December 17, 2011
In the Internet world, have committees become obsolete, do we need to tolerate the failure to be transparent in governance, informed after the fact rather than being encouraged to be our own advocates during the due diligence and discussion process. Why has Canadian dentistry not built it’s own Internet…..encryption, iTrans, collegial communication, connectivity keep being referenced in this blog. My understanding based on the analytics is that the blog accounts for 1/5 of the website hits……..are we as a profession numbed into a apathy versus curiousity, it just seems to get curiouser and curiouser. POLLING…….should be as important an issue as PRIVACY and ENCRYPTION
From the Center for Association Leadership
“If the ( ) election were held today, which candidate would you vote for?” Many of us, especially if we live in one of the swing states in this election year, can expect to be asked this question, or a variant of it, during the next few months. The information gained from such polling is vital to the success of any campaign, so campaign directors spend hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars to collect these responses as a way to help determine the allocation of funds, staff, and other resources.
But polling is not only done by political campaigns and only in election years. Most private companies do market research, of which polling and surveys are major elements. Likewise, many associations poll their members on subjects usually related to satisfaction with products and services.
Less common, however, are association efforts to use polling as part of their government relations (GR) and advocacy strategies. The response from Nadine Limn, public policy director for the Ecological Society of America (ESA), was typical of most smaller associations, which tend not to do government relations polling: “We have not done any such polling on GR issues — only surveys of the membership about other issues, such as their funding sources, what they want from ESA in terms of membership benefits, and the like.”
Why do so few associations conduct GR surveys? It may be related to erroneous assumptions about cost (more on this later). Likewise, some associations might not believe polling their members about GR issues is necessary, with leaders assuming they already know what their members want or need in this area.
Do We Really Want to Know?
It’s also possible that government relations departments at some associations don’t want to know what their members think. This is the view of at least one senior official at a major trade association, who notes, “I think the GR types cater to the officers and board and don’t want their lobbying positions set by a larger number of folks. Since you often have to compromise in GR efforts, you don’t want to have a very well defined objective but prefer the latitude to be creative.”
This attitude may be more widespread in associations than many of us would like to admit. However, it is certainly not shared by all associations. Take the American Chemical Society (ACS) GR department, for example.
Polling Gets Members Involved
Brad Smith, ACS legislative associate for grassroots programs, manages the society’s legislative action network (LAN). Established in 1999, LAN is composed of approximately 10,000 ACS members in the United States. Its members are asked to write regularly to their congressional leaders in support of ACS policy positions, and member response is generally good. Indeed, LAN letter-writing efforts typically reach 93 percent of Congress.
“Polling wasn’t part of the original concept when we set the LAN up,” Smith says, “but we needed to make sure we were on the right track in our legislative priorities. Polling is also a way to get our advocates to feel they are participating in the process.”
His department polls LAN members every two years with an internally developed survey instrument (it does not use an outside polling firm). The first survey, done in 2001, was a mailed paper form. The second, done last year, was electronic. Both generated about a 30 percent response rate.
“The electronic survey was far cheaper to do,” Smith reports. “We saved on postage and printing and especially on data-entry costs.”
The survey has provided some very useful information. Regarding research and development funding, Smith says, “We had thought we had eight priority federal agencies we had to worry about, but the data indicated that we really only had to worry about four — the ones that funded the vast majority of chemistry research. We probably shouldn’t spend a lot of time on an agency that only five respondents [out of around 3,000] thought was important.”
Smith also noted that the survey had a fill-in-the-blank category, allowing respondents to list other agencies not among the original eight. This allowed the staff to learn that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is very important to a large section of the ACS membership, “something we hadn’t realized before,” Smith says.
Another area of inquiry in the survey was information on interactions besides letter writing that LAN members have with their members of Congress. “Do any of them work on their members’ campaigns?” Smith asks, by way of example. “Did they go to college with their member of Congress? Would they be willing to meet with their member?” An association GR department clearly would want to know about such connections within its politically active volunteers as it advocates in today’s sophisticated political environment.
Another large organization, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), pays very careful attention to its annual survey data on legislative priorities. Brian Pallasch, CAE, ASCE’s government relations manager, has been polling the organization’s 7,200 “key contact” members annually for the past five years about their legislative and policy priorities.
“We don’t limit who can respond,” Pallasch says. “The survey instrument is up on our Web site, and anyone can respond — but most of the responses come from our key contacts.”
He also made a point this year of including a specific request for responses from the very few ASCE members who still are without e-mail, and a copy of the survey was sent to each committee chair to share it with his or her committee or any other member.
“Of course, we want to make sure we follow our members’ priorities,” Pallasch says, “but it’s a two-way street. The survey makes all the respondents a part of the process, so they know they have had input into what the priority issues of the society should be this year.” The survey focuses on issues, not specific bills.
