When I present advocacy training seminars or teach my class at CUNA Management School, I usually talk about the ten basic lobbying principles: unity, clarity of objectives, discipline, subject matter expertise/preparation, perseverance, adaptation, opposition research, credibility/trust, key actors and coalition building.
I intend to discuss each of these principles in future blog posts; this installment is dedicated to coalition building and published in conjunction with a presentation that I am giving to the World Council of Credit Unions Conference in Gdansk, Poland.
If you attend any credit union system conference, I can guarantee you that someone will talk about collaboration – working with others to accomplish a specific task. Collaboration occurs in just about every aspect of the credit union movement, even in the way we approach advocacy. In fact, given how challenging it has become to get Congress to move even the most basic piece of legislation, collaborations with other interested parties – coalition building – is an essential part of a successful advocacy plan.
At a basic level, there are a lot of advantages to working with other groups that share our interests in an issue.
- A coordinated approach is almost always more effective than two parties with similar interests working on their own. Multiple parties mean additional resources can be brought to bear to fight what may be an expensive and long battle. Working together allows each group to bring their strengths to the table, whether they are financial, access, knowledge or grassroots.
- Joining forces also brings together additional perspectives. Coalition members may want to see a policy advanced for different reasons. Having advocates that approach the issue from a different perspective can be valuable as long as the end goal is truly the same for all involved. In fact, multiple perspectives can help policymakers draw the logical conclusion that the impact of the proposal is broader than if just one group was pushing for the bill.
However, there are also risks associated with being a part of a coalition.
- Being a part of a coalition may mean partnering with groups that oppose your efforts on other, unrelated issues. On several issues, CUNA has partnered with groups, like banking trade associations and retail trade groups, which oppose significant aspects of the credit union legislative agenda. We work together when we can, and we find we are more successful when we do.
- Participating in a coalition requires the surrender of a degree of autonomy. Group deliberations lead to group decisions; the path the coalition decides to take may not have been the path an individual participant would have followed. However, this risk can be managed by leveraging the strengths you bring to the table.
- What is more challenging and more important to manage is the exposure of an organization’s credibility, resources, strengths and weaknesses. Part of the decision matrix when joining the coalition has to be answering the question, “How will this make us look?” Another important question to consider is whether the effort is worth the cost, actual and reputational. This is especially important on peripheral issues that may be more important to the other coalition members than they are to your group.
- Finally, it is also important to keep in mind that when you are a part of a coalition, your partners get an insight on your strengths and weaknesses, which could help them in a future legislative battle.
Coalitions are not a new phenomenon in credit union advocacy – the Campaign for Consumer Choice is a good example of the effectiveness of a broad coalition effort led by CUNA. I remember this effort because, as a Congressional staffer, I was on its receiving end. In fact, my perspective on coalition building has been shaped significantly by the time that I spent on Capitol Hill and the number of times that I saw coalition efforts work. If you can manage the risks, there are often many good reasons to join or try to form a coalition on many issues.
A Coalition Needs to Be More Than a List of Names: The MBL Experience
One of the most important legislative issues for credit unions is, of course, the effort to enact legislation allowing well-capitalized credit unions with significant business lending experience to lend beyond an arbitrary statutory cap imposed in 1998. The beneficiaries of this legislation will not only be the credit unions that engaged in this additional lending but also the small business-owning credit union members that are able to receive funding and the people they hire as a result. We estimate that credit unions could lend an additional $13 billion to small businesses in the first year, helping them to create at least 140,000 new jobs. This legislation (S. 2231 / H.R. 1418) is fiercely opposed by the banking sector, and has historically been viewed by many in Congress as a bank versus credit union issue. But really, it’s about small businesses.
In an effort to not only change the conversation but also demonstrate the impact of the bill, we organized a coalition of interested parties to help achieve its enactment. At first, the goal was to put together a diverse and growing list of organization names to show there was support outside the credit unions system. Today, there are over 30 organizations which have publicly supported our efforts to enact this legislation – conservative and progressive think tanks, small business organizations and cooperative organizations.
Over the past few years, we have been able to develop our coalition into something more than just a list of names; but it did not happen through a flip of a switch. Building a strong coalition requires a dedication of resources. It involves recruiting members, educating them, keeping them informed and urging them to take action at the appropriate time.
In the beginning, we did not ask much of these groups, only that they allow us to use their name in support of the bill. We were seeking to broaden our base of support. Over time, however, we found we needed more from our coalition partners; and we found they were all willing to give more to the effort! We first asked our coalition partners to engage in blog posts and media opportunities touting the importance of credit unions as part of the solution to the small business credit crunch. Then, we encouraged the groups to include information about our legislation in their talking points on Capitol Hill. In February, we organized a “Small Business Hike the Hill” where credit unions and our coalition partners brought small business owners to Washington to speak with lawmakers about the legislation. And, when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced his intention to call a vote on the MBL legislation, our coalition partners responded by asking their members to call on Congress to pass the bill. This response would not have been possible without the effort we’ve put into developing the coalition over the last three or four years.
Just as the ability of our coalition to take action did not develop overnight, the size and composition of the coalition did not develop immediately. It took a lot of time to get to 30 members. I can remember when we used say we had “over a dozen,” and meant 13! The size of our coalition grew as we perfected our alliance, and this process continues.
In general, more partners are better – we’re continuing to seek additional partners – but it is also important to have the right partners. Our coalition includes a number of very large and reputable organizations; their participation has helped us attract additional partners. However, absent from our coalition are two of the biggest small businesses groups in the United States. The primary reason these groups have not weighed in on our behalf is the influence the banks have on their membership. Were they to join the coalition, the credibility of the group would surely increase. Fortunately, the coalition has not been hindered by their absence.
