It may seem a stretch to compare legislative engagement to fighting in the boxing ring, but once you consider the determination, sweat equity, strategy and focus that factor into the grassroots process â€" and the NACS lobbying efforts â€" needed to influence lawmakers, the parallels are evenly matched.
So that you can make that call for help, you need to be able to identify your members of Congress.
The Senate is comprised of 100 senaÂtors, two from each state who represent their entire constituency. Then, each state is mapped out into congressional districts â€" 435 total â€" that are based on population, with one member of the U.S. House Representatives responsiÂble for the constituency of that district.
Once youâ€™ve identified your member of Congress, youâ€™re ready to take the next step: getting engaged. Of course, you need to know which legislative isÂsues are percolating in Congress that pose a threat to the long-term health and financial security of your business.
So one day youâ€™re sitting at your comÂputer or checking your BlackBerry and in comes a NACS Action Alert. NACS is sounding the alarm that a vote is immiÂnent in the House of Representatives sometime in the next 24 hours on legisÂlation that is harmful to your business. You need to act â€" to call your represenÂtative and ask him/her to vote against the bill.
For some of you, making a phone call for pizza delivery is a nuisance, so getÂting on the phone and asking to speak with a member of Congress may also not elicit an enthusiastic response. But with grassroots, you have to start someÂwhere.
If picking up the phone isnâ€™t your preÂferred method of communication, use your computer. If you can log on to the Internet, then you can protect your busiÂness against costly regulations and poorly crafted legislation.
NACS is here to make grassroots enÂgagement easy, not feel like a chore. InÂcluded with every Action Alert are inÂstructions on how to best communicate the industryâ€™s position with your memÂbers of Congress.
When it comes time to throw out the first punch, make sure it lands. NACS has the tools you need to go toe-to-toe and win the fight.
How We Kicked Butt...And How You Can, Too
So long as there is a government and a U.S. Congress, the process of grassÂroots engagement will be never ending â€" and itâ€™s never too late to get involved. Whether your company is already highÂly engaged in the political process or just starting to test the waters, opportunities always exist around the corner to step up and make your voice heard.
At the height of the swipe fee debate earlier this year, no NACS retail member could hide from the emails, letters, NACS Daily pieces, Action Alerts and articles in this magazine calling for a grassroots army to communicate the industryâ€™s position before Congress.
As a result, thousands of NACS memÂbers proved that grassroots advocacy efÂforts make a difference. Among those voices were NACS Treasurer Dave CarÂpenter, Chairman Jeff Miller and InÂcoming Chairman Tom Robinson, who shared how they inspired and mobilized their teams â€" across their companies â€" to take grassroots action during the reÂcent swipe fee reform debate.
Mobilizing the Troops
Dave Carpenter, president and CEO of J.D. Carpenter Companies Inc., readily admits that until swipe fees, he had nevÂer asked others in his company to take action. Much to his surprise, the results were outstanding.
"Iâ€™ve always done something myself, sending letters to my congressmen and responding to the NACS calls to action, but I never thought that the people Âwithin my organization would care, or that they would realize how it would affect them," he said, admitting that his assumption was quickly proven wrong.
"I sent an email to each store manager and the people in the office, asking for their help and [letting them know] how they could respond. By the end of the day, 57 people responded to me saying they sent emails and called their memÂbers of Congress," he said. "Hereâ€™s a small company, which had been sending only one letter to Congress from me, now sending 57 letters in just one day. I really was kind of shocked. What if every company did that?"
For Tom Robinson, president of RobÂinson Oil Corporation, who over the years has grown accustomed to differÂing points of view with his two state senÂators, the tide had actually turned. "In California, we usually go under the asÂsumption that it doesnâ€™t matter with our senators, but in this case it was just the opposite," he said, noting that on the swipe fees issue, his company didnâ€™t have to do a lot of heavy lifting to "conÂvince" his senators. "They were very supportiveâ€¦which is a strange situaÂtion."
Whenever Jeff Miller, president of Miller Oil Co., received NACS Action Alerts, he hit the forward button. "Every time I got a call to action I forwarded it to everyone in the company with simple instructions on what to do and the link they needed to follow," he said, noting that he also followed up those emails with updates on the debate and votes, as well as notices to be on the lookout for more calls to action.
"When we won, I sent out emails to everybody in the office," said Miller, adding that although he didnâ€™t keep tabs on who actually reached out to members of Congress, he could gauge who got involved by the high amount of positive email responses he received.
A large portion of grassroots engageÂment is responding to calls to action, but one key component â€" perhaps the most important â€" is building relationships.
"I think one of the most important ways to do grassroots is when you donâ€™t have an issue," said Robinson, adding that retailers should take the opportuÂnity to get to know their legislators and build some sort of a relationship with them "so that youâ€™re not only talking to them when you want something." Set up meetings with state and local legislators in your hometown when you can.
Along those lines, Carpenter suggestÂed that members of Congress might apÂpreciate hearing directly from frontline employees, such as store managers who are immersed in the convenience store industry 24/7. "Letâ€™s not only tell a memÂber how issues affect us from 30,000 feet," he said. "Let your store manager say how last year, after credit card fees, her store only made 2 cents a gallon while the federal government made 43 cents a gallon."
