Tips No Advocate Should Forget

Never grow a wishbone . . . where your backbone ought to be.

-- Clementine Paddleford

1. Always be polite.

This is all about creating relationships – and you don’t want people running away when they see you coming next time.

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 hear them. These were their friends. Legislators who didn’t share their point of view did not accept their invitation. Instead of being respectful and thanking the legislators that came for their attention and support, the students were rude. Hecklers yelled, “Are you going to take a 20% cut in your salary?” and similar remarks. As the event deteriorated, legislators who hadn’t yet had their turn at the podium slipped 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.

A sign prominently posted by the staff in the Finance Committee –
Humility to seniors is duty, to peers is courtesy, to inferiors is nobleness.
Poor Richard’s Almanac

2. Say thank you.

Always remember to say thank you. It only takes a minute. You can send a note, an email, or make a call – just do something. 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 are doorkeepers to the system.

3. Get your story straight.

Be prepared. You don’t have to do a lot of research, just your story is fine. Think through what you are going to say. Practice on a friend if it helps. Have someone gently proofread your letter. You may not have a lot of time in a meeting and many readers won’t go past the first paragraph 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), and how to reach you. 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. If you’re not sure, say so. If you find out later that you made a mistake or things changed, call them right away and correct it. 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. Regulatory and legislative processes are complex. The rules change all the time – trust the professionals. Click here for more on champions.

6. Patience.

Understand that things take time. It should be hard to pass a bill or change the system. Every law passed for a reason, to solve a problem. It should be hard to make changes. 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. But just before he met with us, he met with people who wanted more funding for childcare. And after us, also sitting 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.

While your issue is your top priority, policymakers have to balance everyone’s priorities.

Not too bad, only seven things to remember. And you already knew this.

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