassroots (or indirect) political lobbying, organizations raise awareness about issues among their supporters and engage them 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 the 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. Then they 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 ensure they are up-to-date on your campaign and the message 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 make an 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 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. 

Political lobbying methods and techniques

Certain outreach methods are tried and tested for organizations planning to use their supporters’ voices to influence policy decisions, as in the case of NEAT.

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 converse with their representative on a call before patching the call to the right representative.

With patch-through calling, volunteers can communicate the specifics of their message 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.

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 gather more media attention than other, more under-the-radar lobbying/advocacy methods. This attention can pressure policymakers to adhere to their constituents’ will.

Advocacy group organized protests worldwide, 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. Of the roughly 6000 people that came to the first strike on September 20th, 2919 attendees opted in by SMS to their text message communications.

Read their story: How 350 Used Text Messages to Organize the Climate Strike

Face-to-face meetings

Direct lobbying is most commonly done through lobbyists’ face-to-face interactions with lawmakers. For this lobbying method to be effective, the advocate needs to have a good relationship with the lawmaker and, if not, 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 system of lobbying in most countries. But in order to get things done, organizations and individuals need to work within the system.

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

The best way to do that is political lobbying for a cause. 

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

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