Improve Your Advocacy Aptitude Before Legislative Session 2013

What does your advocacy/organizing plan for the 2013 (state) legislative session look like? Something like this?
  • Hire lobbyist. (no money in the budget this year)
  • Organize annual lobby day. (no money in the budget this year)
  • Deal with it after the holidays. Maybe Santa will deliver a gift certificate redeemable for a great 2013 legislative session.

But what if Santa’s budget has been “reformed” and “tweaked” until there’s nothing left, and Santa and the elves have been selling their plasma in order to bring any gifts at all to good little girls and boys?

Your organization can be a powerful advocate without spending a lot of money in the process. The same communications tools commonly used by nonprofits of all sizes are often all you need – tools like visits to legislators and their assistants, calls, letters, emails, town hall meetings, letters to the editor, etc.

But you may want to change how your group uses these tools to increase your efficacy. Here are a few suggestions to consider:

First things first: Do you have an advocacy agenda? In writing? One that key volunteers and staff endorse? And can easily explain? (True story: An advocacy group, after much prodding, was able to get a meeting with a U.S. senator to discuss their policy priorities. At the hour-long meeting, they distributed an agenda with 45 policy action items. You can probably guess how many items they were able to discuss after the Senator personally greeted and shook hands with each of the 50+ meeting attendees.)

Make sure you identify your organization in all interactions with lawmakers (and staffs) and on all informational materials. How else will your legislators know to hold a place for your group at the proverbial “table” when considering legislation affecting your community?

Put your communication tools to use early in the session and often. Marketing professionals say that a message often must be heard six or seven times before it starts to sink in.  

Generally speaking, if one constituent phone call to your state representative or senator is good, five are better, and so on. The challenge for many organizations is finding the time to find the numbers of people to send the letters and emails. If your group is strapped for time, try incorporating your advocacy work into activities that you, your staff, volunteers, supporters, and potential supporters will be doing anyway.

Here’s an example. Say that you are a member of a homeless shelter’s board of directors. Each member has pledged to collect 50 mini-letters (two or three sentences per letter) supporting a bill to increase funding for services for the homeless.

You could ask the person who leads weekly services at your place of worship to help: When (and if) the collection plate is passed, s/he could ask worshipers to pen a short note to their elected while they’re waiting for the plate to make the rounds. (Sample letter and paper could be placed on worshipers’ seats before the service.)

You could ask the chair of your book club for five minutes on the next meeting’s agenda. At that meeting, you could ask club members to take a minute to write one or two sentences supporting the proposed bill. (This suggestion is adaptable to a variety of different meetings.)

Here's another example. Say you want to get 50 petition signatures. You could get them quickly (relatively speaking) from:
  • A line of people outside a sports arena, waiting for the doors to open
  • People milling around during half-times
  • A line of people waiting to see a movie, plays, dance performances, etc.
  • People milling around during intermissions
  • People in line waiting for Black Friday sales to begin
  • People taking the bus to/from work
  • Parents at parent-teacher conferences, waiting for their next conference.

Petition signatures can be even easier to collect if you do so at an event you were going to attend anyway (i.e. you take petitions to the play-off games that you were going to see anyway).

That’s all for now! I will post more tips in the coming weeks.