Once the survey responses have been tabulated — the response rate is about 10 percent — the information is sent to the ASCE government relations committee. The committee’s role is to analyze these responses and merge their knowledge of what is politically possible on Capitol Hill with what the members think. Thus, the priority-setting process can be pretty ruthless.
“Even something most of the members want to see happen won’t be a high priority for us if it’s not politically possible,” Pallasch explains. “There’s no point in wasting limited resources trying to pass a bill that has no chance.” Through this process, a list of what had been 23 legislative priorities two years ago was pared down to eight last year.
The ASCE uses a Web-based survey tool called Zoomerang, owned by MarketTools Inc. According to Zoomerang’s Web site, the tool allows customers to design and send surveys and analyze the results in real time. The company offers various survey options, including some that are free. However, his department pays $500 a year to conduct their surveys using the tool, a price that gives him considerably more options regarding how to use and analyze the data. “Five hundred dollars a year is pretty cost-effective,” says Pallasch. “Almost any association can afford that.”
Finally, Pallasch notes that the survey allows the GR department to demonstrate to society members that it is paying attention to their concerns. “GR departments usually aren’t revenue generators,” he acknowledges, “so it’s important that members understand the value they get for their dues dollars.”
Listening to Members
Yet another organization that has used polling to learn about member interests is the American Geophysical Union (AGU). Pete Folger, CAE, manager of outreach at AGU, says that several years ago the organization’s leadership was very interested in getting involved in state and local policy issues. However, before doing so, the association polled its members in Massachusetts as a pilot test to learn if there was widespread member interest in getting involved at this level. There was, especially in educational areas such as high school science curricula and teacher standards, and in some environmental subjects such as water quality.
“We probably would not be involved in state and local issues today if we hadn’t polled our members and asked,” Folger concludes.
Polling as a Public Visibility Generator
As these examples show, most associations that conduct their own surveys for government-relations purposes tend to poll their own members. However, useful information also can be gleaned from surveys of the general public.
In the biomedical research field, for example, a large amount of public opinion polling is commissioned by a group called Research!America, based in Alexandria, Virginia. The group’s mission is to promote funding for medical and health research in both the public and private sectors, to better inform the public of the benefits of medical and health research, to encourage public support for medical and health research, and to promote greater political involvement of biomedical researchers. It has used the results of those polls to generate significant visibility for its causes. In fact, survey results have appeared at least twice in Parade magazine, the Sunday supplement found in thousands of newspapers nationwide.
According to Stacie Propst, Research!America’s director of science policy, “associations can and do use our survey information in a variety of ways. The information can be used to support arguments in letters to the editor, for example. It can support op-ed pieces in local newspapers or can be used in newspaper articles. The information can be put in letters to elected officials and can also serve as talking points when you meet with them face to face. Finally, it can be used in policy statements, speeches, and congressional testimony.”
Keeping Down Costs
While retaining a large, internationally known firm such as Harris Interactive can be costly, one myth about polling is that it is beyond the financial reach of most associations. However, many firms can provide polling and survey services at affordable prices. One firm that is familiar with the angst of paying for association polling is Scientific Marketing and Analysis (SMA), based in Tenant’s Harbor, Maine. Founded by former Rep. Dave Emery (R-ME), the firm has conducted polls in 41 states since its founding in 1988, and it typically charges $6,000 to $25,000, depending on what the client wants done. Previous clients include the Maine Oil Dealers Association and the pulp and paper industry.
Other strategies to keep costs down might be to pool resources with other, like-minded associations; do as much work internally as possible; use your Web site to host the survey instrument and tabulate results; and survey as few people as possible to get a statistically valid result within acceptable margins of error.
Be advised, however, that there are subtleties involved in polling. The phrasing of the questions, for instance, is very important. Questions must be as clear and unbiased as possible. You should therefore beta test your survey instrument on a small sample of your targeted recipients in order to catch any ambiguities or unclear phrasing.
It also is important to understand the limits of polling. No poll results are 100 percent accurate. The best you can hope for is that the results most likely reflect opinion within a certain margin of error that is, in turn, related to the number of respondents. The SMA Web site (see the sidebar to this article, “Some Polling Firms”) has an excellent discussion of these and other related questions.
Go for It!
Although most associations apparently do not incorporate much polling in their GR strategies, this is an area ripe for expansion. Modern communications makes polling your members — and even the general public — as easy as it has ever been. Thus, polling likely will become more popular in the nonprofit sector both to ascertain public and member opinion, and to learn what they as an organization must do to shape it.
Author Link: Peter Farnham, CAE, is public affairs officer of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in Bethesda, Maryland. He can be reached at email@example.com.