For a nonprofit, getting local elected representatives behind your cause is important. To help us understand the do’s and don’ts of connecting with them we will interview Gary Sherwood, Director of Communications at National Alopecia Areata Foundation (NAAF) based in San Rafael, CA. They can be found at www.naaf.org. Gary developed NAAF’s Legislative Liaisons program which has prepared some 260 patient advocates across the U.S. to meet with their congressional representatives and senators. Their successes include the authorship of three federal bills to help the alopecia areata community, a record-attendance meeting with the Food and Drug Administration, and mention in the President’s annual budget proposal. Gary will give us insights on how to meet and connect with local elected representatives in order to help your nonprofit gain greater awareness and, hopefully, legislative action.
How does a nonprofit find the right contact information and platforms to connect with local elected representatives?
Any U.S. citizen can look up their congressional representative by going online. A site I particularly like is www.house.gov/representatives/find-your-representative. Once you look up your representative, you can call their district office (as opposed to their Capitol Hill office) and schedule an appointment.
Besides having the nonprofit representatives reach out to elected officials, how can you encourage your community members to reach out to elected officials?
Once you have your meeting scheduled, invite members of your non-profit’s community to join you. For instance, if your non-profit advocates for a patient community, invite local patients and their families to come with you and tell their stories. If you’re going to be a large party, it is advisable you let the district office know how many will be in your party so they can accommodate all of you. Most legislative meetings take around 20 minutes, so plan about 10 minutes to talk about yourself and your cause, and the remaining 10 to go over your “asks” (see below).
The point of these meetings is to a) tell the legislator’s office about your cause and b) form a relationship with that office. They may not be able to help you today…but they may be able to help in the future.
Take pictures of your meeting, and share them in your community forums (website, social media, newsletter, etc.). Encourage other members of your community to do the same in their districts, and to let you know when they’ve done so. If you and other members of the community can afford a trip to Washington, DC, schedule a “Hill Day” when you can all meet with your elected representatives’ offices on Capitol Hill.
How can you make sure community advocates are representing the cause properly?
Excellent question! If you have a mailing list, it is a good idea to poll your community members and ask them what are their greatest concerns and causes of frustration. For example, if you represent patients then it’s likely access to treatments is a major concern. Your poll should reveal the issues your patients most want to discuss. These will form the basis of your legislative “asks.”
It is a good practice to not have more than three “asks” when visiting your legislator’s office, so narrow your “asks” to the issues that appear to get the most mentions in your poll.
Next, compose talking points based around these “asks.” These talking points can then be shared with your community members so they literally have a script they can follow. Of course they do not have to follow the script verbatim, but they should not stray too far from it either.
These talking points can also be used as leave-behind materials to give to the person your meeting with, be it the legislator or a staff person. Leave-behind materials reiterate your “asks” and provide details you may forget in the meeting. A brief paragraph about your organization and your cause should also be part of the leave-behind materials. If you represent a patient group, you may wish to also include a patient story running no longer than 1 page.
When doing the first initial contact, how often should a representative from the nonprofit reach out to the elected representative? When should someone send a second, third email or realize the elected representative isn’t interested?
Believe it or not, your elected officials are ALWAYS interested in what their constituents want. After all, that’s how they stay in office. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re always going to agree with or support you. But if they’re good at their jobs, they will listen.
Most district offices will meet with a constituent once a year, so as to not let that single constituent have an unfair advantage over other people they’ve met with. However, there is NO limit to the amount of times you can call or email the office. However, use common sense and try not to become a nuisance. Send a follow-up email 1 to 2 weeks after your initial meeting to say thank you, and continue to follow-up once a month if there’s action you have requested they take such as authoring or co-sponsoring a bill.
Do you have any techniques that can take an elected representative from being not interested to being very interested in a cause?
Tell compelling stories, and advise your community advocates to do the same. You’ll have about 10 minutes, so practice telling what makes your cause so worthy in a succinct amount of time. If your organization helps children, bring them with you. Legislators usually have a soft spot for children in their office. I personally have seen little children open doors adults cannot.
Suppose a nonprofit has an elected representative supporting them who then gets into some sort of scandal. Can that make the nonprofit look bad, and if so should the non-profit distance themselves from the legislator?
The short answer to both of those questions is no. Assuming your cause is worthy, the elected official’s other problems shouldn’t reflect on you. And in all likelihood, you’re not going to know all of the details about the scandal. Suppose you were to distance yourself from a powerful ally because they’re accused of wrong-doing, only for the charges to be proven false. The only harm done to your cause was by you.
Last of all, are there any other tips you can share with our nonprofits on this subject?
I’ll reiterate the importance of compelling and succinct personal stories, and prepared “asks.” Those will make your meeting so much more productive and show your organization is prepared and serious about advocacy.