Search form

Learn tested skills for approaching and lobbying those with more decision-making power than you, so that you can persuade them to take a course of action you support.


Who, me? A lobbyist?

Yes, quite possibly. It could be you. Perhaps it should be you. Let's get our premises right out on the table:

Lobbying has a bad image. Some of it is deserved. But lobbying is not necessarily something to avoid. Quite the contrary, lobbying can be a socially responsible thing to do. What is more, you have probably been a lobbyist before, in one form or another -- even though you may not have used that label. And if you've never lobbied for a cause, maybe you ought to learn how; so that if and when the time is right you can be an effective lobbyist, in a way that is doable and ethical for you.

What do we mean by lobbying?

By lobbying, we mean persuading someone with more decision making power than you, in a particular situation, to take a course of action that you support. It's that simple. No more (or less) than that.

"Lobbying" is a broad term. The people you lobby, the decision makers, can vary widely. Much (though not all) lobbying is political, and involves persuading political decision makers. On a local level, this could mean a member of the town council, or the head of the zoning board, or the director of the library. It could also be a state representative, or a holder of higher elected or appointed office.

But the decision makers need not be in politics. They could be the editors of newspapers, the ministers of churches, the presidents of hospitals, the CEO's of businesses, a college board of trustees, or the officers of a volunteer organization. These people make decisions, too. And if you want to persuade them, in a real sense you'll be lobbying, in a broad but accurate meaning of the term.

In this Toolbox section, our primary emphasis will in fact be on political lobbying, though many of the points we make will apply to other decision makers as well.

Over and above your lobbying target, (i.e., who you lobby) lobbying can take many forms. It can occur face-to-face, over the phone, through the mail (e-mail or postal), and in many combinations or permutations. This is of course true for persuasive attempts in general. In this section, we will focus on more personal types of lobbying, other than mail. Other Toolbox sections should also be useful here, in particular Encouraging Involvement in Community Work, Sections 2-5, which focus on identifying and contacting potential members.

Why should you lobby decision makers?

  • Because you have a point of view, and you think it is correct
  • Because some other decision maker, and not you, has the power to turn that point of view into policy, and make it a reality
  • Because you believe that decision maker is not as well-informed as you on this particular issue
  • Because you also believe that if you advise that decision maker effectively, it will increase the chances that he or she will decide in your favor
  • And because you believe that if the right decision is made, both you and the community will benefit

In very plain language, you want to lobby decision makers because you believe that lobbying will get you (and the people you represent) what you want.

Hold on a second... Is lobbying really ethical?

It should be. Ethical lobbying is the only kind of lobbying we aim to discuss here.

Just to clarify: We're not talking about payoffs, bribes, under-the-table favors, kickbacks, cronyism, sweetheart deals, or tit-for-tat arrangements, either expressed or implied. We're certainly not talking about expensive lunches, even inexpensive gifts. Nor are we talking about paid lobbyists, who can be as ethical as anyone, but who lobby for a living and operate on a different level.

Rather we're talking about smokeless, no-frills, citizen-based lobbying, where you attempt to persuade largely on the merits of your position. We mean occasions when you attempt to persuade a decision maker that your position, A, has more value than an opposing position, B, or other positions, C, D, and E; because if A is chosen, the overall benefits for the community (and perhaps for the decision maker, too) will be the greatest.

Under those conditions, lobbying is fair persuasion, and in our view is certainly ethical. We are tempted to go further and say that lobbying is then responsible, desirable, and useful--or to go further still and suggest that it is necessary. That is, at least in some cases, one might feel a duty to lobby decision makers for your cause. Would you agree?

When should you lobby decision makers?

It's rarely a bad idea. Especially when:

  • The issue at hand is controversial.
  • There are others with opposing views.
  • The opposition is engaging in lobbying efforts of its own.
  • The decision is highly important for you or your group.
  • The decision makers, in your view, have not made up their minds.
  • You know specific facts about the issue, unknown to the decision makers.

