Patrick Murray, Senior Government Affairs Director for Cooperative Network, writes about the advocacy work he does for their members.
Did you know trade associations have advocated on behalf of their members for thousands of years? Dating back to the Roman Empire, these entities were more commonly known as guilds. The purpose of these guilds was for individuals such as masons, goldsmiths and tanners to come together for a common goal. Their goal included the protection and defense of their interests, as well as providing mutual aid to each other. Over the years, various guilds were able to wield influence through advocacy efforts with state officials. While these guilds of the past differ from modern-day trade associations, both entities have a common thread in that they were created by their members to serve their interests.
Cooperative Network is one of the largest trade associations of its kind that represents members from cooperative sectors in both Wisconsin and Minnesota. These member-owned cooperative sectors include agricultural, consumer, credit union, dairy, electric utility, Farm Credit, farm supply, food, health care, housing, livestock marketing, mutual insurance, processing, telecommunications and worker-owned. The geographic territory we represent stretches from Kenosha County on the Illinois border, to Kittson County on the Canadian border, as well as from Rock County on the Iowa and South Dakota border, all the way to Door County on the shores of Lake Michigan. Cooperative Network has a proud history of bringing together and strengthening the voice of members in two of the most co-op rich states in the country.
One of the main purposes of a trade association is to advocate on their members’ behalf with policymakers. That is where the value of a good advocacy program comes into play. Cooperative Network has a government relations team in both Madison and St. Paul. Our team encompasses years of experience in the public and private sectors, and includes several former legislators and legislative staff, as well as an attorney trained in cooperative law. Our jobs collectively are to work with our members on issues that affect their cooperatives and to be their voice with lawmakers at both state capitols – as well as in Washington, D.C.
How do we know what issues our members want us to advocate for?
In addition to our years of prior legislative and legal experience, we have learned about issues that affect our members through individual interactions and at the Cooperative Network committee meetings. This includes co-op sector specific meetings that are held in both states, as well as at our annual two-state Resolutions Committee meeting. At these meetings, we discuss current legislative and regulatory issues, as well as review our standing resolutions on topics from all of the cooperative sectors that were mentioned before.
One distinction that cooperatives possess over other types of business models is that they are actually owned by their individual members. They are also governed by their members in an open and democratic process. This transparency allows all of our members to come to the table with an equal voice. These voices in turn inform our government relations team on what issues they care about the most and what issues they would like us to advocate for on their behalf with policymakers.
What types of ways do we advocate on behalf of our members?
There are a host of strategies we utilize to make our positions known with lawmakers. This includes meetings with legislators and their staff, meetings with the administration officials and their staff, testifying at committee hearings, submitting letters and public comments, action alerts to our members, distributing press releases, social media posts, participation in coalitions and, last but not least, the hosting of the annual Co-op Day at the Capitol events in both Madison and St. Paul.
Our annual days at the Capitol have turned out to be one of the most successful advocacy efforts we undertake during the legislative sessions in both states. We bring our cooperative sectors together to advocate for issues that are important to our membership. The day features visits from several secretaries and commissioners on behalf of the executive branches, as well as a discussion with the legislative leaders from the four caucuses in each state. In addition, we assemble teams of co-op members to meet with their local legislators and other policymakers to advocate for our legislative agenda in each state. This true grass-roots event gives the power to our members so that they can have their individual, as well as our collective, cooperative voice heard throughout the hallways of both statehouses. It is a full day of meetings and events, which concludes with legislative receptions for our members to continue advocating with lawmakers in a more relaxed setting.
So what issues do we advocate on?
Typically, we will discuss one issue that is important to each cooperative sector, which in turn demonstrates to lawmakers that we are a diverse association with members from the four corners of each state. We advocate for issues that cover a gamut of topics including agriculture, commerce, energy, environment, finance, healthcare, housing, insurance, jobs, taxes, telecommunications, transportation and utilities. This collaborative team effort is in the true cooperative spirit of providing mutual aid to each other, in which our members actually practice the Sixth Cooperative Principle that is known as Cooperation Among Cooperatives.
The value of advocacy
Cooperative Network is fortunate to have offices strategically located across the street from both state capitols. This close proximity to policymakers allows our government relations team the ability to meet with a legislator or testify at a committee hearing on a moment’s notice. It is invaluable for our government relations team – and for our cooperative members – who on occasion travel to Madison or St. Paul for committee hearings or meetings with their local legislators.
Having strong relationships with lawmakers from both sides of the aisle is critical, as is being able to efficiently and confidently communicate your members’ position on a particular issue. We believe the return on investment that the members of Cooperative Network derive from their government relations teams is invaluable. In fact, a recent survey of our members showed that it is one of the main benefits they see in being a member of our trade association.
In closing, while the guilds that date back to the Roman Empire may not have had as many tools at their disposal that trade associations do today, the one common theme is that these entities exist for several common goals: to advocate on behalf of their members, to protect and defend their interests, and to provide mutual aid to each other. In today’s modern age, a sophisticated advocacy program can play a big role in how successful a trade association’s government relations team is. In fact, how well an advocacy program is executed can be the difference between being at the negotiating table or, as some would say, on the proverbial menu!
On behalf of Cooperative Network, we thank the team at the Wisconsin Society of Association Executives for this opportunity to submit this advocacy article and wish all WSAE members a successful year in 2019!
This article is reprinted from VantagePoint magazine, the quarterly publication of WSAE.