Through a series of articles we call The State, the American Farm Bureau Federation’s Advocacy and Political Affairs team is providing analysis related to "the state of" various aspects related to advocacy and political trends impacting farmers and ranchers and rural Americans.
As the COVID-19 pandemic passes a grim one-year milestone, we cast a hopeful eye toward the near future as vaccine availability increases and more people become immunized against this deadly virus. Many of us hold on to optimism that by the fall we will be solidly on our way to a post-pandemic normal. But until that time, for those of us doing grassroots work, we must press on with our modified version of advocacy – that is, virtual advocacy.
Many groups involved in citizen advocacy, including those representing farmers and ranchers, are growing weary of virtual grassroots engagements. And why shouldn’t we be? A full year of meeting after meeting over video conferencing is monotonous. Virtual conferences are just not the same as the in-person experience. A Zoom meeting with your U.S. senator is not as exciting as being with them in their office on Capitol Hill or attending a meeting with them in Washington.
There are two simple, but effective ways we can better involve our members in virtual advocacy while at the same time improving the value and effectiveness of Farm Bureau advocacy with legislators:
1. Let Farm Bureau members lead virtual meetings.
Members of Congress and their staff are likely very familiar with Farm Bureau leadership and staff, but as the FB Advocacy team has consistently advised in grassroots trainings, strong relationships between legislators and constituents is vital to effective advocacy. Having an individual member or members lead a meeting will help generate interest and buy-in for the purpose of the meeting, and help members and legislators develop rapport. A recent survey from the Congressional Management Foundation found that 55% of respondents agreed that interactions between citizens and their representatives are very valuable to our democracy. It is incumbent upon us as advocacy professionals to facilitate these interactions, even virtually.
2. Create member-generated digital leave-behinds
As anyone who has taken a meeting on Capitol Hill knows, having materials to leave behind for members of Congress and their staff is common practice. But what if Farm Bureau members started leaving behind their own digital materials? While there has been a big focus on live virtual farm tours, a common frustration is the time and effort put into a tour only to have a legislator leave early or cancel altogether. A great alternative would be to ask your Farm Bureau members to record phone-shot farm tours of no more than five minutes, upload them to YouTube for free, and leave the link with legislators and staff as a digital leave-behind. This way, the legislator and his or her staff can view the farm tour at their convenience. The video can serve as a visual to emphasize an issue being discussed and help to further build the relationship between legislator and constituent.
These ideas are relatively simple, without any additional costs, but they deepen engagement from Farm Bureau members and build rapport between members and their representatives.
Until we are able to return to more normal, in-person advocacy, a time that appears to be just over the horizon, these ideas, and many others, can improve our virtual agriculture advocacy.
Michael Sistak is AFBF’s director of grassroots program development.