If the decision maker knew your opinions, you think they would have a significant effect on the decision makers' opinion.

But are there times when you should avoid lobbying a decision maker? There probably aren't many, yet there probably are a few:

  • When the decision maker already has all the relevant information.
  • When the decision maker has heard from you very frequently and recently before.

You don't want to overdo it, or wear out your welcome. (In such cases, other allies can convey a similar message.)

  • When the decision maker gives you signals that he or she has heard enough, and doesn't need to hear anymore. At some point, lobbying can become counterproductive, and no longer helps your cause. Be attentive to cues that tell you when to stop.
  • When you are firmly convinced that no matter when you do, you will lose (or, possibly, that you will win.) In those slam-dunk type cases, you might want to save your lobbying efforts for another issue, or for another day.

How should you lobby decision makers?

A lot of wisdom needs to fit under this heading. We'll try to present it in four basic categories. You might consider these as your "secrets of success."

The issue

Lobbying works best when you have the right issue. What does that mean? It means an issue which is compelling, sympathetic, and winnable. Let's elaborate a bit.

Suppose your issue is to get the bumblebee recognized as the official state insect; or to ban alcohol in local restaurants; or to declare the first Monday in August as Parking Ticket Amnesty Day. You may have very good reasons behind your convictions, and, for purposes of argument, let's suppose they are also good ideas.

Our practical point, though, is that these are not ideal issues. The bumblebee issue is not very compelling, the alcohol issue is probably not sympathetic, and the parking ticket issue is unlikely to be winnable if someone stops to count the potential lost revenue.

Suppose, though, you want to raise the penalties for domestic abusers; or ban smoking in restaurants, rather than alcohol; or give seniors tax credits for community service. These issues are likely to have very different ratings on the compelling, sympathetic, and winnable scales.

Can you give more details, please? From the decision maker's point of view (the main one that counts here), a compelling, sympathetic, and winnable issue is one which does two or more of the following:

  • Responds to and corrects a current scandal that has outraged an important segment of the public
  • Provides the decision maker with plenty of "hero opportunities" (the chance to be a local hero) with important constituencies, with the local press, and with voters in the district
  • Allows the decision maker a chance to gain visibility, stature and influence in the legislative or community leadership, or in the administration
  • Avoids unpleasant conflict with important constituencies, the leadership, or the administration
  • Invests and protects taxpayers' money by restructuring or increasing the efficiency of a necessary public program.

How do your own issues rate on these criteria? Perhaps not as high as you'd like them to be. In that case, you can work on increasing their legislative or decision maker appeal. High-quality and consistent publicity can make your issue more compelling to readers. And mobilizing a community base of support will generate more public backing for your issue, while increasing the chances that you will eventually win. (For more on mobilizing support, see below.)

Two more hints:

  • Once you've got a good issue, you want to follow it closely. Through metropolitan and local newspapers of course, but also through specialized newsletters; a subscription or two may pay off. There may also be regional e-mail networks or web sites with up-to-the-minute news on your issues; do a little research, so that you can provide the decision maker with specific and reliable information he or she would not otherwise know.
  • If you are part of a larger group, create a "public policy" committee (or designate a public policy specialist), whose special job it is to track relevant policy issues, recommend actions to the full group, and communicate your group's recommendations to key decision maker

The Base of Support

From a lobbyist: "Legislators will vote because of good arguments, but the real difference is your ability to organize and mobilize a district-based grassroots effort."

You can have the best issue in the world, but you also need other people who agree with you. This is because decision makers respond to groups they are accountable to. These groups, or constituencies, may be voters, customers, readers, clients, advertisers, contributors, or others whose support is ultimately connected to that decision maker staying in power. You're familiar with the saying, "There's strength in numbers." It is true.

So, to lobby effectively, you need to find others who agree with you. More than that, you need to organize them into a group who will take some action on behalf of your common issue. In other words, you want to generate and mobilize an active and powerful base of support.

