- What exactly is establishing formal communications and requesting participation?
- Why establish formal communications and request participation?
- With whom should you establish formal communications to request participation?
- When should you establish formal communications and request participation?
- How do you establish formal communications and request participation?
You've worked in a number of human service programs that serve low-income people in a particular neighborhood, and you've noticed that most of the participants are distinctly less healthy than you and your friends, even though they are younger than you are. They seem to get both minor and major illnesses with much greater frequency than most other people you know, and their kids seem to be sick a lot as well. Although many of the people you've worked with are on Medicaid, they rarely go to doctors. They use the emergency room instead, and then only when they or their children are injured or seriously ill.
These folks have told you that they avoid doctors both because most doctors don't treat them with any respect, and because their offices are just too far away. It's difficult for them to make it to appointments without a car or child care. They know that once they're there, they'll probably have to wait a long time, and keeping squirming kids entertained in a doctor's waiting room filled with disapproving eyes is almost impossible. And what happens when it's time to go into the examining room? The emergency room is easier, and it's close by.
The result, of course, is that the folks you work with never get a sense of how to keep themselves healthy. All they've learned about is treating illnesses, not preventing them. You believe there's a desperate need in the area for a community medical center, where people can establish ongoing relationships with doctors and nurses who'll treat them with respect, and who'll work with them to help them become and stay well.
So now what? This clearly calls for an advocacy campaign: a health center will cost money, which won't materialize without community and political support. You're going to need allies, and lots of them. How do you contact them and enlist them in the effort?
You've come up with a plan for what needs to be done, as described in the previous section of this chapter (Developing a Proposal for Change), and now your task is to establish communication with individuals and organizations that can help your cause, and persuade them to become partners in your advocacy effort. We'll discuss what that means, why it's necessary, whom you should aim at, when are the best times to establish communication and request participation in the effort, and how to go about it. This section should help you put together a collaborative advocacy group that can accomplish what you might not be able to by yourself.
What exactly is establishing formal communications and requesting participation?
What's the point of this "formal communications" stuff? If you want someone to join you in advocacy, you just call and ask. What's so complicated about that?
The answer is nothing...sometimes. If the individual or organization you want to contact is one you know well or have worked with before, then a phone call or other informal contact will probably work just fine. If, however, the individual is the mayor or a powerful legislator, or if the organization is a large non-profit with many layers, or a corporation with which you've never had any contact, the situation is somewhat different.
Everyone is bombarded by messages of various kinds, from e-mail spam to urgent calls from home. Most people, especially those in positions of responsibility, do their best to screen out the unnecessary messages, so they can attend to those that are important. The more responsibility someone has, the more carefully she's likely to screen. By establishing a formal communications link, you assure that your messages get through, and that you have easy access to an individual or organization when you need it.
You'll need to find out what the procedure is to talk to the right person. In the case of a government office, organization, business, or institution, it may be hard to find out just who the right person is. You may need to learn what the proper channels are to communicate with the individual or organization at all.
When we talk about establishing formal communications, we're not suggesting that you have to wear a tailcoat and striped tie, or speak impersonally and correctly. Rather, we're referring to developing a structured, "official" connection with an organization or individual that can be a valuable ally in your advocacy effort. This formal arrangement might be anything from an unspoken agreement that you'll take each others calls, to regularly scheduled meetings between two organizations, to contact as needed between individuals.
If the individual is one you've known for years, or the organization is one you've worked with before, you probably already have such a formal connection, although it may have developed over time so that it now looks and feels - and is - informal. If the individual or organization doesn't know you, or has no particular reason - yet - to think about participating in your effort, a formal communication link will keep the channel between you open, and define your relationship as one of equals and potential collaborators.
Once you have a connection, you have to know how to ask for participation effectively. You have to present the proposition in a way that shows how it will benefit the other party, and that communicates respect and the spirit of collaboration.
So, no - it's often not just a matter of calling and asking. Establishing formal communications and requesting participation take some thought and preparation.
Why establish formal communication and request participation?
There are really two questions here - Why bother establishing communications and requesting participation at all? and Why establish formal communications and formally request participation? We'll consider them separately.
