Four University of Richmond law students think they have a better idea for giving ordinary citizens their own voice at the state capitol.
The quartet has launched a project that uses crowd funding to finance lobbying efforts on selected issues. Their CrowdLobby website is already generating money for six lobbying campaigns, but time will tell whether the idea gains enough traction to make a difference, and a profit.
Two professional lobbyists approached by the organizers say CrowdLobby is an intriguing and promising idea.
“I think it’s got a ton of potential,” said Alexander M. Macauley of Richmond.
CrowdLobby LLC claims its newborn website “allows anyone to fund public-interest lobbying efforts through a crowdfunding model, giving people an entirely new way to access the political process.”
The idea is that money raised for specific causes on the website is paid to professional lobbyists who then advocate with politicians. The organization takes a cut to finance its operation.
CrowdLobby president Heidi Drauschak says the organization is not a political action committee and will not sup port specific candidates.
Drauschak is joined by fellow Richmond 3Ls Dillon Clair, Samantha Biggio and Sam Garrison in the start-up. Drauschak and Clair interned at McGuireWoods Consulting during the 2017 legislative session. Garrison was an intern there this summer. All four have some experience in politics or the lobbying world, Drauschak said.
Drauschak said her experience highlighted the influence of lobbyists and how relatively minor interventions – like the right bit of information at the right time – can swing a legislative decision.
“These legislators are voting on two to three thousand bills a session,” she said. “A lot of these issues, it’s not very clear what they’re voting on.”
She came away thinking about applying the crowdfunding concept to lobbying: “This is a good idea. I don’t know why anyone isn’t doing this,” she thought. Assembling a team, she formed the company at the end of March and spent two months working on administrative details. A “friends-and-family” version of the website previewed in June and the full public site debuted in July.
CrowdLobby now has six issues on the website for funding, most coming from a liberal viewpoint:
l Education discipline reform,
l Prisoner rehabilitation,
l Juvenile justice,
l Cannabis reform,
l Clean energy and
l Streamlined tax preparation.
The cannabis initiative took an early lead in funding, with a single donation of $100, according to the website. Education, prisoner rehabilitation and clean energy garnered $85 each, representing three contributions each.
Drauschak said she hopes the organization can take the lead when many different groups and organizations want to advocate on a particular issue. Her pitch: “Instead of 15 separate campaigns, use us to be your targeted political action campaign.”
Drauschak said her business could fund white papers, educational seminars and perhaps even podcasts to get the word out on selected issues.
“We want to act as an educational force,” Drauschak said.
The CrowdLobby organizers won’t do any of the actual lobbying themselves, Drauschak explained. They plan to outsource the work to established lobby shops.
“We are a potential big client if this takes off,” she said, adding that most of the lobby shops are receptive. She said she’s found lobby firms to handle all of the issues so far.
Drauschak said the attitude of lobbyists is, “We’re interested. Prove your model to us and we’ll be interested in working with you.
“I think what Heidi is doing is very innovative. I think she’s certainly on the cutting edge,” said Guy Rohling with Washington lobby shop Albers & Co.
Rohling said he has encouraged Drauschak not to make her adopted issues “too partisan.”
Richmond’s Macauley thinks the crowdfunding idea has possibility.
“I think a lot of other endeavors are being funded by crowd funding, and I don’t know why lobbying could not work,” said Macauley, who represents medical and other businesses in his government relations practice.
“Their enthusiasm and energy is pretty impressive,” he said, adding, “I think they’re pretty savvy about how the system works.”
Drauschak admits the challenge is explaining the role of lobbying. She said she’s been talking to people “who have no idea what lobbying is and why they should care.”
Macauley agreed the biggest challenge could be the public perception of lobbyists.
“Sophisticated people know lobbying’s great value in terms of passing bills,” Macauley said. For CrowdLobby to succeed, however, “You’ve got to convince a lot of people that paying lobbyists is a good idea.”
Testing the outcome also might be difficult, Drauschak acknowledges.
“I think there’s a certain amount of ambiguity in the lobbying process,” she said. “I’m not sure we can identify specific results.”
The goal is to counter unbalanced influence from moneyed lobbyists representing business interests.
“We just want to give people the same opportunity to have that same kind of influence,” Drauschak said.
Updated Aug. 8 to add a link to the CrowdLobby website.