If you’re planning an advocacy day in spring 2018, you’re not alone. From February through early May, an estimated ten and fifteen thousand advocates come to DC per week to meet with their legislators and staff. Yes, that’s per week. How can you rise above the crowd and get the meetings you need? Avoiding the following “sins” is an important first step!
Sin #1 – Non-Constituency
You’ll waste a lot of time if you don’t focus on constituency-based meetings. Legislators and staff rarely meet with anyone outside their district, particularly when they receive dozens of requests per day. If you’re scheduling for a group of advocates, each of whom have multiple locations in multiple districts (for example, businesses with headquarters in multiple locations), be sure to collect those addresses as well.
Sin #2 – Non-Written Requests
You’ll generally be asked to submit your initial request via e-mail, web form or—in the case of one office that shall not be named—fax. It could even be carrier pigeon. To find out the best method, check the contact tab on the Congressperson’s website (accessible through www.house.gov and www.senate.gov). Whatever you do, use that method.
Sin #3 – Assumption
Never assume that your request actually got to the office or that the scheduler will just magically get back to you. With hundreds of requests to go through a day, things get lost. Often. When you call to follow-up, be sure to say “I’m calling regarding a scheduling request I already sent in.” That way you can avoid the discussion about how to send in a request. Also, be sure to take notes about when they’ll be able to look at the request. It’s a waste of your time and theirs to call them every week if they’ve told you they won’t be able to consider the request until the week before the event (which is common).
Sin #4 – Member-itis
Recognizing advocates can be a little prickly about meeting with staff, never, ever insist on meeting only with the member, unless you’re willing to give up the meeting altogether. Getting legislator meetings 20 to 25% of the time is an outstanding percentage for any group. If you’re offered a meeting with a staff person, go ahead and set it up, and see Sin #6 for tips on helping your advocates not be disappointed with the outcome.
Sin #5 – Inflexibility
This is particularly a problem when it’s combined with high expectations. Too many groups offer a very small meeting window and then are irritated when staff or members are not available in the 12:00pm to 2:00pm time slot they’ve designated for meetings. Try to have an entire day available – and ask your advocates to bring a good book.
Sin #6 – Training Only on Policy, not Process
Yes, it’s important that advocates understand the asks. You want to be sure they can walk into an office to state with some confidence that they are asking for $6 billion for such-and-such program or for the legislator to cosponsor such-and-such bill. But remember that advocates are intimidated by this information. They become concerned that if they forget the bill number or the appropriation amount they will look stupid and ruin the entire experience for the whole organization. Unfortunately, many groups leave out some of the most important knowledge – how to have an effective meeting. Your tips in this area should include details on how to deliver a message, making the constituency connection, telling a personal story and, of course, the value of meeting with staff. And teaching them to say “I don’t know, but I’ll get back to you,” is helpful as well.
Sin #7 – Abandonment
Once your lobby day is over, your advocacy for the year isn’t finished. In fact, it’s just started. Be sure you’ve provided your advocates with specific ideas on how to work with the office on an ongoing basis. This might include training them on how to attend a townhall meeting, conduct a district visit or connect via social media.