The Alzheimer’s Association’s annual advocacy fly-in changed dramatically because of the pandemic—in many ways for the better. Its new incarnation includes inventive elements, a wider audience, and more flexibility.

Every spring, thousands of association advocates flock to Washington, DC, to share their personal and professional stories in face-to-face meetings with members of Congress. Their goal: to help shape legislative priorities for the causes they support.

Not this year and—in many cases—not last year either. Associations had to change their fly-in plans on a dime when the pandemic struck, and this year, with much more advance preparation, many advocacy events will still happen virtually, with several unforeseen advantages.

The Alzheimer Association’s annual in-person Advocacy Forum typically brings between 1,200 and 1,300 advocates from all 50 states to DC. This year, for the virtual fly-in, 1,400 advocates participated in a live kickoff event on January 28.

“One of the things that’s great about doing this virtually is, we can really expand the audience and people don’t have to fly to Washington,” said John Funderburk, the association’s vice president of advocacy.

The kickoff included a mix of live and recorded elements. Actor David Hyde Pierce, a longtime Alzheimer’s advocate, opened the program live and was followed by recorded interviews with several guests, including political prognosticator Joel Payne of CBS. A variety of education and training sessions rounded out the event. The kickoff was recorded, which allowed the association to share it with a wider group of 800,000 advocates and many other supporters.

The next series of Advocacy Forum events will focus on training advocates to talk about their own stories and ask members of Congress to support the Alzheimer’s Association’s legislative priorities during the event—and beyond. “Advocacy is not just one day or one event, it’s 12 months of the year,” Funderburk said.

Despite the virtual platform, the event still has many features of an in-person fly-in. Advocates will meet with lawmakers on scheduled video calls. In the past, participants took pictures with members of Congress, posted them on social media, and tagged the legislators. This year, they will do the same with screenshots from the meetings.

“The core elements are still there. We’re just doing it in different ways,” Funderburk said.

Another advantage of a virtual event is the cost savings. No more hotels, ballrooms, or catering. There is also more flexibility in scheduling appointments with lawmakers: Meetings can happen earlier and later in the day and even on weekends. The downside is that advocates lose the opportunity to meet other supporters from around the country and network with them in person.

Moving forward, Funderburk said he will look for ways to host a hybrid fly-in that will include in-person elements, while continuing to take advantage of virtual capabilities. He predicts other organizations will do the same.

“Don’t limit yourself, and really think about how you can go bigger,” he advised. “You can raise awareness about your issue with a wider audience and give people an opportunity who haven’t been able to be as involved with in-person advocacy.”

A broader scope has many benefits. “More voices make us louder,” Funderburk said. “That helps us with our cause and what we’re trying to do in terms of policy outcomes, but it also makes us much stronger as an organization.”

LISA BOYLAN

Lisa Boylan is a senior editor of Associations Now. MORE »