|Learn how to design and implement a legislative advocacy campaign, keyed to specific legislative targets and goals, to support and strengthen your work.|
What is legislative advocacy?
Why should you engage in legislative advocacy?
When should you engage in legislative advocacy?
How to organize for legislative advocacy
How to approach legislators and other policymakers
- What legislative advocacy is
- Why--and when--you should engage in legislative advocacy
- How to organize for advocacy
- How to approach policy makers
- An explanation of who policymakers are and how they really work (following the section proper).
What is legislative advocacy?
- A bill with funding attached. You might want to advocate with state or federal legislators to sponsor a bill which, if passed, would provide money to work on your issue or benefit your target population. Much government-sponsored AIDS research has resulted from funding legislation that passed largely through the work of advocates and other activists.
- A bill with wording that supports a particular philosophy or helps to legitimize your issue. Such a bill might affirm the responsibility of government to deal with a particular problem or provide a particular service. Even if there's no money attached, having that wording pass into law makes it easier to get funding later, and makes the importance of the issue clearer to the community at large.
- A bill with regulations that benefit your target population or advance your cause. A welfare reform program that includes education and training for recipients, continued medical insurance for a period after people get off welfare, and other support services is far more likely to work to the long-term advantage of recipients, for instance, than one that simply pushes people off the rolls after a certain period of time.
- A local ordinance that supports your cause. Town Councils, Boards of Health, Conservation Commissions, and other local bodies can make regulations that promote particular health, social, or environmental agendas. For example, in the past few years, many town Boards of Health have banned smoking in restaurants in order to protect non -smoking patrons from the effects of second-hand smoke. In some instances, local housing authorities evict from public housing the families of tenants who take part in racist activity.
- Budget advocacy. Federal, state, and local governments approve budgets each year. Groups often advocate to put new or more money in the budget for their issue; to get proposed funding levels approved by the whole legislative body and signed into law by the executive; or to reverse proposed cuts in funding.
- Simple political, intellectual, or moral support. This might be the support of lawmakers, like Congressmen or state legislators, or it might be the support of other powerful people who don't directly make laws themselves, but are listened to by those who do. A governor of a state, or the President, for instance, can't make laws; but he can propose and veto bills, push for specific policies, and set policy through the ways laws are implemented and enforced by his office.
- Links to other contacts. Through their own networks, lawmakers and other government officials can often introduce you to other legislators or people who can be more directly helpful than they themselves can, or can call in favors to support your issue.
Why should you engage in legislative advocacy?
- Often legislative action--making something into law or appropriating public money--is the most effective way to bolster a cause or make the gains you hope for.
- Sometimes legislative action is the only way to accomplish your goal. Appropriating public money, for instance, can only be done by legislative bodies, at least at the highest level. (Funding may come from a state or local agency, but that agency's funding comes from the state, county, or municipal budget. We'll discuss state budgets further later in this section.) If you want to assure public funding for something, the best way to do it is to build that funding into the federal, state, or local government budget.
- Legislative advocacy lends focus to your issue. Advocacy, if you do it right, forces your group to define clearly what it needs, and to communicate that clearly to others. It also makes it necessary for everyone to speak with one voice, and to stick to a common purpose in order to accomplish what you set out to do.
- Advocacy creates its own positive publicity. Speaking out on behalf of an issue, conducting various kinds of public events, and getting coverage in the media all add to public awareness and understanding of what you're advocating for.
- Legislative advocacy often gains you powerful allies. Working with and getting to know lawmakers and familiarizing them with your concerns can make them into advocates for your cause as well, and will increase the likelihood that they'll listen to you and your constituents on other issues. Establishing personal relationships with legislators gives you credibility with other lawmakers and with the community at large.
When should you engage in legislative advocacy?
- When the lawmakers are about to take up something crucial to your issue. If someone has filed, or is about to file a bill that's particularly favorable or unfavorable to your cause or your target population, or if someone is proposing funding increases or cuts that will affect you, it's definitely time for action.
- Just before and during budget time. If you have funding concerns, the time to make them known is when legislators are actually working on the budget for the next fiscal year. At the same time, if they're thinking of making cuts in your area, you want your voice to be heard while they're deliberating.
- When your issue or target population is drawing attention. The adage "Strike while the iron is hot" applies here. If a book about your issue has just been published and is being widely read and quoted, it's a perfect time to add the voice of your advocacy group--as an "expert" to the discussion. If there's suddenly an epidemic of what ought to be a controlled disease, it's a perfect opportunity to advocate for funding for vaccinating all children, or a particular group of children. If there's a debate about welfare, advocates need to make sure that the voices of welfare recipients are heard, and that legislators think about the real effects of suggested policies.