Why bother establishing communications and requesting participation at all?
Why not just go it alone, or leave people to decide for themselves whether they want to join you or not?
We're starting with an assumption here that the participation of other individuals and groups is necessary to any advocacy effort, and that a participatory process has great advantages. You can't leave others' participation to chance: without it, you probably have much less hope of achieving your advocacy goals.
- You need all the help you can get. The more people and organizations you can attract to your advocacy effort, the stronger it will be, and the better its chances of success.
- It's necessary to assure the participation of those who are key to the effort. Some people and/or groups - legislative sponsors, for instance - are so important to the effort that you can't really expect to be successful without them. Making contact with them and asking them to join is crucial.
- It's important to enlist as many of the people and organizations concerned with the issue as you can, in order to show solidarity for the effort. Presenting a united front can be extremely important, especially in making sure that the result of your advocacy is what you've been aiming for, and not an ineffective action or policy.
- A coordinated effort is much stronger than a haphazard one, with a number of individuals and organizations working separately toward a similar goal. If you can enlist everyone concerned in the same effort - one with a clear goal and a clear strategy for reaching it - your chances of success increase immensely.
- You're asking not just for a single action, but for a commitment to an effort that might take a long time. Approaching people and groups with the facts, making sure they understand what they're signing up for, helping them see how the effort will be beneficial to them and/or their target populations, and telling them how much you need and value their partnership - all of these are more likely to gain their participation than either leaving it to chance, or inviting them in an offhand way.
- Establishing communications and requesting participation can head off turf issues and ego problems that can quickly derail an advocacy effort. By recruiting as many people and groups as possible early on, you can make sure that everyone has a say in planning and implementing the effort, and that no one feels disrespected or left out. You can also work out who's going to do what, forestalling turf issues and similar problems.
Turf issues arise when someone perceives that another is stepping on her territory, or "turf," taking over funding, privileges, responsibilities, recognition, etc. that she sees as her own. This can happen in almost any situation, although it's particularly common among people with overlapping or similar responsibilities in the same organization, and among organizations providing similar services in a community (and/or competing for the same pot of funds). In any collaborative effort, it's really important to anticipate the possibility of turf battles, and to structure the situation to address them or defuse them before they occur.
- Even when they're in total agreement with what you're doing, people and organizations like to be asked to join. It shows you value their participation enough not to take it for granted.
- Getting as many partners as possible on board early creates a sense of trust and common purpose that can propel the effort through difficult times.
- Requesting participation early, rather than only when the effort needs to be strengthened or when the final push is on, creates buy-in. If the other parties are on board from the beginning, they feel responsible for the effort, and will work harder to make it successful.
Why establish formal communications and formally request participation?
Again, why not just call and ask? Why should anyone care about formality? But some people and organizations do care; and there are advantages to formality, in the way we're defining it, even with those that don't.
- It's the only way you can approach some people and organizations. Unless you know them well, powerful individuals are usually well protected by layers of aides and assistants who screen communication. In order to get to see and/or talk to them and make your case, you often have to go through a formal process, which may include meeting with someone else first. The same may be true for the actual decision-maker(s) in an organization or institution.
- It shows respect for the integrity of the other party's procedure. Unless the procedure is meant to keep out people and organizations like you, following it demonstrates a willingness to accept the other's priorities, and conveys respect.
- It acknowledges the other as an equal partner. By establishing formal communications and making a formal request, you're implying a partnership of equals, not that you're in charge or that it's all your idea.
- It points up the importance of the other party's potential contribution, and makes apparent that you really want their help.
- It establishes a relationship, and acknowledges that you might have something to offer each other. By establishing formal communications, you're both confirming your connection, and assuming that you have reasons for remaining connected.
- Establishing formal communications means that a channel is always open, and a certain amount and type of communication becomes automatic. Necessary information or other communication doesn't get lost, but is in fact passed on, and passed on when it should be.
With whom should you establish formal communications to request participation?
You'd seldom turn down anyone who wants to be part of your advocacy campaign, but there are always people and groups who are especially important allies. Who they might be varies, of course, depending on the direction of your efforts and the nature of the issue at hand.