The details of organizing a base of support--that's a big topic in and of itself. But they are very similar to those in recruiting members for any organization.

There's one more point to add, though. While decision makers do respond to groups they are answerable to, they will respond still more positively if they know those groups are looking over their shoulder. As one lobbyist puts it, "When legislators are aware that informed constituents are watching their vote, they behave differently. "

So it's okay to let the decision maker know you are watching, in clear and direct terms. That's part of the process. It is ethical. For issues you care deeply about, it may be your responsibility to watch, and then when necessary, to show your strength. Your implied message is, in effect:

"We're here, in your district; we vote; we care about these issues. We're watching you. We're not like most people who have no idea of what goes on at the State House every day, and don't know how you vote. We're organized. We know. We will know. And we want you to vote the way we want you to vote, or we won't vote for you anymore..."

That kind of message is very powerful indeed.

The Decision Makers

Step 1:

The #1 step here is knowing who the decision makers for your issue are. This is relatively easy for political issues, at least those requiring legislation, because the names of the legislators who will decide on your issue must be public knowledge.

However, this does not mean that you have that knowledge. Do you know the names of all your elected local legislators? If you don't, sad to say, you are in the majority. And if you don't, it's up to you to find out. Fortunately, this is not hard to do. Many citizen advocacy groups or taxpayers associations produce lists of legislative names and numbers and make them available. You can also get them from the local library, the phone book, and (almost always) from the government itself.

For county, state, and higher levels, matters can get more complicated, because proposed legislation often goes to one or more committees for review and recommendation before a full legislative vote is taken. It's not unusual for the legislation to get stuck in those committees and never emerge. So it's also your task to know both:

  • The current status of your legislation
  • The names of the committee members who will be most influential in getting a favorable report.

Of course, while knowing committee members may be helpful, it's not the same thing as knowing how that committee works in practice. That takes experience, some of which you can gain by talking to well-connected friends or acquaintances, or to people who have gained that experience through possibly-painful trial and error.

If your issue involves non-political decision makers, you may have a slightly tougher row to hoe. If you want the state university to open its gym to the public; or if you want public computers in post offices; or if the children's library should be open on Sunday; or if the recycling program should be expanded -- who makes those decisions where you live? You may need to do some checking around to find out. Some discreet inquiries will often do the job, but occasionally you may need to dig a little deeper to learn how those kinds of decisions actually get made.

Step 2:

Once you know who your decision makers are, you need to know how to contact them. How do you go about it? In legislative situations, there are two basic ways. Legislators can come to you, or you can go to them.

They can come to you? Is that a real possibility? Actually, it is. Many legislators have community office hours when they are available to their constituents. This is true even for legislators who work out of town, in county seats or state capitals. Check this out. Even if they don't have such regular hours, you may be able to schedule an appointment in your town when the legislator is back home, or at some other location not far away. This is also a good place to get acquainted if you haven't met already.

Better yet, you can invite the legislator to come to a meeting of your group. Not possible, you say; the legislator is far too busy. But have you given your legislator a good reason to be there? And have you asked? The answer may surprise you. If you ask well in advance, if you have some persistence, and if the legislator sees the meeting in his or her self-interest (e.g., will there be enough voters in the room?) the legislator may indeed come.

Reminder: Legislators expect to be contacted, and actually need to be contacted in order to do their job well. They may be helping you; but you are also helping them. If you are part of an ongoing group with ongoing legislative interests, it may not be realistic for your legislator to attend all the time, but don't let a year slip by without creating the opportunity for a legislative visit. Some ways to encourage visits are to arrange special events--legislative breakfasts, meet -the-candidate nights, panel discussions, even a legislative awards dinner--where your legislator will feel motivated and/or obligated to be there.