- When a vote on a crucial bill is likely to be very close. In that case, you may have to pull out all the stops in order to try to influence the votes of a few key lawmakers.
- When a bill or budget--or the veto of a bill or budget--that hurts your cause has just been passed or signed, but can still be changed by an amendment, a veto, or an override. Now, when you have to act quickly and decisively, is the time when careful organizing can really pay off. If your group can produce a flood of phone calls and visits to legislators, all with the same message, you're more likely to accomplish your goal.
- When it's important to make legislators aware that your issue exists. Many areas that are now regularly discussed and funded by legislative bodies--environmental preservation, adult literacy education, services for the homeless--were unmentioned and, often, unheard of until concerted efforts by advocates brought them to lawmakers' attention.
How to organize for legislative advocacy
Step 1: Marshaling your allies
There is strength in numbers. Identifying the people in your camp and getting them to commit to an advocacy effort are your first steps toward building a powerful organization. Who are the people you need to bring in?
- Any legislators who are already in favor of your position. Approach those who've voted to fund or support your issue in the past, or with whom you've had recent positive conversations. Legislators who have a personal interest are natural allies. If you're advocating for more physical access for those with disabilities, for instance, a legislator who is herself in a wheelchair, or who has a hearing-impaired family member, is likely to understand the issue and be sympathetic.
- Actual or potential beneficiaries of the policy or funding you're advocating for. Make sure that all these folks are registered to vote, if they're citizens and 18 or older.
- People who work in organizations offering services aimed at the issue or the population in question. In addition to being sympathetic, these are the people who usually know the most about the issue.
- Recognized "experts" in the field. Academics, former legislators who've dealt with the issue, beneficiaries of the policy in question who've turned their lives around, and long-time providers of services are the types of believable, authoritative voices that legislators often listen to.
- Supportive community and business leaders and other citizens who understand the issue. These include the community opinion leaders--business people, clergymen, heads of organizations, newspaper columnists--who are able to influence large numbers of others because of their standing in their field or in the community at large. They also include people who simply have the time and inclination to work on the campaign, and will stuff envelopes, man phones, and act as go-fers when they're needed. Such people are often the heart of a grassroots advocacy campaign.
- Credible celebrities who are sympathetic to the issue
- Professional or other organizations concerned with the issue or with the population affected. Labor unions and other organizations which already engage in advocacy themselves are especially helpful.
- Be careful not to write off people with whom you may disagree on other issues. If they're in favor of this one, and support your position, they're allies. Furthermore, the ties you establish as a result of this advocacy campaign, may mean that you'll be allies again in the future, or even that they'll be more willing to listen to your arguments about the issues on which you disagree.
Step 2: Creating a coordination structure
It's vital to have a single coordinating individual or body at the core of your advocacy effort. This facilitates communication and decision-making, but, most important, it puts at the center of the effort one person or small group whose business it is to know what's going on, and to act or react quickly, decisively, and effectively. The coordinating individual or group should, of course, involve all the participants as much as possible, but there may be times when the whole advocacy group will need to trust the coordinator to make a decision and mobilize support for it.
Step 3: Doing your homework
- Know your issue inside out. If you're going to advocate effectively, you and everyone else involved has to learn as much about your issue as possible. You should have all the statistics available, both at your fingertips and on the tip of your tongue. If there's science or political philosophy or history involved, you should know it well enough to explain it in a way understandable to the average person.
- Know the other side. If you have opponents, or if there are drawbacks to what you're advocating for, you need to know the arguments against it as well as you know your own, and to develop point-for-point answers to them. If there are legitimate arguments that you can't answer, you should at least consider rethinking your position on those issues. If that's not possible--i.e. if you see what you're advocating for as far more important than its negative consequences--then you should at least acknowledge those arguments as problems, and offer to work toward solutions with your opponents.
It's important to know the other side personally as well. If you have opponents, either legislators or others, you need to know who they are, why they are opposed, and what they'll respond to. If you can maintain a personal relationship with them regardless of your disagreement, all the better. You may be allies in the future, and they're more likely to deal reasonably with you if they see you--and you see them--as reasonable people.On a local level, a good way to accomplish this is by attending public meetings, hearings, and legislative sessions--City Council, selectboard, or School Committee meetings, for example. You'll at least get an opportunity to see how these policy makers behave in public, and, often, the chance to meet them as well.
- Know the committees that are important to your issue and who's on them. Find out who among those legislators are supportive, who needs to be convinced, and what will convince them.
