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PAC Managers Rebound in Challenging Times

PAC Managers Rebound in Challenging Times

September 2021

For a few months in 2021, NEMPAC, the political action committee of the American College of Emergency Physicians, did what a lot of corporate and association PACs did. The PAC representing 40,000 physician members of the association paused its contributions to candidates and its solicitation of funds from its members. Business PACs often take a break after a presidential contest and the election of a new Congress, but this was not a typical year.

The Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and the decision by numerous business PACs to stop giving to Republicans who refused to certify the presidential election’s results prompted many PACs to take the opportunity to re-examine their practices in a systematic way.

NEMPAC paused its giving after Jan. 6 “because we were hearing a lot from our members about the riots and the election, from both sides,” says Jeanne L. Slade, NEMPAC’s director of political affairs and grassroots advocacy. “Some were saying we shouldn’t give to the members who voted against certification, but others were saying those events had nothing to do with emergency medicine so they shouldn’t be a factor. So we convened a group that included people on both sides of the issue, and we did a survey of our members to hear what they had to say.”

The upshot was that NEMPAC revised its contribution guidelines, says Slade. “The new language clarifies the PAC’s support of democracy and peaceful dissent — things like that. It also affirms our support for science-based strategies such as masks and vaccines, as well as other health-related policy decisions. I’m not sure we pleased everybody, but for a PAC as large as ours that would be asking a lot. This was a time for educating our members about how we needed to keep working on their behalf — for adequate reimbursement for their services and for inclusion in relief programs, for example.”

And while NEMPAC has now resumed its fundraising and its giving, Slade says the PAC has tried “to keep an easy touch. We’ve never gone for the hard sell, but we had to be especially sensitive to our members during this difficult period, listening to them and understanding their situations. We told them that our work goes on, regardless of whether they give or not. And we told them that if they couldn’t give at the level they had in past years, that is OK — we understand.”

Dealing with COVID

NEMPAC was already adjusting their PAC strategies due to the pandemic. People often assume emergency room physicians don’t face layoffs, the way nurses and other health care workers sometimes do. “But the idea that our members do not face economic uncertainty is a misconception,” Slade says. “People often assume ER doctors are employed by hospitals, but many work for group practices with which the hospital contracts to provide ER services.”

When people “stopped going to emergency rooms for fear of getting COVID, some hospitals cut shifts,” Slade says. “So they faced uncertainty about their incomes, the same as many other Americans did. And we had to be mindful of that, as we moved through this period, in terms of how we communicated with them and what we talked about when we did.”

Strong Opinions

The past 18 months or so has been a time of reckoning for PACs and PAC managers. Rocked by the pandemic, deep social and economic tensions and subject to unprecedented levels of scrutiny by critics, PACs also have come under pressure by members (and eligibles) turned off by controversial political issues.  Numerous PACs, including some of the biggest and best known, said they would suspend their donations to election objectors, while others revisited their practices as a way to make sure they were doing the best they could by their members and the organizations they represent.

The Council’s Political Involvement Network Survey, released in May, reflects a number of these tensions. Of respondents surveyed in late January and early February, 62% said that after the Jan. 6 riots they had temporarily or permanently suspended contributions to the Republicans who voted against certifying the election. Fourteen percent (14%) issued statements “in support of voting rights,” and 19% had lobbied directly or conducted grassroots advocacy in support of racial equity and other social issues.

Few Radical Changes

“Few had to make radical changes to their management practices,” says Kristin Brackemyre, the Council’s director of PAC and government relations. “While it was unprecedented for so many PACs to step back and rethink their strategies, most had strong governance policies in place to deal with controversies such as this. A lot of PACs already had criteria calling for candidates to support integrity and democratic principles.”

Maintaining Trust

That’s how successful PACs “manage to maintain the trust and confidence of their members through good times and bad,” Brackemyre says. “Sometimes you just need to slow the process down and gather feedback from your supporters and other stakeholders. Having this ongoing dialogue in place will help when you convene your PAC board and decide what to do differently.”

Nurses in hospitals have been hit especially hard during the pandemic, with some 1.4 million health care workers losing their jobs in April 2020 alone, according to the Labor Department. “We were intensely aware of this terrible reality,” says Erik W. Koeppen, director of political engagement in the American Nurses Association’s department of policy and government affairs as well its PAC manager.

“They were under a lot of stress during this period, and that was top of mind as we communicated with our members, but unlike a lot of PACs, we actually saw a spike in contributions — a real windfall.”

Even though ANA-PAC paused its solicitations during this time, it experienced a 68% increase in donations as new eligibles decided to become members. “We’d like to think this is because nurses understood what we were doing to advocate for them, but also because they had been thrust into the forefront of a national tragedy,” Koeppen says. “The stakes for them and for the health care profession couldn’t have been more real or more urgent.”

Uncertainty is a Certainty

Julie Vieburg, head of grassroots and political advocacy for Land O’Lakes Inc., says her PAC’s members are always facing economic uncertainty, whether there is a pandemic or not. LOLPAC has about 200 members, and many of them are dairy farmers — some of whom have as few as 50 cows.

“But a lot of them also grow crops, such as corn, wheat and soybeans, so weather is always a concern for them,” Vieburg says. “They also face trade issues and pricing issues — plus the costs of animal feed for their dairy cows. Some of them not only work crazy hours, but they also take second jobs like driving a school bus to keep their health insurance in place.”