Are you seeking policy change or funding through legislation? Are you trying to change the public's behavior, or their opinions? Are you concerned with substance abuse, homelessness, arthritis research, water pollution, domestic violence, affordable housing, child poverty? Each of these directions and issues might call for a different set of collaborators in advocacy. People and organizations you might approach include:
Legislators and other political figures.
If you're advocating for a policy or the passage of a bill in a state legislature or in Congress, you'll need a legislative champion to sponsor it, as well as the support of other lawmakers. If your advocacy is local - the community health center effort referred to in the introduction, for instance - you might need the help of the mayor or the neighborhood city council member. An anti-smoking campaign would benefit from the support of the Board of Health; an environmental initiative might try to enlist the Conservation Commission. Furthermore, it's always good to have these folks on your side, even if they're not directly involved in your issue.
Other initiatives or advocates with similar goals.
As we've mentioned, a coordinated effort is far more powerful than a number of groups going it alone.
Watch out for turf issues and jealousy here. Organizations are sometimes concerned with pride of place ("We thought of this first." "We're the major advocacy organization in this field."), or with being in charge of an effort, rather than a partner. If there's money involved (e.g., sharing funds as opposed to getting the whole pot), the situation can turn nasty. As discussed earlier, it makes sense to anticipate potential problems and try to defuse them before they come up. Making sure that everyone has important responsibilities; giving equal billing (or making sure that each of several organizations gets top billing or responsibility for one aspect of the effort); creating an inclusive steering committee for the effort - these are a few possible ways to head off trouble before it happens.
Experts in the field.
This may include former state or federal agency directors, researchers and scholars, and policy makers.
The local medical association would be an important ally if you were seeking funding for that community health center. A local chapter of the National Society of Professional Engineers might be helpful in advocating for improved sewage treatment or infrastructure repair.
In one rural county, the county bar association took up the cause - initiated by one of the judges - of court reform. With the bar association's backing and participation, a "Reinventing Justice" program was developed that reshaped many aspects of the court system. The program resulted in reduced court caseloads and fewer incarcerations, and probably wouldn't have been possible without the bar association's involvement.
Other organizations concerned with the issue.
These would include health and human service organizations that serve target populations that are affected, that share funding that might be in question, have the same or similar program goals or social concerns, etc. They might also include businesses unable to find trained workers, or concerned about the economic situation of their customers.
These are people and groups that may not be concerned specifically with your issue, but that are concerned with social justice, community development, quality of life, or other general areas that might be positively affected by your effort. Community activists have useful organizing skills, often know the community and the individuals in it quite well, and may have important information on what works and what doesn't from past experience with similar issues.
Controversial community activists may have lots of friends and allies...but they may have lots of enemies and opponents, too. Be sure you know whom you might be befriending and whom you might be alienating by recruiting someone to take part in your effort.
You may be allying yourself not only with the individual or group you've approached, but with others you'd just as soon not be associated with. You may be taking on powerful opponents, or angering key people or groups who would otherwise participate in your effort. If you're considering recruiting a controversial figure or group, you have to decide whether the benefits outweigh the costs. And you have to do it before you make any overtures. If you recruit a person or group and then change your mind, you'll look foolish, and be viewed as indecisive, disloyal, untrustworthy, or underhanded.
Influential citizens or groups.
These comprise people in the community who have standing with one or more segments of the population, either because of personal connections or because they're considered particularly knowledgeable or trustworthy. A list might include:
- Business leaders and groups, such as the Chamber of Commerce.
- Civic leaders - some may be current or former officials; others may be those same community activists discussed above.
- Clergy and communities of faith.
- Service clubs (Kiwanis, Lions, Masons, etc.) and social organizations.
In one town, a group seeking to provide services to the Portuguese community found that the focal point of community life was the soccer club. Not only did it sponsor a number of very competitive soccer teams whose games attracted practically the whole community, but it was also the gathering place for weddings, wakes, graduations, community politics, and just about everything else. If you wanted to reach the Portuguese community, the way was through the doors of the soccer club
- Heads or officers of large organizations or institutions, such as the hospital director, or a college president or dean.
