AARP is the largest nonprofit in the United States, representing over 38 million members. Their mission is to empower people to choose how they live as they age by identifying issues that impact seniors — and mobilizing a community of advocates on their behalf. 

In 2018, AARP and its Grassroots Advocacy team approached us with a challenge. They wanted to both grow their community and inspire more actions. After the first year of our partnership together, we’re delighted to say we’ve hit both goals, inspiring over 2 million advocacy actions that had a real impact on the lives of older Americans.

Fred Griesbach, AARP’s former Director of Advocacy Campaigns, stewarded the advocacy community for 19 years and retired at the beginning of 2020. Before he left, he sat down with Blue State’s Michael Rizzo, Account Director, to share his thoughts, experiences, and insights on advocacy.  

What follows is an edited and condensed version of our conversation with Fred.

You’ve been with AARP for 19 years. What would you say has stayed the most consistent across your time at the company? 

Great question. One of the things that has been consistent and one of the reasons why working for AARP has been such a wonderful experience is that we work on really, really big, tough issues. And most importantly, whether we work on Medicare, Social Security, or drug pricing, I’ve never felt that the organization wasn’t committed to the outcome. 

The issues we tackle have significant opposition and I don’t think we could have ever succeeded without a cross-fertilized organizational commitment. We had the research, the people on the ground, the lobbyists, the campaign team, the magazine, all behind us on the big issues. 

The issues have always been hard and important. But, AARP has always been committed to seeing them through to the end. We’ve taken a beating sometimes, but never did we say, “Oh, you know, we have other priorities. We can’t commit the resources.” We never backed down.

On the other side of that, what has changed the most from when you first started at AARP?

I think it’s the level of difficulty to break through the noise. When I first started we didn’t have email, we didn’t have social media. You’d use the phone and postcards. And, there wasn’t as much competition in the advocacy space. There weren’t as many groups and they weren’t as well financed.

The emergence of so much more advocacy at volume has made it a challenge. In particular, social media presents a level of noise we have to break through in comparison to 10, 15, 20 years ago. It’s so dramatically different. The competition is so fierce. The world is just noisier.

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What’s the biggest thing you were able to accomplish in 2019?

I think the biggest thing we were able to accomplish in 2019 is the fact that we have over one and a half million people who are activists. This is a record for us, it’s something to be proud of.

You’re retiring pretty soon, but I’m sure you have aspirations for the advocacy program moving forward. What’s your number one goal in 2020 for the program? 

This election is a challenge, especially for anybody who’s not picking sides, like AARP. Our goal is to show how important it is for people to vote — and to make sure that the candidates are dealing with the issues that we care about. That’s a difficult thing when you have such a partisan divide. 

From an advocacy perspective, keeping your base engaged when you’re in an election year is a big challenge. I wouldn’t even suggest for a minute that we’re going to try to expand in 2020, but as long as we can maintain our base and keep them engaged, we’ll have achieved our goal.

You’ve run a program with massive reach. Is there something you’ve learned that might be useful for someone working on a smaller scale?

You don’t have to be as big as AARP to run a successful campaign. What you do have to do is be able remember these three things: 

First, plan. Nobody wins a battle they didn’t plan. It sounds trite, but so many people want to throw 12 tactics against the wall and see what sticks. That’s not how you win. 

That said, one of the things I’ve learned from AARP is that while we can generate volume, volume is meaningless unless there’s a face behind it. That’s the second lesson for small organizations. You don’t need ten thousand, twenty thousand, a million advocacy emails sent to decision makers. Maybe you only have 500. But, if those 500 emails are targeted at the right people — that makes all the difference. 

I think one of the reasons we’ve been successful is because of our state offices, and the volunteers and people who represent us and share their stories. We work with legislators as well, who are by and large good people trying to represent their district. They understand that those 20 or 40 or 4,000 emails in their inbox represent constituents in their district who need them and who care about these issues. 

The final thing to remember is that you don’t need to have as much money as AARP or as many people as AARP. You just need consistency, integrated tactics, and a personal touch. You don’t need all the volume in the world to make that happen, but you do need an approach, a plan, and a strategy. 

When I say plan though, I don’t just mean a series of tactics. You have to know what your goal is, what you could achieve, what you will accept, and how you’re going to go about achieving it. 

Volume is meaningless unless there’s a face behind it….You don’t need ten thousand, twenty thousand, a million advocacy emails sent to decision makers. Maybe you only have 500. But, if those 500 emails are targeted at the right people — that makes all the difference.

What’s an important lesson you’ve learned from advocacy work over the years that will benefit others?

There are two lessons. One would be that you cannot be in this business without knowing that you are going to be assaulted. So many people are going to try to take you down. You cannot do this job unless you have courage. The courage to withstand it, to stand up to it, to hold on because you’re going to get battered. It’s not a matter of if — it’s just a matter of when and how much. 

The second is that if you’re going to be in this business, be honest. Don’t take shortcuts, don’t do stupid things because somebody’s going to find out. The decisions you make, the partners you choose, the staff that you hire, the public statements you make — all of that’s going to be public. You better be squeaky clean if you’re going to be in this business because you’re going to be attacked and you’re going to have to stand up to those attacks. 

And truthfully, even if you don’t do things that are considered wrong, you’re still going to get attacked because that’s the way the world is right now. You have to be willing to withstand that, to respond to it and to fight back. 

You need to protect your brand. It doesn’t protect itself. With honesty, transparency, and courage — you’ll do just that. 

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