Published 10/1/2014
Catherine Boudreaux

What is Grassroots Advocacy?

When it comes to successful political advocacy, particularly for passing or preventing legislation, grassroots advocacy can be one of the most influential tools that organizations and associations have. Grassroots advocacy differs from traditional lobbying, which brings arguments for or against a specific measure directly to legislators and government officials. The goal of grassroots advocacy is usually to reach the general public and ask them to contact their legislators and government officials.

Because of the number of people (ideally constituents) who can be motivated to take action, grassroots advocacy increases the likelihood that elected officials will pay attention. Traditional lobbying and fundraising remain influential ways to reach members of Congress, but increasingly, organizations and associations look to supplement those efforts with grassroots advocacy efforts.

Grassroots advocacy can be a very effective tool in a number of different ways. Through mass emails, letter writing campaigns, and phone calls, grassroots advocates can bring issues to the attention of legislators. Although mass forms of communication are necessary and effective, sometimes more personal influence is needed. This is when the strategy of grasstops—as opposed to grassroots—advocacy becomes essential.

Grasstops advocacy involves influential leaders of the grassroots community in taking a stance and communicating with members of Congress directly to show the importance of the issue. Constituents who are highly credible and knowledgeable and who are able to discuss the issues affecting their lives directly with a member of Congress can substantially increase the chances for success.

Letter writing and social media
Part of the appeal of grassroots advocacy is having large numbers of constituents and the general public voice their concerns. To do this effectively, constituents must understand how to write effective letters to members of Congress. These letters should begin with a brief summary of who is writing, along with their credentials and an introduction to the topic.

Letters to Congressional representatives must be filled with facts and information and should not be long, emotional writings. The point is to be very specific about the impact of the proposed legislation on the letter-writer, along with others. In laying out the topic of the letter, the writer’s support or opposition to the bill must be clear, as well as any action the letter-writer would like taken. Letters should always include a “thank you” to the legislator and should be polite to maintain a respectful relationship. That way, if the legislator is unable to help in one situation, a door remains open to solicit aid for something else down the road.

A simple way to stay very influential and to get a message across to potentially many members of Congress is to use social media, including Twitter and Facebook. When using Twitter it is important to remember that the information shared must be relevant. Twitter enables constituents to stay connected with their congressional representatives, all of whom maintain a continual online presence. In addition, unlike an email, multiple tweets a day are perfectly acceptable.

Twitter is an easy way to start a dialogue about an issue. Constant tweeting provides followers with greater transparency about events and builds stronger relationships with causes. Using this form of social media greatly enhances the message and can vastly help efforts to encourage a legislator to sign on to a piece of legislation or to express support for an issue.

The American Association of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) has a Twitter account (https://twitter.com/AAOSAdvocacy) and regularly tweets on issues of importance to the orthopaedic community. AAOS encourages grassroots advocates to become followers of the AAOSAdvocacy account and to “retweet” messages to help spread the word.

Colleague to colleague
One last important component of grassroots advocacy is communicating successes and challenges to other grassroots advocates. One of the best ways to effectively communicate with orthopaedic surgeon colleagues is through sharing personal experiences about meetings with staffers or members of Congress.

Colleagues appreciate hearing about what really worked and what didn’t. Advocates should provide as much advice as possible and emphasize how important and effective meetings can be. The more grassroots advocates can show that they and the people they associate with deeply care about the issue, the more likely they are to inspire and rally others to join the cause.

The AAOS office of government relations has many programs and information for fellows who are interested in learning more about grassroots advocacy or about developing a more personal relationship with their congressional representatives. Visit http://advocacy.aaos.org for information. This website also houses AAOS Advocacy Now in a blog format, providing current information on legislative efforts.

Occasionally, AAOS staff reach out to grassroots advocates by email with a request to send a letter on a specific issue to a member of Congress using the automated system on the advocacy website. Even though the system will automatically write the letter, it is still important to add personalized touches that include personal or patient experiences. The system can also be used to send a tweet to a congressional representative member or find the phone number to his or her office.

AAOS also has an Ambassador program for fellows who are willing to be a part of the orthopaedic community’s efforts to educate government officials and their staffs about legislative and regulatory health policy issues, particularly those that affect the practice of orthopaedics. An Ambassador may help provide access to legislators and serve as a respected and knowledgeable voice on issues.

AAOS members who are interested in joining the Ambassador program to develop a relationship with their congressional representatives or who have already established relationships should contact me at boudreaux@aaos.org with that information. This program will provide additional resources and benefits in helping to develop or maintain relationships with legislators.

Catherine Boudreaux is manager, government relations, in the AAOS office of government relations. She can be reached at boudreaux@aaos.org

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