Everyday Reality

For that reason, LOLPAC’s fundraising efforts didn’t change with the pandemic given that economic uncertainty is already part of their everyday reality. “So we really didn’t do anything different,” Vieburg says. “We tried to stick to our core message about how important the work of our government affairs team is, to keeping pro-agriculture, pro-business members of Congress in office, and to be as transparent as possible about the work we do for them. Our governance model has always been strong, so we made no changes there. Our bylaws require us to have a PAC board.”

Soliciting members and asking eligibles to join must always be handled with sensitivity, and the pandemic made fundraising even more challenging for many PACs. “We usually raise hundreds of thousands of dollars at our annual meeting in October,” Slade says. “That had to be virtual in 2020, of course, so we couldn’t do our usual face-to-face and peer-to-peer solicitations, so we weren’t able to raise as much this time.”

About 500 doctors usually come to NEMPAC’s annual Washington fly-in in the spring. “But this time, in the spring of 2021, we had about 300 and because of the pandemic and security restrictions, we couldn’t do in-person visits with legislators on Capitol Hill,” Slade recalls. “We met on Zoom in our hotels. We were able to have a PAC donor reception, in part because our members were so eager to gather in person and share their experiences from the past year. So that was a big success.”

Political Controversies

PAC managers were still dealing with the pandemic when Jan. 6 brought more pressure — from critics of PACs generally but also from members and eligibles. There were also calls for greater diversity on boards and in the range of candidates that receive a PAC’s support.

Ellie A. Shaw, director of federal government affairs for American Express, believes some aspects of the work remain unchanged, despite the upheaval and some of the disagreements that came with it. “It’s more important than ever that employee-funded PACs tell their story, demonstrate value and amplify their employees’ voice in the political process,” Shaw says. “They work with almost every aspect of an organization, assess the broader landscape, and advise on reputational impact, all the while knowing that in this heightened partisan environment, any decision is likely to make half of their stakeholders unhappy.”

‘Out in Front Already’

ANA-PAC was witnessing angst over the pandemic and political concerns well before the November election. “We heard from members who felt very passionately about then-President Trump, on both sides,” Koeppen says. “What we had to remind our members was that we had to be the voice of nurses to the administration and federal agencies such as the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, regardless of who was in office.”

Focus on Legislation

As for the 147 Republicans, ANA-PAC’s board “has been very much aware that we really don’t know all the reasons they made the decision they did. There can be all kinds of motivations. Maybe they [voted this way] just to represent their constituents. Maybe they were under intense pressure from party leaderships. And some of them have been good allies and nursing champions. A challenge has been getting some of our board members to take off their political hats and focus on legislative priorities. This can be tough. These are serious issues people care strongly about. We understand that.”

But listening has always been essential to a successful PAC. Communication is a two-way proposition. “We always want to be relevant and to respond to our members’ needs,” Slade says. “Our ER docs had to protect themselves and their loved ones when they went home after a shift at the hospital. They didn’t want to bring COVID home to their families. PPE was scarce in the early days and in some places still is. We had to keep advocating for them, so that the demand for masks, for example, would be met.”

Listening to Members

But NEMPAC also asked its members, using surveys and other means, about how they wanted to receive information and on what subjects. “We put together a COVID tool kit, which was always being updated, that addressed specific concerns, like how to talk to people with vaccine hesitancy,” Slade says. “This helped our members, but it also reminded them of what we do for them.”

Such communications also build trust. “Relationships built over time can endure through ups and downs,” Brackemyre says. “When members have a lot of confidence in the people that run their PACs, it will be easier to navigate the response and path forward with regard to social and political controversy. Yes, they can pause and reflect and reconsider how they’ve done things in the past, and sometimes that is necessary. But the point of the exercise has to be focused on charting a path forward.”

Pleasant Surprises

Listening also means you are alert — open to new information and even to pleasant surprises. Koeppen says he and his team would never have imagined they would see “a windfall in the middle of this worrisome time for our members through increased financial support of the PAC and record levels of grassroots engagement.”

By now, it is hardly news that organizations can reach more people through Zoom than any ballroom can accommodate for an in-person presentation. But the move to virtual has brought other surprises.

“As amazing as our Washington team is, I never imagined they’d be even more efficient and effective now than they were in early 2020,” says Vieburg, who is based in Arden Hills, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis-St. Paul. “They can get a lot more done under present circumstances just because they don’t have to organize their days around meetings scattered around Capitol Hill.

Cause for Optimism

Shaw also sees cause for optimism, and not just for PAC managers. “The last two years have provided opportunities for government affairs offices to discuss the impact of public policy on their organization, for organizations to tell their story on environmental, social and governance, and for PACs to build relationships with key policymakers while tying all of the components together.”

Through all the challenges of the past several months, “relationships are still the common theme through it all,” Shaw says. “As we emerge back into whatever the new normal is, renewing connections and building new ones are vital in a way that can’t always be accomplished solely through a screen or phone, though we have learned a lot by having to rely on those tools. PAC directors are resilient, flexible, innovative and thick-skinned. The last couple of years at times may have stretched those attributes to their limits.”

PACs “are partnerships,” Brackemyre says. “You have to be active, and you have to stand for something, and in stressful times, the need to have a strong message and sticking to it is more important than ever.”

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