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Q&A with Katie Wonnenberg of the NASE (CQ Roll Call)

Friday, September 25, 2015

As vice president for government relations and public affairs at the National Association for the Self-Employed (NASE), Katie Wonnenberg leads the association’s federal advocacy and communication strategy in representing the 23 million self-employed and micro-businesses across the country.

In today’s Q&A, she discusses key advocacy strategies she’s employed at NASE, including how best to keep members motivated when it seems like nothing is happening on Capitol Hill.

“Our members needing to be empowered to feel like their voice is important is our biggest challenge,” Wonnenberg says. “Individual members sometimes feel that they don’t have the necessary knowledge of the issues to meet with members of Congress.”

“We try to frame it for them in terms of their living the day-to-day and how important it is to share that part of the narrative,” she continues. “I always argue that the majority of Congress has no idea how to start and maintain a business. We want NASE members to be able connect with congressional leaders around those issues.”

Wonnenberg is the immediate past president of Women in Government Relations (WGR). Her involvement with WGR began in 2001, and she was honored as a Distinguished Member this spring.

“Employers have been incredibly supportive of my involvement in the organization,” Wonnenberg says, “and the network is phenomenal. It’s important to have a professional sounding board and support system.”

“WGR is a safe place for women in the field to ask questions,” she adds. “We’re still seeing the lack of women at the very top levels of organizations, even in congressional offices.”

A graduate of Chapman University in Orange, Calif., Wonnenberg has more than a decade of government relations and public affairs experience. She has developed and implemented public policy strategies and objectives for a wide-range of organizations, including WorldatWork and the Texas Office of State and Federal Relations.

What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

How satisfied are you with the level of member engagement in NASE’s advocacy efforts?

Given what has happened in the public policy field that is really relevant to our membership – a major change in how our members receive healthcare benefits and an effort towards comprehensive tax reform, this snapshot of what happened during my first 3.5 years at NASAE lends itself to having a more engaged membership and being more proactive in engaging our membership. There’s been so much member engagement, but we’re kind of in a holding pattern for tax reform. So we’ve started to see a little less engagement.

When you’re running your business in your community, you might not immediately see the benefit of getting involved in politics. We have to connect the dots for them. Once they dip their toe in the water, they get more and more comfortable. Then they see their influence and the opportunity to represent their larger community. It’s important to allow the members to come into their own voices.

Which strategies/campaigns do you think have been most successful with NASE members? Why?

These issues are inherently political. They impact someone’s business, but also have emotional impact as well. And we’ve found that our members are sometimes at odds internally with themselves about how they feel about certain issues.

We have to navigate how we take positions and advocate for our members based on these factors. When you have a diverse membership, you go into things knowing that you can’t make everyone happy. Our advocacy decisions and policy positions are backed by data and anecdotal information. Even if our members aren’t entirely thrilled with our position, they can understand the methodical way the association came to that decision.

We also created a council of 12 NASE members who serve as our sounding board, and we survey them regularly to understand their views. We get a lot of opinions. It’s valuable to hear from the true self-employed.  It’s also interesting that some people aren’t comfortable communicating their views publicly. Our member council is the go-to for addressing media inquiries.

What advice would you offer your colleagues about increasing member engagement in advocacy?

First, you need a good database, and some associations don’t have one. We try not to bombard our members over and over again. We can slice our membership list by state and/or zip code. We really target certain members of Congress when we pull data by Congressional district.

Second, you can’t be afraid to take a position and be able to back it up with data. To do that, you need to get information from your members. We make assumptions all the time, but we are incredibly careful about making assumptions about a policy position without knowing how members feel. It’s time-consuming to develop the tools for gathering member feedback, but it’s so important. Sometimes we think our members will be hot on a topic, and in fact they could care less.

What specific strategies are in place or being implemented to amplify NASE’s voice in Washington?

We have to narrow down our priorities. We can’t be all over the place trying to be the subject matter expert on the 17 issues that matter to our members. We can advocate on all 17 issues. However, we have to be focused on what we want to accomplish. What is our one goal for the year? You can’t do everything, so you have to prioritize your time, efforts, and money. We must be good stewards of membership dollars in determining GR strategy.

If the current political climate in Washington continues, what challenges and opportunities will associations face?

Unfortunately, there is frustration that very little will get done between now and next November. That’s not uncommon, but usually you have September through November to be effective.

I don’t know that this is going to happen. The big things definitely aren’t going to happen. For instance, it’s doubtful that we’ll see movement on tax reform. While our members become more and more engaged during a political season, it’s still frustrating for them when issues don’t move forward.

Many organizations feel that nothing is going to happen for 18 months. It’s depressing, but we have to find the low-hanging fruit and position ourselves for 2017. How do we continue to show our value to our members relative to GR during this period? Our members love political intelligence and news about the election, so we’re going to incorporate it into our member communications. Ultimately, it’s about managing expectations, being honest, and helping members mentally prepare themselves for this reality.

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