There’s no doubt that REALTOR® associations have boosted their legislative and political advocacy in the past four years. With more programs, grants, support, and resources than ever before, the National Association of REALTORS®’ goal of increasing member engagement in advocacy is paying off at the local, state, and federal levels. But there’s still more to be done, says Bill Malkasian, NAR’s vice president of political strategic planning.
Getting and keeping members involved in politics is often a challenge. Associations struggle with explaining the reasons for advocacy and investing in the REALTORS® Political Action Committee. It’s a challenge to motivate members to volunteer their time.
RAE turned to REALTOR® association government affairs directors to help with ideas and inspiration on a few of the most pressing questions from association executives on getting members engaged in advocacy.
Why does every association need members directly involved in advocacy?
For local associations, especially small ones, drumming up enough volunteers to cover the basic committees and essential services is hard enough. That’s why there’s a tendency to leave politics up to the professional government affairs staff—sponsored either by the state association or a regional shared government affairs director. But staff can’t do it alone. They need volunteers to fill several critical roles.
“The REALTORS®’ involvement is vital to understanding which aspects of the real estate business need protection or could be improved through policy changes,” says Lennie Shewmaker, government affairs director of the Atlanta Board of REALTORS® and the Atlanta Commercial Board of REALTORS®. “It is great for elected officials to hear from a GAD on policies, but it is equally important that they hear from members about how a policy directly impacts their livelihood.”
Without member participation, elected officials wouldn’t truly understand who the GADs are representing. “Elected officials and government staff will dismiss a GAD’s concerns if they do not believe he or she has the full consent and backing of the REALTORS® who live in and around their district,” says Howard Handler, Illinois Association of REALTORS® local government affairs director for the northern part of the state.
“My expertise is in crafting the message that our elected officials and bureaucrats need to hear, but that message is best delivered by the practitioner who can speak to real-world experience,” said Amber Sundsted, government affairs director of the Billings Association of REALTORS® in Montana. “Members are the best advocates for their industry and clients.”
On the practical side, it would be impossible for GADs to meet and sustain working relationships with all of the elected and appointed officials in their territory—from council members to mayors to state-level legislators and all the important officials in between. Volunteers fill this critical role when they build professional relationships with decision makers in their community.
“The boots on the ground works,” says Ryan Castle, CEO at Cape Cod & Islands Association of REALTORS®. “Having people contact their elected officials gets noticed.”
How many member volunteers does it take to support an effective advocacy program?
Although an advocacy committee that decides and directs involvement typically has 10 to 20 members, the government affairs directors we spoke with said they wished they had more volunteers for other work, such as organizing RPAC events and meeting with elected officials in person.
“If we had more members involved in our advocacy program, elected officials would get even more of an earful about the impact they have on real estate transactions and home ownership,” says David Stark, government affairs director for the Bay East Association of REALTORS®, Calif.
With more volunteers, associations could attract more media coverage and could do additional outreach-based activities instead of just playing defense, notes Nicole Arnold, a shared local government affairs director for the North Carolina Association of REALTORS®.
“There are never enough volunteers when it comes to political advocacy,” says Sundsted. “Our association’s goal is to have a member sit on every board and commission of our local government. We encourage them to run for office.”
Of course, it’s not just the number of volunteers but who is volunteering that is also important.
“The desire is to have the most erudite and knowledgeable REALTORS®—market leaders and top producers—involved,” says Brian Bernardoni, senior director of government affairs and public policy for the Chicago Association of REALTORS®. “They have the most to lose.”
How can we ensure that members will accurately represent the association’s position?
REALTORS® who speak with elected officials are encouraged to share their personal experience while at the same time sticking to the prepared talking points, which can be a difficult balancing act.
“We’re fortunate that the REALTORS® who participate ‘get it’ when it comes to staying on message, and it helps that they’re briefed before we take the REALTOR® voice into the state capitol building,” says Stark.
Training and education are keys to volunteer effectiveness. Mock meetings with officials help members prepare for issue discussions. Associations also print issue briefs for members to follow or hand to politicians.
