How Do I Kick Off My Legislative Advocacy Program?

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Let This Be the Start of Your Legislative Advocacy Journey

For many issues, legislative advocacy is the best and only way to bring about real change. But there’s a lot of different ways to engage in legislative advocacy. There’s the traditional “inside game” where you work to provide resources and information to lawmakers. There’s also the “outside game” where you work with a network of volunteers to provide pressure on legislators from the outside. And you don’t have to just choose one of these options – typically a combination of these tactics is the most efficient way to advance your priorities. While the list below is far from comprehensive, it’s a general outline of the process to help get you started down the legislative advocacy road. 

Cleary Identify Your Advocacy Goals

Before embarking on legislative advocacy, it’s important that you lay out and understand your advocacy goals. Make a list of your four or five most important goals and the ideal legislation you would pass to advance your goals. You really do need to have a list of concrete things that you want to get passed– raising visibility around your issue isn’t enough. If during your conversation with a legislator they tell you, “I’m in, how can I help?” you need to be able to give them a concrete list of what they can do to help move the ball forward. 

Build Out Your Coalition

Once you’ve laid out your goals, the next step is to build a coalition. A coalition is a group of independent organizations that band together in the pursuit of a common goal. Coalitions can be either short or long term and provide resources and a broader level of expertise than one organization alone. They demonstrate that you have consensus among different constituencies, allowing groups to pool their resources and split the costs.

Your coalition building needs to be intentional. To start, your team should identify the coalition that you want to have and go to work building out that coalition strategically. You should pick targets for coalition growth and create a list of groups that you would like to have in your corner. Reach out to your lobbyists, consultants, and other members of your team to see what relationships they have that can be leveraged to build out this ideal coalition. 

Develop a Plan and List of Targets

Once you have formed a coalition, you need to develop a legislative advocacy plan. One important issue to consider in the legislative advocacy planning stage is who your issue champions will be. Issue champions are influential individuals who have the capacity to help advance your legislation. Do your research and determine which influential individuals are sympathetic to your cause or perhaps have a personally vested interest. 

After you’ve identified issue champions, you can start to build out a list of legislative targets. These are the districts/areas that you may target with “outside” tactics like letter writing, online petitions, etc. (more below). Targets may be districts represented by members on key committees or districts that contain members who are inclined to be on your side. Your target list should be developed in collaboration with your lobbyist, coalition members, and your team. 

A further item to consider in the legislative advocacy planning stage is the fiscal aspect. For any legislation to have a lasting impact, or for that matter a chance at passage, each needs to contain provisions that cover the costs of the legislation. Thus, during your planning stage, it is important that you identify which issues you plan to advocate for and have a plan for how it will be paid for.

The Inside Game:

Hold a Lobby Day

Once you’ve done your research, understand the resources at your disposal, and have identified the individuals who will help you advance that legislation, it’s time to take action.

At the planning stage, you identified legislators who were likely to be sympathetic to your cause. A great way to demonstrate widespread support is through a lobby day. During the pandemic, many organizations have moved their in-person lobby days to be virtual. Many organizations are doing Zoom meetings with legislators or members of legislators’ staff instead of a traditional in-person day on the Capitol. However, for your virtual lobby days to be successful, you still need to prep your volunteers in advance. We recommend that you hold a pre-lobby day webinar with volunteers to prep them so they’re prepared on the questions they should ask, core talking points, main issues/themes they should highlight, etc. This will help ensure that the right message is getting amplified and that you’re making the most of your limited time with a lawmaker/their staff. 

Develop a Relationship with Lawmakers

The next step in this process is to develop a personal relationship with key legislators. To do this, you should work to identify storytellers who have a compelling story to tell around your issue. Sharing personal stories from a legislator’s constituent can be a great way of developing a relationship and can really help move the needle. Volunteers with great stories can be powerful advocates for your cause and can bring an emotional layer to your issue. It’s also important that you submit brief materials to legislators, which is a great way to keep them up to date regarding your issues and how they can help advance your cause, so you become viewed as a real authority on the issue to lawmakers. 

Work With/Hire a Lobbyist 

If your organization has the resources to do it, hiring a lobbyist can also be another great way of advancing your legislation. Lots of people think that lobbyists just hobnob with lawmakers all day, but a good lobbyist can play an important role at both the grassroots and grasstops levels. 

On the grassroots side, a lobbyist can help you to identify what your legislative targets should be. They can help you set benchmarks for metrics like petition signups or lobby day attendees to determine what numbers will tip the scales in support of your goals. Your lobbyist can help build timelines and keep your team up to date on the progress of any relevant legislation that’s moving so you are not caught off guard when a bill gets proposed. 

On the grasstops side, your lobbyist can help you identify the types of stories and people that legislators will respond to. A good lobbyist will help set up any in-person meetings with legislators or their staff. And of course, a lobbyist will use their personal relationships to sell to legislators and other influencers your policy priorities and help advance your objectives. 

The Outside Game

In addition to working within the system to advance your policy priorities, there are also a number of “outside” methods by which you can influence legislation and show a groundswell of support.

But what if you don’t have a strong volunteer network? To kick off your advocacy program, we recommend you start by building an advocacy engagement funnel. This will be a set of actions that your supporters can take to move them from a low-bar action (for instance, signing an online petition or sending a Tweet) into someone who will do a sit-down meeting with their legislator. While not every supporter will move all the way down the funnel, the goal is to foster enough engagement so that you apply real pressure on legislators from the outside. This funnel could include the following steps:

  1. Click on a link in an email or an action alert
  2. Send a Tweet/post on Facebook
  3. Patch through to a legislator’s office
  4. Join an online webinar
  5. Write/sign a letter to the editor
  6. Offer to be a part of an advertising campaign
  7. Attend a house party 
  8. Contact their legislator 
  9. Attend a lobby day event
  10. Set up a one-on-one meeting with your legislator

Do you have questions about legislative advocacy planning or member communication? Drop us a question below.

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Advocacy, Advocacy 101, Advocacy Best Practices, Advocacy Campaign Tips, Advocacy Engagement