Keep It Simple
A key learning taken from the swipe fee grassroots efforts, noted all three retailÂers, is to make the process for getting enÂgaged as simple as possible.
Store managers at Carpenterâ€™s sites made phone calls. Miller ensured that all of his companyâ€™s email and fax correÂspondences to legislators were sent on company letterhead.
"Grassroots is, quite frankly, as easy as you want to make it," commented Robinson, noting that the entire process for getting engaged is much easier than it used to be. "You used to have to handwrite the letters yourself, and it was much more work."
Robinson also stressed strength in numbers, noting that congressional ofÂfices often determine the level of imporÂtance an issue has based on the sheer amount of phone calls, emails, faxes and letters a member receives, rather than the merits of the argument.
"Numbers matter," he said, "And we have numbers on our side. Itâ€™s important that we take advantage of this."
Get Off the Fence
If grassroots isnâ€™t your thing, or politics makes you want to stick your head unÂder a giant boulder, consider this: return on investment.
Because of our industryâ€™s collective grassroots mobilization on swipe fees, beginning October 1 debit card fees will be cut in half. "What kind of ROI is that on the time it took for me to send a letter or make a phone call to my congressÂman? Thatâ€™s a hell of a return â€" itâ€™s inÂcalculable," said Miller.
And if grassroots engagement isnâ€™t a priority, Carpenter said, one only has to look beyond swipe fees to other issues on the horizon, threatening the health and profitability of the industry. "I think itâ€™s scary whatâ€™s coming down the pipe. There are so many things like obesity, health, food, cigarettes and alternative fuels â€" everything we touch has huge risks to it in the future. We better all hold hands and organize from that standÂpoint, because itâ€™s going to continue to get ugly."
Why NACS Needs You
In March of this year more than 100 convenience retailers came to Washington, D.C., to educate members of Congress about the convenience and fuel retailing industry and share real-life stories about how legislation specifically affects their businesses. NACS members navigated the halls of Congress and participated in more than 185 meetings in the House and Senate.
At the time, the focus was swipe fee reform, and the unified message that NACS members delivered to Congress was instrumental in protecting the Durbin Amendment. Today, our industry continues to face legislative and regulatory challenges in Washington, making your voice always essential to NACS grassroots mobilization.
Telling your story directly to the individuals who make our nationâ€™s laws has a tremendous impact. Legislators want â€" and need â€" to hear from convenience retailers so that they can gain a clear understanding of how proposed legislation and regulations positively or negatively affect our industry. Our industry has a powerful voice.
Mark your calendar now and join your industry peers in Washington from March 20 to 21 for NACS Day on Capitol Hill. This two-day event puts the power of grassroots in your hands, and in the halls of Congress.
NACS will provide the tools, resources and support you need to educate your senators and representatives about our industry during face-to-face meetings.
For more than 50 years NACS has been the voice of the industry, and our advocacy efforts are as exciting as ever. Help us keep the momentum strong â€" the more retailers who come, the louder the industryâ€™s message.
To learn more and register for NACS Day on Capitol Hill, contact Kelly Fink, grassroots manager, at (703) 518-4228 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
From the Source
Will your concerns be lost among a sea of thousands of constituents? Or will your advocacy efforts fall on deaf ears? The answer is absolutely not â€" your members of Congress want and need to hear from you. Does your opinion matter? Of course!Greg Facchiano, a 15-year U.S. House of Representatives veteran who has worked for five members of Congress, has met and spoken with hundreds of constituents while working alongside his current and former bosses. He provides some sage advice for retailers.
When youâ€™re meeting with a member of Congress, be sure to make a clear connection with the public policy you support and the actual effect it will have on your business. "Give your representative the honest truth about what passage of a piece of legislation means to your business, specifically your bottom line, ability to expand or hire, increase in costs per employee, or whatever other effect it will have," suggested Facchiano.
Also, avoid threats tied to campaign contributions. Facchiano notes that quid pro quos, or asking a member to act on an issue in return for campaign dollars is against House ethics laws and puts members of Congress and their staff in an uncomfortable position. "Make supporting or opposing a policy about the effects of the policy on your business, not about some political payoff," he said.
And yes, grassroots advocacy efforts definitely factor into how a member of Congress positions himself on an issue â€" and there is no reason why you shouldnâ€™t get involved.
Phoning, sending an email, faxing or writing a personal letter to your member matters, "and you should expect a response. But itâ€™s important to be timely," said Facchiano, noting that if the vote happened a week prior and you placed a call after the fact, then the opportunity to influence your memberâ€™s decision has been missed.
"Things tend to move either painfully slow or ridiculously fast on Capitol Hill, so if your association puts out a call to contact your member of Congress, you should move quickly. The fact that your member receives a lot of contact about an issue should never be a reason that you donâ€™t contact them about something important to you," he said.
And, like Tom Robinson advised, sometimes the most important grassroots work is done when there is no official "ask" of your elected officials. Facchiano agreed that building and maintaining a positive working relationship with your senators and representatives gives you a valuable opportunity to educate them about your business.
"Offer a tour of your facility, to meet with workers, or have lunch with your board or leadership. Offer to get other local business folks together at your facility, or have the member meet with your employees. Youâ€™re a business owner, an opinion leader, someone with a voice in your community â€" good members of Congress will value that, and will want to spend time talking with you about your needs, especially in this economy."