Thinking Differently in Post-Earmark Washington

We were asked an interesting question the other day that would have been easier to answer a few years ago. The query was simple, and one we get regularly as lobbyists: Why should we engage inside-the-Beltway when earmarks have been scuttled and scorned?

For nonprofits and smaller for-profit companies, this question can be a daily struggle. Do we tap into scarce resources for what some might consider an extravagance? How can we justify spending thousands of dollars in Washington when regular order (you remember -- "How a Bill Becomes a Law," (http://kids.clerk.house.gov/grade-school/lesson.html?intID=17)), appears to be extinct?  Even for sacred spending bills, the usual hearings, multiple markups, floor action, and presidential signing ceremonies are joining the Walkman or portable CD player as relics from a previous generation. 

In this iPod-era, when so many companies and individuals operate in the global economy, the answer should be easy. The tax code touches each of us, corporate or individual, and therefore, you should be engaged in Washington. From personal income and corporate tax rates to deductions for charitable giving, all aspects of the code are being discussed in the run up to the November elections , which will ultimately set the table for a new Congress and potentially new president to tackle comprehensive tax reform in 2013.

Many organizations rely on trade associations, unions or other member-driven groups to advance their broad tax goals in Washington. Doing so allows organizations of all sizes to band together and amplify their voices as one on common issues. These groups are valuable for advancing specific, common industry issues, but they are not suited — nor were they designed — to be the lead role in a critical public relations or marketing campaign.

The burden of effectively telling your own story rests squarely on the leadership of your nonprofit organizations and smaller for-profit companies, and is the chief reason why engaging in Washington will help your bottom line. Raising your organization’s profile with key policymakers and influencers will help recruit new champions to your cause, bring more eyeballs to your website, and put more dollars in your coffers.

Imagine you are a nonprofit that specializes in supporting America’s military families (http://joiningforces.uso.org/). Your organization is committed to assisting the men, women and children who support our nation’s Armed Forces — from securing scholarships and counseling for deployments and post-traumatic stress, to helping personnel transition from military service to civilian life.

Your efforts are focused primarily on the locations around the world where military personnel and their families are located. You likely spend a lot of time working to raise the resources and build support for your mission. That’s where efforts in the nation’s capital can be fruitful.

How much would it further your goals to have First Lady Michele Obama or Dr. Jill Biden mention your organization and the great work you do to aid military families at one of their Joining Forces events? What about the president — Obama or Romney — spotlighting your organization during his inaugural address in January or in a future State of the Union?

Of course, these examples are the sun and moon, if not the stars in any public affairs effort. However, by engaging key influencers in Washington — from members of Congress and administration officials to third-party validators and media — through a creative and methodical public affairs campaign, nonprofits and for-profit companies can generate significant interest. And that interest can translate into the attention, support and dollars that are so hard to come by these days.

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