Next, it is in your best interest to know as much as possible about lobbying and the lobbying process. Develop a working knowledge of exactly what lobbyists do and how they do it. This does not require exhaustive study; you’re hiring a lobbyist, not becoming one. But a well-informed consumer almost always gets better value than an uniformed customer who relies completely on a vendor. So become an educated consumer.
Finally, never be afraid to fire your lobbyist. Because the process is little understood and often mystifying, some lobbyists boast an unfounded mystique of superior knowledge or capability. While you certainly want your lobbyists to be sharp, well-connected and well-informed, it is important that they deliver. Determine whether your lobbyist is being effective for your agenda.
Is your advocate carrying out your organizational aims? Though a lobbyist may legitimately have several clients, is she or he providing sufficient advocacy for you? If not, it’s time to change partners. If your lobbyist is not delivering for you or you believe your lobbyist is being less than truthful, start asking direct, tough questions. The answers will guide your actions.
OK, now that you understand that working with a lobbyist is a partnership, you know the lobbying process and how it works, and you are not afraid to fire your lobbyist, it is time to focus on exactly what you hope to gain by engaging a lobbyist in the first place.
Just Say Know
Shakespeare admonished, “To thine own self be true.” There is no better guideline when preparing the agenda and the funding targets you want your lobbyist to pursue. Know what you really need, as opposed to what you want. We all have an ideal funding scenario we want to realize. But there is a danger to simply asking for the ideal. It is far wiser to understand and ask for exactly what your agency needs and can actually handle.
In the first place, realistic requests are easier to fill. All too often, organizations ask for too much and wind up with nothing. Be careful. While it is tempting to ask for the moon, that is rarely beneficial. There have also been instances where organizations have been awarded large sums and then have been unable to deliver. And rarely does that happen twice. In other cases, people shoot way too low and ask for too little money. When that happens, you are stuck with less funding than you need and you have unnecessarily left considerable sums on the table. So, what is an organization to do?
Since this is more art than science, there is no simple answer. Organizations must examine their particular needs and carefully determine what they think is best. This is where your lobbyist can be of considerable help. He or she should have in-depth knowledge about the legislature and who might possess a sympathetic ear toward your type of project. Work closely with your lobbyist once you’ve determined your in-house desires. Be prepared to work within a flexible but realistic budget framework. Today’s frugality might prove to be tomorrow’s largesse. Also consider that your funding request may span different political administrations. This is especially true for large infrastructure projects. Create a sustainable project that can survive multiple administrations and reauthorizations. Your lobbyist can advocate more strongly for you if he or she is pursuing a realistic agenda.
Is your project a good investment? Has your organization proved that it can deliver? These are critical questions that will be asked whenever funding is sought. Obviously, it is of the utmost importance that you can answer in the affirmative. All too often, organizations believe that they can somehow slip by these questions if they can just “line up the legislators.” While lobbying legislators to your point of view is important, your project must have “legs” of its own — financial, technical, demographic and practical foundations — to stand on. Treating the lobbying effort as a strictly political endeavor can lead to failure on both a local and national level.
Rather than focusing exclusively on lining up legislators, look internally. Make your organization and the specific projects for which you are seeking funding as attractive as possible. Position these projects for the greater good locally, and if possible regionally and nationally. Demonstrate that your project is worthy of investment. Are there known problems with the project? Mitigate them. As much as possible, get your own house in order before asking a lobbyist to represent you to the legislature. Never send your lobbyist to the legislature in hopes that things will “work themselves out.” That is a recipe for short- and long-term disaster.