- People with high credibility in the community. These folks may have credibility because of position - doctors or newspaper editors, for instance. They may know everyone in town, either because they've lived there all their lives, or because their jobs - pharmacists, teachers - bring them into contact with most community members. Or they may be ordinary citizens who simply have a reputation for extraordinary integrity or intelligence or moral compass.
Media people and media outlets.
If you can get the media on your side, you have an enormous advocacy advantage.
Community agencies, services, and institutions.
You might need the backing of the police or the fire department or the schools. The municipality's Planning Office could be helpful, as could the support of the local college or university. Nearly every community of any size has at least one local institution that wields influence, and that should be contacted as a potential partner in an advocacy effort.
Members of the target population, or the group as a whole.
These folks have the most to gain or lose through your effort. They are a storehouse of knowledge and experience of the issue, and often have compelling stories to tell. In addition, they bring their voices, their numbers, and, often, their votes, which translate to political clout.
When should you establish formal communication and request participation?
In general, the time to establish formal communications and seek participants in your effort is as early in the process as possible. There are several good reasons for this:
- Starting with a large group gives you more clout at the outset, and legitimizes your effort in the eyes of policy makers and the public.
- Recruiting people and organizations at the beginning establishes the effort as a partnership, rather than as something you started and others joined later. That encourages ownership of the effort by everyone, leading to real commitment to the advocacy goals and more effective advocacy.
- Bringing them in from the first shows respect for your allies and partners. The effort won't make any crucial decisions without them. No one feels like an afterthought: all know that their participation is valued.
- More partners means more input and ideas into planning for the effort, and better strategy as a result.
- Participation builds momentum, which builds more participation, which builds momentum...
There are, however, reasons to establish communications and recruit at other stages of an effort as well:
At the beginning of a legislative advocacy campaign.
Your legislative champion can help you find other legislators willing to sign on. Adding other allies at this point can increase your organizational possibilities, as well as the amount of political pressure you can generate. Legislators are swayed by numbers: the sheer weight of your participation, if it's large enough, will probably get you at least some of what you're asking for. (The rest is dependent on the power of your advocacy itself.)
Just before and during the planning stage of an advocacy campaign.
It makes sense to get as many people and organizations as you can involved in planning. As explained above, more participation in planning means more input, buy-in and ownership of the effort, and a better plan.
When you're trying to build momentum.
This may be when an effort is faltering and needs a boost, but there are also times in the normal course of an effort when momentum becomes an issue. These might be in the early stages when you haven't picked up speed yet; a lull in the middle, when little seems to be happening and enthusiasm often wanes; and near the end, when you're gearing up for a final push to reach your goal. Fresh participation in any of these circumstances can help revitalize the effort and provide the spark to take it to the next level.
When your effort has really taken off. Everyone wants to back a winner.
Using your appeal to pull in as many allies as you can may shorten the effort, and propel you to an early success.
How do you establish formal communications and request participation?
Once again, we'll look at establishing formal communications and requesting participation separately. Remember, however, that in practice the whole process should be integrated and relatively seamless.
Remember also that nothing at all will happen unless you make the effort to communicate and ask for participation. This is no time for shyness or hesitation. A few allies may come to you once they know about your advocacy, but most have to be recruited.
For all parts of the process, remember to follow some very basic communication guidelines:
- Use language that people understand. That may be plain, clear English, or it may be the first language of the people you're contacting. In the latter instance, you might ask a fluent user of that language to make a call or compose a letter for you, or bring a translator to an interview.
- Be respectful. Approach everyone as an equal partner, regardless of their background or experience.
- Build trust. This may involve both of the bullets above, but also being absolutely honest and straightforward. Be clear about what you're asking for, don't downplay (or overdramatize) problems, and volunteer important information as soon as possible.
- Stress your areas of agreement. In any communication, and by your actions, be sure to point out the areas where you agree, and the importance of those areas. This can be especially important where the other individual or group is an ally on the issue you're currently advocating for, but disagrees with you in one or more other areas.