Thanks in large part to the active participation of our coalition partners, we were able to secure our first conservative Senate cosponsor; we added a dozen House cosponsors to the bill after our Small Business Hike; and during our major advocacy push in the spring, we added 16 new cosponsors bringing our total to 140. All of this has well positioned us to win a vote on the MBL legislation later this year.
The Challenge of Working With Competitors: The Interchange Fees Experience
Before the MBL coalition was formed, we joined the Electronic Payments Coalition (EPC), the financial industry coalition to combat interchange fee legislation. The debate over debit interchange fee regulation ended up being the fiercest trade association battle fought before Congress in years, pitting the financial services sector against the retail sector. An unprecedented amount of resources were applied over what was essentially a battle over pennies on debit card transactions. But, of course, those pennies add up very quickly.
The EPC is a full time coalition, comprised of the payment card networks, the six major financial services trade associations, several large banks, and at least three credit union service organizations. It is managed by an outside lobbying firm and also retains a communications firm. The participants in this coalition have the same goal: opposition to the regulation of interchange fee rates.
As with any coalition, each of the major participants in the EPC brought strengths and weaknesses to the table. The payment card networks, big banks and their trade associations brought significant financial resources and invaluable legal and technical expertise. However, they also brought baggage; coming out of the financial crisis, the big banks did not have a stellar reputation, and few on the Hill were looking to do them any favors. The payment card networks had similar reputational issues, and they were the main targets of the merchants’ legal and legislative campaigns. This is why the members of the EPC needed credit unions and small banks as part of the coalition. While we did not have the financial resources to match the larger partners, we had a reputation of treating our members well, performing admirably throughout history, and, most importantly, we brought significant grassroots capability to the table. Between the credit unions and small banks, there were financial institutions in every state and every Congressional district that would be adversely affected by the interchange amendment (notwithstanding the small issuer “exemption”), and our job was to make sure that story was told.
Over time, the members of the coalition naturally played to their strengths, but one of the significant challenges to success was the fact that many of the partners were competitors in the marketplace; many of the partners operated in different parts of the market; and some of the partners (ie. credit unions) had completely different business models. As a result, there was a level of natural wariness that could never be displaced. Unfortunately, this contributed to inefficiencies in the exchange of information and intelligence and may have ultimately hampered strategic execution.
We and the small banks probably came the closest to overcoming these challenges, for we truly were in the same boat – seemingly beneficiaries of a meaningless exemption that complicated our efforts to defeat (and then repeal) bad public policy. We met frequently with the small bank lobby – in our offices and theirs – and our staff spent countless hours working closely together developing lobbying strategies, organizing Hill meetings and considering legislative alternatives. A year removed from the major vote on the interchange amendment in the Senate, I’m am still pleased with the working relationship we developed with our small bank counterparts on interchange.
What we learned from the interchange process is that sometimes circumstances force you into alliance with groups that have similar but somewhat competing interests. In these situations, it is important to do everything within your power to manage those challenges, maintain credibility and play to your strengths.
Sometimes You Need a Coalition But Cannot Form It Yourself: The ATM Fee Disclosures Experience
In the summer of 2011, I was approached by a credit union CEO on a Hike the Hill in Washington regarding an issue with ATM fee disclosures. After learning more about the issue and what credit unions were doing to comply with the regulation, we decided that the best remedy was to try to get Congress to remove the statutory requirement while at the same time to seek relief from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Since this was an issue that did not only affect credit unions but also any ATM operator, we recognized early that we would be more successful if we tried to bring together a coalition of affected parties.
We also felt that we would probably have greater success in building the coalition if we were not perceived as the leader of the coalition, so we identified an intermediary group that represented a significant part of the ATM industry and worked with them to form a coalition of banking trades, merchant groups and other ATM operators. Many of the groups that fought with each other over interchange united to try to attempt to remove this obsolete regulatory requirement.
In contrast to the interchange coalition, the participants had incentive to trust each other because for all intents and purposes they were in the same boat. The members of this coalition leveraged their contacts on the Hill to generate broad-based bipartisan support for the legislation. We were able to develop and execute a strategy that resulted in the House of Representatives approving the legislation we supported (H.R. 4367) by a vote of 371-0. Thanks to the coalition’s efforts, not a single member of the House of Representatives articulated opposition to the bill during its consideration in the Financial Services Committee or on the House Floor.
The ATM issue is an example of coalition building in the financial services sector at its best. We worked together to generate broad bipartisan support, and played to our strengths to neutralize potential opposition. And today, we find ourselves working on moving this bill through the Senate.
The framers of our Constitution purposefully made it difficult to enact legislation. Even though the modern Congresses have turned what should be difficult into something that is nearly impossible, it is probably a good thing that it isn’t easy to change public policy. There is a strong argument that we are better served by consistent policy that changes in moderation over time than legislative changes enacted with unpredictable fluidity. But for individuals and organizations charged with affecting change to public policy, throwing up one’s hands and saying that it is too difficult therefore it should not be attempted is not an option. We must find a way forward, and coalitions are important part of an overall lobbying strategy.
When engaging in coalitions, it is important that each of the participants plays to their strengths, that your actions maintain and advance your credibility, that you take steps to manage the challenges presented by the coalition, you take time to perfect and build the alliance, and that you do what you can to deflect controversy by remaining actively engaged in the coalition’s strategic direction.