“The key is to prepare the members—have a script for them to work from and explain the dos and don’ts. You are always going to have someone in a big group go off script. Politicians are used to voters shooting off their mouths and rarely does it cause serious damage,” says Dave DeLeon, government affairs director for the REALTORS® Association of Maui.
How can I get more members involved in association legislative or political action?
REALTORS® will get involved in advocacy if it’s fast and easy, which means reducing or eliminating service requirements, identifying and mentoring younger members, and offering a variety of opportunities, GADs agree.
“Know what motivates your members,” says Bernardoni. “Some are motivated by civics, some by money, some by patriotism, and others by being a joiner. The more you know about your members, the more angles you can use to get them involved.”
A controversial piece of legislation is a godsend for increasing member involvement. There’s nothing like a proposed transaction fee for overcoming member political apathy. Yet even the hot issues need to be put into context for members so they clearly understand how a policy or legislation affects their day-to-day business.
“Once that connection is made, look out, because they’re going to vote, write checks, make phone calls, and send e-mails,” says Stark. Absent a hot political issue, the biggest influence on member involvement is being asked by another REALTOR® in leadership, says Sundsted.
“When members speak to each other about how many anti-real estate policies have not been implemented due to the association’s efforts, it’s eye-opening for those who have operated in this industry every day, unaware of the potential impact of local policy on their bottom line,” says Shewmaker.
Yet, the members who step up without being asked to serve are often the most effective because they already have an interest in politics, government, or public policy, GADs say.
“They have to have the politics gene,” says DeLeon. “If it is not something that innately interests them, once that big issue that bugs them goes away, so will they. In my experience, the people in any group—not just REALTORS®—who get engaged and stay engaged amount to about 1 percent. When there is an emergency, that number will go up.”
Even though associations may never get a large percentage of members directly involved in advocacy activities, Handler says, “we need every member to do the minimum: respond to CFAs, donate to RPAC, and be generally supportive of government affairs.”
Events that inspire members into advocacy action are visits to the state capitol, legislators’ offices, or Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. These can have a transformative effect on members, GADs report.
“Members have varying degrees of interest in politics, but when we get them to Government Day at the state capitol meeting with lawmakers, for the most part, we change attitudes and open their eyes to the view the legislators have from the inside,” says Bruce King, government affairs director at the REALTORS® Association of Northwestern Wisconsin.
“A big draw for our association is visiting the General Assembly in Raleigh,” says Angie Hedgepeth, GAD for the Fayetteville Regional Association of REALTORS®, N.C. “Members actually see the process and see what a difference it makes to sit down and tell their story to their representative. You can’t sell it to the membership; they have to experience it for themselves.”
How can I avoid alienating members who are loyal to one political party or want the association out of politics?
“I have yet to find an issue or candidate with 100 percent consensus among REALTORS®,” says Handler. “An association can be in favor of ice cream and puppies, and some REALTORS® will say that ice cream is high in cholesterol and kittens are better than puppies. No association will find universal consensus on all issues, but that’s no excuse for staying silent.”
Often the members most vocally against association involvement in politics are those who fear the association will support a candidate that they personally oppose.
“Remind your members that they are free to invest in candidates as citizens and to vote their conscience, but as representatives of the real estate trade, your association is equally free and equally obligated to participate in the system to protect the interests of that industry,” says Shewmaker.
Associations strive to maintain a singular focus on the best interests of REALTORS®, which isn’t always clear, so it’s important to give members the ability to set their own internal policies and goals, says DeLeon. “For instance, we have a strong, member-based candidate vetting process, but our association is dead set against doing overt public endorsements (let alone independent expenditures) so we reached a compromise in which we do internal endorsements to our members, affiliates, and their families. Candidates actively seek those internal endorsements.”
Hedgepeth recommends starting with small steps when warming up members to political involvement and outreach. “Last year, our association did its first independent expenditure for a mayoral race. It was a big step for our leadership, and our candidate won. It was a wake-up call to show our REALTOR® leaders that they can have influence and make positive change for our local community.”
Visit the Realtor Action Center for resources and news on advocacy.