Going to them. But you can also make contact on the legislator's home ground. If your experience is like ours, you may find there is no uniform best way to do so. Some legislators like postal mail, to see things in writing. Some legislators (especially when a vote is coming up soon) will record and log phone calls, yea or nay. An increasing number have e-mail and/or Internet access, and would just as soon hear from you electronically.

When you are just getting started, and don't know your legislator well, it's perfectly fine to call in directly, and say, "We want to get a message to X. What's the best way of doing it?" Alternatively, you can ask others who are experienced in this area, who have contacted this legislator before, and whose word you trust.

If you are making phone calls, you need to be careful about boundary issues - when you should call, where you should call, and so on. The following example illustrates why this is important.

Example: Once we were calling a state legislator on an issue that was important to us. It was late on a Friday afternoon, and she wasn't at her office, so we tried her at home. She picked up right away. While she was polite, she was also making spaghetti sauce for dinner, and told us as much. She didn't come right out and say it, but she let on that it would be better to call her at work.
We got the point. We learned that if you call a decision maker at home, you either need to know that person very well, or have a very good reason, and in any case avoid the dinner hour.
But you want to make sure that your message is conveyed to the legislator as accurately, swiftly, and as personally as possible; so it will help if you get to know the decision maker's key aide (or aides) by name. Senator Bigshot may be in conference, but Mr./Ms. Constituent Service Person may be right next to the phone and happy to assist you. An aide can also advise you on the legislator's preferences and idiosyncrasies, and on how to make your actual contact with the legislator most effective. Some aides can also attend your local meetings when the legislator is not available -- some might actually like to attend. So if you can develop a professional and friendly and mutually-helpful relationship with those aides, so much the better.A valuable point here is to get to know the decision maker's aides. If you are calling, or trying to set up an appointment, or sending documentation, the chances are relatively small that you will reach the decision maker directly. This is especially true on a higher-than-local level. You are much more likely to reach a legislative aide, an administrative assistant, a receptionist, or even a student intern.


The persuasive message

When you do make contact with the decision maker, you want to be concerned both with what you say and how you say it. The details will vary, depending upon your method of contact--in person, over the phone, or by writing--and depending of course upon your particular issue.

But here's the basic framework. In almost all cases, it will help if you include the following points:

Who you are

  • If contacting legislators, include your address and phone.

What group or organization (if any) you represent

  • For legislative issues, you are presumably part of a network in the district and state that is following a bill you care very much about.

Your reason for making the contact

  • What is your concern? What is your connection to the issue?
  • If you have particular expertise on the issue, here's a good place to cite it.

The name, number, and current status of the bill if it is pending legislation

  • The specific action you would like the decision maker to take.

The reasons you would like the decision maker to take action

  • Here's the place to give your facts.
  • Make sure they are clear, brief, relevant, accurate, and, if possible, new.
  • Highlight the main points. Be selective.
  • If you've got more documentation, include it as an appendix, or separate communication.

The reasons why the actions you recommend will advance the decision maker's interests. For example:

  • If contacting a legislator, how will the action help constituents?
  • If contacting a business executive, how will it help improve profits, and/or the economy, and/or create jobs?
  • If contacting an agency director, how will it improve quality, quantity, or appropriateness of service?
  • Are there any perceived downsides to the action? If so, show how they can easily be overcome.
  • Do others support you? Let's hope so! Comment on this here.

"Thank you for your consideration." And some optional additions:

  • "Please contact me if you need further information."
  • "We look forward to your positive action on this matter."

Keep it short.

  • Attention spans are limited. Know when it's time to stop.

Keep it polite.

  • There's little to be gained otherwise.

Show your appreciation.

  • Do you ever get tired of appreciation? No? You're not alone.

You are probably not the only one who should be sending a message. So encourage those working with you to follow the same steps above.

