Grass Roots & Grass Tops

Strategies to grow your advocacy lawn.

By Seth Palmer, Director of Regulatory Affairs and External Communications for North Carolina REALTORS®

Don’t worry: this is not a horticulture discussion. But not unlike the work it takes to make your lawn lush and green, the cultivation of REALTOR® advocates takes know-how and patience. 

Taking a Look at the Lawn

Grass roots are where we begin because they are the bedrock of any REALTOR® association advocacy effort. These are your members who pick up the phone whenever you call and the ones who show up to every association event without fail. Like the roots of a lawn, grassroots REALTOR® advocates are there to underpin it all. 

Because grass roots are below the surface, they can be in the dark on the details of certain REALTOR® advocacy efforts and may need more work to bring them to the surface. In other words, they want to help; they’re just not sure how or how the system works. 

Although it may not be easy to educate and nurture grassroots advocates, without them your efforts to support or battle state of local policies are unlikely to flourish. 

In North Carolina, we engage our grass roots through our advocacy arm, the North Carolina Homeowners Alliance, a group of thousands of REALTORS® and homeowners committed to representing the interests of property owners and raising awareness of issues and legislation that affect consumers’ most important investment: their home. They have engaged on issues such as homeowners insurance rates and improving infrastructure.

Keeping Your Grass Green

Grass tops are what most people see. These are your leaders and others who are highly informed or engaged in advocacy, such as elected officials, lobbyists, and media figures. You as the AE are also a member of the grass tops. 

Even in the healthiest of lawns, there are always fewer grass tops than grass roots. The benefit of working to cultivate and support this group is that they will be the first thing people see when they come to look at your lawn. Your grass tops have to be strong. This means you have to work to keep them informed and engaged. For the nonmember grass tops, add them to your newsletter list, identify members who are close to them, and invite them to your events. And for those within your organization, make sure you provide training, resources, and opportunities to flourish. Grasstops engagement is a key part of the work of Government Affairs Directors, but that doesn’t mean AEs don’t have a role. Even if you don’t have a GAD, you can still engage in these efforts through showing up to town council meetings and public forums or just sending out email blasts when you need these grass tops to hear from you.

Supporting grass tops may be the easiest return on investment based on time and resources, especially for groups with small budgets and teams. However, go back to the lawn analogy: What happens to the grass tops from time to time? They get cut off and replaced by other tops (association presidents’ terms expire, elected leaders cycle in and out); but the grass roots remain. That’s why, as we look at building a robust and long-lasting advocacy platform (or lawn, if you will) it’s important to ensure that you have an equal balance. More importantly, not all grass roots remain below the ground forever. Many of them will rise to become a grass top, even if it is only for a brief time.

Keeping Your Lawn Healthy

We all know that if you don’t water your lawn every now and then, and fertilize it when you can, you will lose your lawn quickly. Before you know it, it will be brown and dry, it will take a huge amount of time and money to revive it, and it may never be as lush as it was before. 

That’s not too different from engaging with advocates. They need consistent content, support, and reinforcement to make sure they can be as strong as you need them to be. This can be through newsletters, letters to the editor, speaking at public forums, or hosting NAR-supported programs including Smart Growth in the 21st Century or the Transforming Neighborhoods class. Protecting your advocacy lawn is not something to think about when you have an issue on the horizon. It should be a perennial and thoughtful process that is a component of your annual strategic plan.

So what types of tools are best to engage with these groups, and is it the same for both of them?

Engaging grassroots advocates comes down first to meeting them where they are. Present them with information and requests for engagement in the easiest, most commonly used way possible. That could be email, Facebook, in-person meetings, or even mail. If it reaches them and resonates with them, you can count it as a win. Once you reach them, you need to make sure you have a clear objective or action request. This can be as simple as asking them to read your communications to stay informed on issues or requesting that they send an email or show up to an event. Keep communications short and action-oriented. They will thank you because it helps them, and it will hopefully result in more action. Don’t just engage with them when you need them, make it a regular part of your work so that it is something they can count on.

Grasstops advocacy blends many of these ideas and amps them up because these advocates are already engaged and informed. These are the professionals with specific experiences even within the real estate business. They are the ones who expect to be asked for their opinion on issues and the ones who aren’t shy about sharing their thoughts. In most cases, they are the decision-makers that drive the action you desire, such as commissioners or legislators, and may be the very people that the work of your grassroots advocacy is pointed toward. These folks need to hear the high-level details and the options inherently tied to decisions. Many appreciate more complicated conversations, detailed white papers, or events because they have the time for them or at least the subordinates to pass them off to for ­summary. 

Due to the higher expectations of the group, you may have to bring in professional “landscapers” to make sure you treat them in a way that keeps them engaged over the long term. These landscapers are your government affairs staff or staff at the National Association of REALTORS®, but can also be contract lobbyists, campaign strategists, or communications professionals, each tasked with presenting the important issues in a way that resonates directly with the grass tops.

When thinking about these lawn characteristics, it’s clear they are mutually dependent. Without a strong, engaged root base, the tops can’t grow. Without the tops standing up and being noticed, it isn’t likely that your advocacy efforts will be successful.

Seth Palmer is the director of regulatory affairs and external communications for North Carolina REALTORS®. Reach him at 919-573-0992 or spalmer@ncrealtors.org.

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