- Know who other key legislators are, and their positions on your issue. Chairs of important committees (Rules, Appropriations), legislators who serve on the Conference Committee that reconciles the House and Senate versions of the annual budget or of important bills, legislators who are willing to take up your issue as a personal cause, individuals whom other lawmakers respect and listen to -- learning who the players are should be an important part of your preparation.
Step 4: Defining your message
- A well-defined message is easier to pass on to your allies, easier for them to understand, and less likely to be misstated.
- A clear message is easier for legislators and the public to understand, especially if they're unfamiliar with the issue.
- A message that's specific and concise is more likely to be heard favorably by legislators, especially if it asks for some specific action. Legislators dislike ambiguity; if there's something they can actually do that will benefit constituents and that they can then take credit for, they're apt to favor it if it's not too controversial. If it is controversial, they will appreciate the fact that you're being absolutely clear about what they'll have to do if they support you. They can then weigh the consequences of that support, and know what they're getting into.
Often, if it's a piece of legislation you're after, the best strategy is to write the legislation yourself and try to recruit legislators to sponsor it. If you've already thought everything out carefully and done the work, legislators appreciate the savings to them of time and effort. In Massachusetts, an adult literacy advocacy group wrote a bill affirming the state's responsibility to educate all of its citizens, regardless of age. They found legislators to sponsor it, and, after several tries, it was passed--word for word as they had written it--as part of an Education Reform bill. As an eventual result, state funding for adult literacy education was increased over a period of five years by a factor of six, with a great increase in services.
- An advocacy effort must speak with one voice. Having a clear and specific message that everyone agrees on makes that possible.
Step 5: Creating a communication network that works
- An individual or small group responsible for coordinating communication. A communication system needs someone at its hub to manage it. The logical person for this is usually the advocacy coordinator, but it could be a separate communication coordinator who works with him, or it could vary from situation to situation. If it isn't possible for one person to play this role, then it should be shared among as few people as possible to minimize errors and missed opportunities. Being at the center doesn't mean that the communication coordinator should do all communication himself, but rather that he should oversee and manage it.
- A fast and reliable way of getting information out to everyone who needs it. E -mail is probably the best if it's possible, because it's instantaneous and can be sent to large numbers of people at once with a single keystroke. A well-maintained website with an e-mail link may also be an excellent--and nearly instantaneous--source of information. A distant second are phone trees, where one person calls another, who in turn calls someone else in a prearranged order. This method only works as long as everyone completes her calls, and the coordinator knows exactly who hasn't been reached. A very distant third is a mass mailing, which--although slow, costly, and lacking in feedback--can be a reasonable way to transmit information that doesn't have to be acted upon immediately.
Communication methods obviously need to be geared to what's possible. E-mail can't be used if most of the people in the loop don't have access to it. Even phone trees are a problem when a large percentage of those who need to be contacted don't have phones, which may be the case in low-income communities. Communication needs to be adapted to the needs of the people involved; if the only way to reach them is to drive to their houses, then someone needs to get behind the wheel.
- A feedback loop so the coordinator can determine whether a requested course of action -- phone calling to legislators, information-gathering, etc.-- is being carried out and what its results are. If people report back to the coordinator about the results of their contact with legislators, for instance, she'll have the information that will allow the group to decide what to do next.
- Messages to the whole group originate at the central point, so there will be no doubt about their content or accuracy. If someone has new information or a message for the whole group, it should go through the communication coordinator.
- Links not only to the advocacy group or coalition, but to the media, allies in the legislature and elsewhere, and other outlets and resources--other coalitions, sympathetic celebrities, national groups, etc.
- Regular updates. People and organizations change jobs and staff people, move, switch their Internet service providers, get new phone and fax lines, etc. The communication system has to be constantly checked so that everyone's information is accurate and they can be reached on the first try.
- A crisis management plan. If something happens that results in adverse publicity or scandal attached to your advocacy group, a plan will help you minimize the damage.
Step 6: Cultivating the media
- Press releases.
- Press conferences.
- Stories you write or arrange.
- Op-ed pieces, columns, or editorials you write or arrange.
- Public events the media will cover.
Step 7: Taking the long view
How to approach legislators and other policymakers
Approach policy makers personally
- Make sure that everyone involved in the advocacy effort knows who his state representative, state senator, Congressman, and U.S. Senator are, and that he has a personal relationship with someone in each person's office. (On the local level, the same is true for City Councilors, County Commissioners, Selectmen, town administrators, chairs of town boards, etc.) The ideal is to have enough contact with either the legislator or an aide so that that person recognizes your name and will answer or return your calls.