- Be culturally sensitive. Communication styles are different in different cultures. What's considered a comfortable speaking distance in the US - generally about three feet - seems cold in Middle Eastern cultures, where the comfortable distance is much closer. Make sure you know the other's customs, so that you neither offend nor are offended by something that seems normal to one or the other of you.
- Even if your request is turned down, keep communication lines open. You may be allies in the future, the other party may change his mind, or there may be many other areas on which you can agree and collaborate.
Determine what "formal communications" means for the individual or group in question. Is there actually some formal procedure or protocol, or is it just a matter of making contact in your "official capacity" as a representative of the advocacy effort?
If there is a formal procedure, learn all you can about it, so you'll be able to use it - or avoid it - as well as possible. How well protected are the people you're trying to reach? Do they return phone calls or e-mails? Will they even get your message?
If the answer to this last question is no, you might try to get around the official communication process. One possibility, if you have a personal e-mail address, is by using e-mail. Another is by using personal contact (see directly below). Even if you don't have a personal line to your target person, you may be able to skip several rungs in the communication ladder with a personal connection to someone partway up - an aide, a personal assistant, a manager, etc.
Yet a third possibility is putting yourself in a position to "run into" the person you want to contact, by frequenting someplace you're likely to find him - his place of business, a favorite cafe, a softball game, etc. There may be some ethical issues to consider here - Is this fair? Does it constitute lying? - but it's a potential way to reach someone who's otherwise unreachable.
Approach your target personally, if it's possible. This is true whether you're dealing with an individual or a group.
- If you're approaching an individual, see if there's someone already involved in your effort who knows that person well and is willing to make the initial contact. If none of your partners has a direct connection, you or one of them may have a personal acquaintance who can act as an intermediary. You have a better chance both of arranging communication and of successfully gaining an individual's participation if the original contact comes from someone he knows personally.
- For an organization or other multi-person entity, the approach is similar, except that you have to find out who the key individual or group within the entity is, if you don't already know. This is the person or persons who can make - or heavily influence - the decision about whether the organization will become a partner in your advocacy effort. It's not always the director or CEO. Some organizations, for instance, involve several people, or even the whole staff, in decision-making. In others, the board has the final say in matters that affect the whole organization. Whatever the case, making a personal connection is the best approach.
Even if the individual or organization you're approaching is at a distance - a national organization, for instance, or a Senator - you can still use personal connections. A participant in your effort may be a former college classmate of the director of a national organization. Another participant's brother-in-law may be a close friend of one of the Senator's aides. An introduction through a known and trusted source can work wonders.
Be persistent. Especially if you don't have a personal contact, you may have to keep trying to reach the people you're aiming at. Don't be obnoxious - but don't give up. If you continue to be polite but firm about your need for access to the target individual, and to continue to explore other ways to make the contact, the chances are you'll ultimately be successful.
Being polite and friendly - in person and on the phone - is almost never a bad idea, and can sometimes reap rewards. The communications gatekeeper is more likely to let you through if he approves of you. Sometimes, if you've developed a relationship of sorts with him, he'll even skirt the rules to connect you to the target individual. There's no guarantee of that...but there's certainly a guarantee that it won't happen if you're rude and obnoxious.
Once you've made contact, there's still the matter of persuading the other party to join your effort. There are a number of things you can do to make that possibility more likely.
Make your request in person, if possible. If that's not possible, voice contact by phone is the next best approach. People are far more responsive to a person-to-person approach than to written requests or other material (multimedia presentations, for instance). Always try to meet face to face if you can.
Be absolutely clear, in speaking or writing, about who you are, what your effort is about and what its goals are, and what you're asking from the other party. Spell out what participation in the effort will mean, and what the implications of achieving your goals are. If everything's on the table at the beginning, there'll be no unpleasant surprises for either of you down the road.
If the individual's or group's participation involves an exchange or donation - in either direction - of money, goods, services, or personnel, you may want to put an agreement in writing.