These general principles above apply regardless of your method of contact. It's good advice, though, not to get too caught up on the details, or on rigidly following a script. Decision makers (often, but not always) tend to respond to human feelings; they sometimes respond to feelings as much as or more than fact. Particularly when it comes to writing letters, one professional lobbyist has this perspective:

"When people write, they shouldn't get stuck on the fine points. You can say, "Dear Representative XXX, I really care about this issue, and I know it's coming up next week. And I vote for you, and I grew up in this town, and I knew your dad. Thank you very much. Name, address, phone number." What legislators love best are these mom-and-pop letters. You know, that end "God bless you, sir." They love those. Well, not all of them read all of their mail. But for sure their aides spot form letters, where everybody says the same thing."

Writing can be very effective; but at the same time, as in other persuasion situations, the best way to lobby decision makers is through personal contact--especially personal contact by people known to be influential with that decision maker:

"The best way to advocate is personally. You know, your legislator goes to the barbershop, and you talk to him, personal contact. Personal, direct contact that's specific. If I can get my organization to have one concerned constituent have a one-on-one meeting with a legislator, in the district, during office hours."

Imagine coming to somebody's house and meeting with five parents of disabled children, and they say to you, "Here is this line-item budget, the budget's going to be debated next week, and here is this line item we are about, and we know Representative Such-and-Such is offering this amendment, and we sure hope you'll support it."... "Yeah, okay."

And sometimes legislators will come out and say, "You didn't tell me that the mother of my high school teacher was going to be there." And I go [little voice], "No, I didn't know." And then they really feel fingered. But--too bad.

For more information, see the Examples, Tools, and Resources below. Books and other sources on persuasive techniques in general will also be helpful; for lobbying decision makers is one of many real-life cases where persuasion is called for.

In the larger scheme of things, your goals are simple: first, to find good reasons why the decision maker should do what you want, and then to show the decision maker why that action is also in his or her best interest. But back again to lobbying. And to summarize in one sentence the key points raised in this section:

"We must identify, organize, and mobilize key community opinion leaders into a coordinated district-based grassroots network capable of participating in a series of compelling winnable public policy campaigns designed to restore and repair key building blocks of human service infrastructure."

Thanks to Judy Meredith for much of the information and many of the quotes above.

Online Resources

Guidelines on Lobby and Advocacy is an excellent 50-page resource to lobbying.

How to Lobby is from United to End Genocide, and it provides steps to successfully lobbying for a cause.

How to Lobby for your Cause provides an outline for the time you spend with legislators and how to most effectively reach legislators

The Nonprofit Lobbying Guide Second Edition (1999) is a downloadable book that is now out of print written by Bob Smucker.  The book demonstrates many ways that charitable organizations can use lobbying to advance their causes in federal, state, and local legislatures.

10 things: How to better connect with your legislators, from the Vancouver Business Journal, offers seven state legislators discussing what local business owners can and should do to ensure that their voices are heard.

Print Resources

There's much more to learn about lobbying decision makers, more than we can convey in this Toolbox section. Fortunately, there are many other good and inexpensive print sources available to enhance your own learning. These are some of the best:


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.

Daly, J. (2012). Advocacy: Championing ideas and influencing others. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. Throughout the book, Daly provides practical knowledge for how to transform advocacy ideas into practice, emphasizing the power of action-oriented marketing.  Daly draws off of current research in the fields of persuasion, power relations, and behavior change to explain how to successfully advocate for a cause.

Homan. M. Promoting community change (Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole, 1994) has been cited many other places in Tool Box Resource sections, and for good reason; it's an excellent all-around source. Chapter 15, which is specifically on lobbying, is especially worth reading.

How--and why--to influence public policy, a 40-page guide, is about as sophisticated a publication as you'll find short of a full-length textbook. It's available for $5 from the Center for Community Change, 1000 Wisconsin Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20007, (202) 342-0567.

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.

Meredith. J. Real clout: Influencing public policy in the 90's (with Hugh C. Munoz) is an excellent lobbying primer, from which many materials in this section have been adapted. Single copies are available without charge from Meredith & Associates, 30 Winter Street, Boston, MA 02108, (617) 338-0954.