- Make sure that key advocates establish relationships with key legislators. It is best if the advocates involved are actually constituents of those legislators, or, if this isn't possible, that they can be identified as officers or representatives of a coalition or formal advocacy group. Sympathetic legislators can also be helpful here, in arranging introductions and vouching for advocates and their legitimacy.
- Use your constituency. Mass visits to legislators' or other policy makers' offices (scheduled, or at least routine, rather than invasive or threatening) can be extremely eye-opening for legislators. They often don't realize the strength of grass roots support for an issue until they actually have a large group of people facing them and asking for action.
- Try to create, with the help of allies in the legislative body, a caucus to deal specifically with your issue. A group of interested legislators and aides who meet on some regular basis, and who are well-grounded in the needs of the target population, the goals of your initiative, the intricacies of the issue, etc. can be tremendously helpful in getting support made into law.
- Make it personal. Introduce policy makers to people who are or will be directly affected by their policies, and let those people tell their own stories. Presenting the real stories of real people and putting faces on "welfare recipients" or "AIDS patients" or "the homeless" is perhaps the most powerful way to get policy makers to think about the effects of the decisions they make. It's even more effective if the people they meet are their constituents, or people they actually know.
One of the legislators most influential in passing the Massachusetts affirmation of the right of adult students to educational services, and, later, in appropriating money for adult literacy services, became interested in the issue because he found out--from the person himself--that a high school friend had graduated unable to read, and had learned to read later in an adult literacy program.
- Get policymakers to the sites their policy affects. A tour of a currently-used, 100-year-old school building might be a more effective argument for money for new schools than a description of the problem.
- Stage educational events for legislators. Hearings, information sessions, presentations--at the State House, or in the field--can help to educate legislators and gain allies for your cause. A caucus or individual sympathetic legislators can be tremendously helpful here. Legislators are more likely to attend such an event if they are invited--formally, by letter--by other legislators.
- Hire a lobbyist, if that is financially and legally feasible, as another way of establishing personal contacts with legislators.
Advocates and lobbyistsLegislators and staff people may be influenced by advocates, private citizens or groups who take it upon themselves, on their own time, to contact legislators with information and persuasion. Advocates may be potential beneficiaries of policy; administrators or staffers of organizations that work with specific populations or issues; or simply citizens supporting what they believe in.Committees, individual legislators, and their staffs are also often influenced by lobbyists. These are people who are paid--by organizations (often representing a whole industry or large group of other organizations), large corporations, and even health and human service advocates--to convey information to lawmakers and to try to convince them that it is in their interest and/or the interest of their constituents to vote in certain ways or to pass or defeat certain laws. (The term "lobbyist" comes from the fact that such people used to wait in the lobbies of Congress outside the House and Senate chambers, to buttonhole legislators.)Despite all the cries against "special interests" and "Washington lobbyists" that we hear from politicians at election time, it is actually perfectly legal for lobbyists to try to influence legislators and their staffs as long as:
- They register and identify themselves as lobbyists, so that everyone knows that they are paid by particular groups, and are therefore likely to have particular points of view.
- They do not try to bribe legislators, staffers, or other government officials with money, gifts, campaign contributions over and above what's legal, travel, large loans, business partnerships, or other material or personal favors.
- They don't break any tax laws (Non-profit, 501(c)3 corporations, for instance, are limited in the percentage of their budgets that can be used for lobbying).Lobbyists are generally extremely knowledgeable about the issues they're concerned with, and are often called on to testify in legislative hearings about those issues, or consulted when bills or other actions concerning those issues are being considered. They also have advantages over advocates in that they are paid to do what they do, and can therefore spend all their time doing it; and they tend to get to know and become friends with those they lobby, since they usually move (in fact, may be paid and subsidized to move) in the same social circles as the politicians and aides they work to influence. Advocacy groups that can afford it may hire their own lobbyists for just these reasons.
Approach policymakers with a clear goal in mind
Most legislators think only from election to election; if you can give them the chance to do something they can take credit for when they next run for office, they'll be far more liable to try to make it happen.
Approach policy makers with the consequences of their actions
Regardless of how a legislator votes in a given situation, maintain contact and good relations. Today's opponent may be tomorrow's ally, depending upon the issue and upon the circumstances of the issue and the legislator's life. (Tip O'Neill, Speaker of the House in the Vietnam War era, for instance, changed his position on the war as a result of many long and painful conversations with his children.) Your ability to keep talking to someone may ultimately mean that he'll see you as a friend, and be willing to listen to and support you.Whether a legislator has been swayed by your arguments or supported you from the start, be sure to thank him formally if he voted with you, especially if the legislation or funding you advocated for was passed. If a major hurdle has been cleared, it might make sense to write a letter to be sent to each state legislator or Congressman, thanking all of them for recognizing and understanding the problem they addressed in their vote, and telling them what will happen as a result of their action (the number of children who will receive medical care, the amount of land to be protected from development, the number of new schools that can be built, etc.). Lawmakers want to know not only that they have done the right thing, but that someone has noticed, and will remember at the next election.
