Tips no advocate should forget
Or Everything I need to know about advocacy I learned in kindergarten
1. Always be polite.
Several years ago, I had the misfortune of speaking to a group of at least a hundred community college students at the Capitol. Their budget had been cut in the Governor's proposal (along with everything else) and they were angry. They were right that the community colleges are cost effective and an important investment in Connecticut's future. There were about a dozen legislators ready to address them. Mind you, these were their friends (their enemies did not accept their invitation to speak -- go figure). They were as rude as possible without being violent. Hecklers yelled, "Are you going to take a 20% cut in your salary?" and similar remarks. Legislators who hadn't yet had their turn to speak were slipping out the back door. Then it was my turn - the topic of my talk was supposed to be "How to advocate effectively". I told them to all go home and come back next year. "Does this work for you in real life? You yell at people and they hand you money?" Needless to say, this was not an effective lobbying exercise.
This is all about creating relationships - and you don't want people running away when they see you coming next time.
2. Say thank you.
Even nice people forget to say thank you. It only takes a minute. You can send a note, an email, or make a call - just do something. Don't only thank the policymaker you met with or who voted your way, but also the staffer who set up the meeting or gave you a heads up that your issue was in trouble. Staffers never get thanked - they really appreciate it. And they run the system - Never forget that. (Yes, I used to be a legislative staffer and I still have posted over my desk at home the thank you notes I got from constituents and advocates.)
3. Get your story straight.
Be prepared. You don't have to do a lot of research. Just your story is fine, but think through what you are going to say. Practice on a friend if that helps. Have someone gentle proofread your letter. You may not have a lot of time in a meeting and many readers won't go past the first paragraph or two of a letter. If you can make a fact sheet or include one from an organization, that is great. Make sure you include your contact information - name, organization you are representing (if any), address, phone, and email (if you have one). Don't assume that the envelope with your return address will stay with the letter.
4. NEVER, EVER make up an answer.
"I don't know" is a perfectly acceptable answer. "I'll find out and get back to you" is even better. Don't wing it. If you're not sure, say so. If you find out later that you made a mistake or things changed, and something you said isn't true, call them right away and fess up. They will understand. Mislead someone just once and you have damaged your reputation forever. Policymakers have to rely on the information they are given. This is all about creating relationships - you want to be a trusted source.
5. Trust your champion.
Find a champion for your cause (it can be a legislator, a staffer, someone at an agency, an organization, a lobbyist, another advocate, whoever). Then trust them, do what they tell you to do. The legislative process is complex, regulatory processes are even worse. The rules change all the time - trust the professionals. For more information, see The Proper Care and Feeding of a Champion.
Understand that things take time. I was at a social event with several Senators a few years ago. We were complaining that the legislature was moving extremely slowly because the two houses were split between the parties. A retired Senator asked, "So things are pretty hung up and no bills are passing?" We said yes. He said, "Good. The people are safe."
It SHOULD be hard to pass a bill or change the system. Laws are there for a reason. By and large, things work pretty well here in Connecticut. Only a very few bills pass the first year they are introduced. Be patient and don't burn any bridges.
7. Understand that everyone wants what they want.
I remember once sitting outside the office of a very powerful legislator waiting to meet with him about expanding health care programs for poor children. He was very sympathetic; he wanted to give us what we asked for (who would disagree). But just before he met with us, he met with people who want more funding for childcare. And after us, waiting his turn outside his office, was a small business owner from his district who needed some tax relief or he was going to lose his business and several people would be unemployed. He wanted to help him as well (wouldn't you).
While your issue is your top priority, you need to understand that policymakers have to balance everyone's priorities.
Not too bad, only seven things to remember. And you didn't really need me to tell you the first two.