10 Ways to Be an Effective Advocate

This post is the fourth in a series about board members advocating on behalf of the organizations they support and the people those organizations serve. I reached out to three elected officials and asked them what works best for them. Everyone I spoke to is from the Seattle area (where I live), but none are my own elected officials. Instead I have served on nonprofit boards with each of them.

In my last post, Judy Reckelhoff, Chief of Staff for BoardSource, describes why BoardSource has elevated advocacy. In the previous post, I shared an Advocacy Check List compiled from interviews I did with many board members who have advocated. In the first post of the series, I interviewed Sonya Campion, a founder of Stand for Your Mission. 

What Elected Officials Say

I spoke to Tim Burgess, former Mayor and City Council Member, City of Seattle; Ruth Kagi, former member of the Washington State House of Representatives; and Suzan DelBene, current  US Congresswoman representing Washington State’s 1st District.

The good news is the advice they gave was very similar! They want to hear from their constituents and from organizations that serve their constituents. They like personalized letters or emails. In-person meetings are also great, but all noted that don’t have time to meet with everyone. Getting them to events in community where they or their staff can meet with and hear stories from people who are most impacted by your issue is also a good way to advocate. Here is what they said:

“It is critically important for constituents to communicate with their legislators. Legislators hear from a lot of lobbyists about issues but hearing from constituents makes the issue ‘real’ and puts a face on the problem that needs to be addressed.” Ruth Kagi, former Member of the Washington State House of Representatives.

  1. Be proactive. Build relationships ahead of time. Meet with elected officials to let them know what is important to your organization and the people you serve and why. Then as legislation is being developed, the officials can bring in your perspective. They can also reach out to you for more information. As leaders of a nonprofit (staff or board), you have expertise and resources they may not have. You can impact the development of policy.
  1. Have a clear message. All these officials said that a clear message is most compelling, memorable, and actionable. Whether you meet in person or send an email, clearly state the problem and what you want the legislator to do: sponsor a bill, vote a certain way, come to an event where they can hear from people most impacted by your issue. Let staff know the topic when you set up a meeting, so they or the official can be prepared.
  1. Provide facts and stories. Research and data are good but having individual stories – especially from constituents – can be most impactful.

“It is important to hear from constituents because our form of government is for and by the people.” Tim Burgess, Former Mayor and City Council Member, City of Seattle.

  1. Partner. These officials said it can be very persuasive to know that you are part of a large group of organizations or coalition – formal or informal – all focused on the same issue.
  1. Do your homework.  You should know what committees the official is on, what legislation they have sponsored before, and what position, if any, they have taken to the issue.
  1. Personalize. Personalized emails or calls are most effective – mass emails less so – though very large numbers do get the official’s attention. Some officials have forms on their web sites – use those but again make it personal. Mass emails and robocalls are often not actionable.
  1. Be flexible about meetings: Call the office to set up a meeting – either in the district or in D.C. or your state capital. Officials often prefer to meet in the district when they are not in session. Don’t be offended if you get rescheduled or have a meeting in a hallway – officials don’t control when a vote is called. And it is okay to meet with staff as they are often the people who drive an issue. It’s great to bring a few different people to a meeting: a board member, a client who can share a story, a constituent who might be a client of or donor to your organization, and a staff person who can present facts (especially on technical issues) and follow up after the meeting. But don’t bring too many people.

“I am here to do the work of my constituents, so hearing from them is invaluable. It helps me and my staff prioritize our attention and informs how I vote. Lawmakers are barraged with policy issues. But the ones we hear about from our constituents matter the most to us. My door is always open to listen to the issues from my district. It makes me a better advocate for and more accountable to the people I represent.” Suzan DelBene, US Congresswoman.

  1. Lobby days can be helpful. Many nonprofits at all levels of government set up days when coalitions of organizations focused on the same issue come to D.C., state capitals, or city halls to advocate. This type of advocacy is especially helpful when people directly impacted share stories. If your organization is bringing someone from the official’s district, be sure to let them know.
  1. Coordinate messaging. Individual board members, staff, or clients often come to city hall or the state capital to testify about a specific piece of legislation. Usually there is an organization or group coordinating messaging. Being part of a coalition will make your message more impactful. But note that by the time there are committee hearings, legislation has already been developed. You can have more influence if you build a relationship with elected officials ahead of time.
  1. Don’t be scared of advocating. Be confident that you have something important for your elected official to understand. If you cannot answer a question, just tell them you will get back to them. They are used to this. It happens all the time. And because time is a precious commodity for elected officials, be sure to arrive on time.  

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