Let them know that you value their participation, and why. This not only conveys the message that this particular individual or group is important to the effort, but further explains and confirms what you hope she or it will do as a participant. An individual may be particularly valued for her credibility and her contacts, for instance, while a group may be important because of its reputation in dealing with the issue the advocacy effort addresses. In the first case, the individual can expect to use those contacts; in the second, the organization's main role may be in some combination of planning, lending credibility to the effort, and public relations.
Let them know why it would be in their interest to participate in the initiative. Be clear and specific about the benefits to them and/or their target population if your effort or initiative is successful (and the disadvantages to them if it is not). Explain, too, how the effort would benefit society or the community in general. And remind them that they can be seen as a leader in this area, and be at the table to negotiate the final outcome of the effort.
Leave doors open for the individual or organization to think about participation, or to join later if they don't feel comfortable doing so now. Don't close off the possibility of a later decision, even if they decide not to participate now. Minds and circumstances change, and alliances shift. Leave your options - and theirs - open.
Regardless of the outcome, maintain communication over the long term. If they do decide to participate, they should be kept up to date with the latest information about the progress of the effort, the results of what you and they have done, etc. They need this information to be effective partners, and it will also keep them feeling that they're in the loop.
Even if they don't choose to participate, you may be allies in other advocacy ventures in the future. Keeping communication channels open may lead to other collaborations. If they're not opposed to your effort, you may want to keep them updated on its progress, even though they're not officially involved. They may later choose to be helpful, or to spread information for you, even without you knowing it.
Take it on yourself to initiate and maintain contact. Don't stand on ceremony or protocol, or expect someone else to do it. Communication channels are valuable, and someone has to be responsible for keeping them open. If you take on that responsibility, you'll know that it's being carried out.Even if the communication seems to be mostly one-way, keep at it. If it's at all valuable, it will become two-way before long.
Once formal communications have been established, never let them lapse into disuse. You have to keep the channels open by using them. After all, the larger your network, the more effective your advocacy will be in the long run.
Establishing formal communications with an individual, organization, institution, corporation, or other group is simply a way of starting a recognized and businesslike relationship. It can both facilitate and assure effective and timely communication between you, thus making your advocacy more effective as well.
The reasons for establishing communications and requesting participation also have to do with effective advocacy. They include gaining the numbers and credibility necessary for a successful advocacy campaign; obtaining the buy-in, and thus real commitment, of your allies; making everyone feel like a welcome and valuable addition to the advocacy effort, thereby preventing jealousy and turf issues among allies; improving your planning possibilities with more input; and gaining political clout.
Potential allies -- as many of whom as possible should be recruited at the beginning of the effort to encourage ownership and involvement in planning - vary with the type of campaign and the issue(s) it addresses. Typical potential allies would be legislators and other political figures; initiatives and advocates with similar goals; professional associations; experts in the field; agencies and organizations that work on the issue; community activists; influential citizens and groups; media people and outlets; public services (police, fire), agencies, and institutions; and the target population.
In addition to "as early as possible," the best times to contact and enlist allies are as a legislative advocacy campaign begins; in the planning stages of an advocacy effort; when the effort is trying to build momentum; and when the effort has taken off, and people want to get behind a winner.
In actually establishing formal communications and making your request for participation, always remember some basic communication guidelines:
- Use language your audience understands.
- Be respectful.
- Build trust.
- Stress your areas of agreement.
- Be culturally sensitive.
- Keep communication lines open.
In establishing formal communications, determine just what that means for a particular individual or group and act accordingly. Approach your target personally, if you can, and be persistent until you reach the person you need to contact.
Once you've established communication, follow these guidelines in making your request for participation:
- Make your request in person, if you can.
- Be clear about who you are, what your effort and its goals are about, and what you're asking of the person or organization.
- Let them know that you value their participation, and why.
- Let them know why it's in their interest to participate.
- Leave wiggle room, so that the other party doesn't feel that it's now or never. Allow room for deliberation, a later decision to join, etc.
- Maintain communication whether the other party chooses to participate or not.
This whole procedure is about both building strength for the effort at hand, and building networks to strengthen advocacy over the long term.
Meredith, Judith C., and Catherine M. Dunham. Real Clout. Boston: The Access Project, 1999.