- Gather its allies.
- Create a coherent structure for coordination of the effort.
- Do its homework to build a solid foundation on the issue and on its contacts.
- Define its message.
- Create an effective and reliable communication network.
- Cultivate the media.
- Take the long view, and be prepared to keep at it tenaciously for as long as the issue exists.
These Internet sites are arranged in two groups. The first includes examples of the ways advocacy organizations can use websites to keep advocates informed, involved, and aware of new developments. The second group is composed of sites which are general resources for legislative advocates, with constantly-updated information about Congress and the state legislatures and other government issues.
Group 1: Advocacy organization websites
American Bar Association legislative action page. A well-set-up page including information for ABA members, information on current legislation, etc.
American Social Health Association. A good example of how to use a web page to support advocacy efforts. Includes some information on coalition building.
California School Boards Association. A multi-purpose site with legislative priorities, current issues, "alerts," and links directly to legislators.
The Christian Coalition. A guide to Congress: complete contact information, thumbnail biographies, photos, find-your-Representative-by-zip-code, and more.
Congressional E-mail Directory. House of Representatives e-mail addresses.
Congressional E-mail Directory. Senate e-mail addresses.
Oregon School Boards Association. Includes tips for effective advocacy, suggestions about communicating with legislators, and information on the legislative process.
A Guide to Legislative Advocacy is a guide specifically designed as a resource for advocating for youth with disabilities, though the information is widely applicable to other causes.
Network--A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby. A site detailing the organization's legislative and social priorities, as well as suggested action on major issues.
Prevent Child Abuse New York. Information on a legislative advocacy conference -- one way to get legislators, advocates, and members of the target population all together in one place and talking to one another.
Washington State School Administrators Alliance. A well-organized group that uses its website well.
Group 2: General resources for legislative advocates
3 Keys of Grassroots Organization provides three important steps to legislative advocacy.
Legislative Advocacy. From Health Links: University of Washington. Links to a lot of information about advocacy at the federal, state, and local levels from the U. of Washington.
A Legislative Advocacy Guide for Members. Another legislative advocacy manual, this one from the American Library Association. Gives an idea of how the association makes advocacy information available to members, and alerts them when they should take action.
Legislative Advocacy 101, a guide for members from the Pacific Alliance on Disability Self-Advocacy.
Legislative Advocacy Handbook is a resource provided by the Nevada Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence, and it offers practical information for legislative advocacy.
Legislative Training Manual. Advocacy manual for health care professionals, specifically for lobbying at the U.S. federal level.
Minnesota Legislative Reference Library. Links to lots of sites having to do with state legislatures, including all official state Internet web pages.
THOMAS. The Library of Congress legislative branch resource page. Everything you'll ever need to know and more: e-mails, committees, ins and outs of Congressional operations, and links to a myriad of other important sites. An excellent site.
THOMAS - The Library of Congress. The absolutely indispensable website for advocates. Named for Thomas Jefferson, this Library of Congress site has the actual texts of all federal bills, budgets, pending and passed legislation (all this from 1993 on), as well as that currently or recently under discussion, and access to everything else.
State and Local Government on the Net. A resource for all 50 state legislatures. Information for each state on each legislator, each legislative committee, texts of bills and budgets, etc. The site also includes the other branches of government, pending and passed legislation, and other information, depending on the state. A huge resource, especially for groups working in more than one state
University of Michigan Library. Another terrific site, including links to information for the federal and all 50 state governments--laws, courts, executive branches, and everything else.
Avner, M., & Smucker, B. (2002). The lobbying and advocacy handbook for nonprofit organizations: Shaping public policy at the state and local level. Amherst H. Wilder Foundation. This book offers a clear step-by-step guide to implementing a successful advocacy program at both the state and local levels.
Fitch, B. (2010). Citizen’s Handbook to Influencing Elected Officials: Citizen Advocacy in State Legislatures and Congress: A Guide for Citizen Lobbyists and Grassroots. The Capitol Net, Inc. This book offers practical guidance for reaching elected officials with a variety of different communication strategies.
Libby, P. (2011). The lobbying strategy handbook: 10 steps to advancing any cause effectively. SAGE Publications, Inc. This book provides a 10-step framework that walks readers step-by-step through the elements of a lobbying campaign. Three separate case studies are used to show how groups have successfully employed the model.