John Coleman: The grassroots go-to guy

John Coleman, ICBA director of advocacy. Illustration: Randall Nelson

Want to reach someone in Congress? Try calling John Coleman, ICBA’s director of advocacy. Coleman has become an expert on starting conversations between community banks and policymakers on how to do right by the industry.

By Kelly Pike


Reaching out to a member of Congress can be intimidating. Community bankers don’t always know who to call, when to call or what to say. That’s why they have John “Jack” Coleman, ICBA’s director of advocacy.

Coleman’s job is to train bankers on grassroots advocacy and help create tools and messaging to make it easier to communicate with members of Congress, their staff and others on federal legislative and regulatory issues. From developing templates to answering questions, he’s an expert in helping community bankers be their own best advocates.

Quick stat

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meetings were held between community bankers and policymakers during ICBA’s 2019 Capital Summit

“We want all our community bankers to be empowered through advocacy and action,” Coleman says. “One of the tenets we’re working on here is how do we make this as easy as possible for the banker.”

An early win

When Coleman joined ICBA in June, the association was nearing the finish line in its decade-long push to see the Federal Reserve develop what has since been announced as FedNow, a planned real-time payments settlements system. Coleman helped mobilize community bankers in reaching out to their congressional delegation and the 12 Federal Reserve Bank presidents. The result was hundreds of letters demonstrating support among community banks.

“It was a great campaign to sink my teeth into,” Coleman says. “It was a huge win with amazing teamwork and so many moving parts.”

Yet, Coleman knows there is a lot more that needs to be accomplished, including passing cannabis safe harbor legislation in the Senate, common-sense Bank Secrecy Act and anti-money laundering (BSA/AML) reform, and permanently closing the industrial loan company (ILC) loophole. To do all that, community bankers will have to be involved.

“The legislative team can tee up legislation, go over the numbers and help members of Congress and their staff understand it, but the person who really matters is the one who votes in the district,” Coleman says.

To that end, he’s working on developing ICBA’s targeted efforts to reach out to elected leaders and those who influence them, including staff. Studies have shown that a constituent’s voice is eight times more effective than that of a lobbyist, Coleman notes. “Having a personal relationship with a staffer in an office is the best way to get things done,” he says.

Coleman is looking for bankers who already have those relationships, or are good at cultivating relationships, and are interested in moving policy forward.

He’s also working to make the advocacy process less intimidating. He was on the team that recently revamped ICBA’s Take Action: Be Heard advocacy toolkit. The toolkit is focused on how to get a lawmaker to tour a community bank, including a how-to guide on what to say and what points to make. “It walks you through how to get your lawmaker to your bank and gives you a structure to help you tell your story,” Coleman says.

Now, he’s creating online and in-person advocacy training programs covering everything from how to set up a meeting to what to do when visiting a member of Congress in Washington, D.C.

A grassroots origin story

Coleman began his advocacy career working for the District of Columbia city government at the grassroots level while he was at George Washington University. One of his most memorable achievements was helping constituents install a speed bump to calm traffic, a task that involved leading a team of interns and going door-to-door to collect signatures. “If you organize people, listen to them and give them the right tools, you can do some cool things,” he says.

After a stint on Capitol Hill, he moved to grassroots advocacy for the Ambulatory Surgery Center Association and, later, the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, a cause close to his heart after losing his grandmother to the disease. While there, he worked directly with patients, a rewarding task that also meant facing the loss of a quarter of his constituents to cancer each year. “It’s really hard to deal with, but motivating in its own way,” he says.

The tools you need

Find the Take Action: Be Heard advocacy toolkit and other useful information at icba.org/advocacy

Coleman sees joining ICBA from the American Bankers Association in June 2019 as a chance to speak up for community banks. “There is a purity of mission that is very motivating mixed with a team culture of discipline and trust that enhances our ability to do the job,” he says. “I feel like we are doing good and fighting for a community that deserves to be represented and has a compelling story to tell.”

Coleman aims to use data to get specific with advocacy, including deducing which people to talk to and what to say to them.

“Our goal is to have a very agile program so we can react, and react the right way, very quickly,” Coleman says. “We have a great group of engaged bankers and a great team here.”


Kelly Pike is a writer in Virginia.

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