Kirstie Tucker built her meeting management firm, DC Fly-Ins, to help lobbying groups get face time with Congressional offices in Washington, D.C. This past year, face time has looked a little different for advocates.
“Groups continue to amaze me with their ability to make things fresh each year. I had a group ask everyone to wear the same color when doing their Zoom meetings. Another ended the day with a competition to see which group had the weirdest thing happen during a Zoom meeting,” Tucker said. “Advocates are passionate about their issues, and whether it is over Zoom or in person, there is value in the stories they can share with Congressional offices.”
With the absence of in-person advocacy days, planners say it’s been a difficult year for advocates, legislators, and their staffs. But the silver lining is the pandemic has provided an opportunity to find creative new avenues for advocacy.
“Legislators and their staffs remain extremely interested in connecting with constituents across available platforms, and advocates have critically important stories to tell about their work and the impact of the pandemic on communities,” said Ember Farber, director of advocacy for the American Alliance of Museums.
“It’s been impressive to see the range of virtual activities, including virtual constituent calls, town halls, and advocacy days, that legislators and organizations have organized and put on during this time and continuing this year.”
Since March 2020, Tucker has seen a mix of canceled events and a move to virtual. The size of virtual events has ranged from smaller targeted meetings to those with triple the participation of years past. Overall, she has seen a larger number of participants for all the virtual fly-ins.
“We have found that one of the benefits of the virtual format is that it allows more people to participate in the event, and so participant numbers have risen,” Tucker said.
The American Alliance of Museums found success with the virtual format for its 2021 Museum Advocacy Day, which took place in February and included more than 600 participants and 400 virtual Congressional meetings.
Like previous years, the two-day event included a day of advocacy and issue briefings, followed by a day of meetings with Congressional offices. This year, the event added pre-recorded content and a virtual reception.
“As with any live event, there’s a ton of moving parts, and that’s perhaps even more true when pivoting to virtual–from identifying and providing online platforms and preparing and providing updated advocacy materials, to working with program speakers and preparing advocates to effectively participate in virtual meetings with Congressional offices,” Farber said.
In April, the Association of International Educators (NAFSA), had more than 200 participants from 40 states and the District of Columbia for its first-ever all virtual Advocacy Day.
Although the pandemic has suspended traditional face-to-face meetings between lawmakers and constituents in Washington, Congress has quickly embraced digital tools, said NAFSA spokeswoman Rebecca Morgan. NAFSA relied on its tech vendor, Nonprofit Learning Lab, to develop an approach for its two-day advocacy event that allowed the association to gather advocates in a breakout room before ushering in congressional staff.
“As with any major event, this effort required months of preparation, but the virtual format required an intense focus on understanding the technological capabilities and limitations of the Zoom platform,” Morgan said.
By being virtual, this year’s Advocacy Day was more accessible to members, Morgan said, because they did not have to travel to D.C. to make their voices heard. But at the same time, they missed out on opportunities to network and walk the halls of Congress.
“It is not uncommon for an advocate to meet a member of Congress in the hallway as they are headed to another meeting,” she said.
Morgan hopes advocates will be able to return to D.C. next year for in-person meetings. “However, this new model of virtual meetings with Congress may usher in a new way for our advocates to connect with their delegation,” she said. “With more opportunities for stronger communication between constituents and policymakers comes the chance for clarity on constituent needs, which is something we all want.”
Some groups could start returning as soon as this summer. As of April, one of Tucker’s groups was planning an in-person event for June, but Congressional meetings will likely remain virtual.
“There is a possibility that things could be in-person in the fall, but I feel quite strongly that Capitol Hill will not be ready to let groups in during 2021. Aside from the pandemic, there are too many security measures that need to be considered before things will be back in person.”
For organizations that have had to cancel their in-person events, most groups Tucker has spoken to have worked with their venues to move their contracts to 2022. That means 2022 could be a busy year for in-person events in D.C.
But there’s also a pretty good chance that there will continue to be a virtual component of the lobby day, Tucker said. Groups have found that although there are members of their organization who miss in-person, there is often a significant number of members who enjoy virtual meetings. “It could be because they can save money on travel or are able to better manage their time with a virtual event rather than in person.”
For legislators and their staffs, virtual advocacy has provided them with more opportunities to connect with constituents wherever they are, while advocates report that virtual meetings felt more like their previous in-person experiences than many other activities that have gone virtual, Farber said.
“It’s clear that virtual advocacy in some capacity is here to stay,” Farber said.
Autumn Cafiero Giusti is a freelance journalist based in her hometown of New Orleans. For over two decades, she has covered everything from small-town government to Fortune 500 companies. When she isn’t on deadline, she likes to hang out at home with her husband, their two daughters and their very needy Labrador.