Advocacy 101: Tips to help you get the most from your advocacy (Part 1)




This is the first post in a multi-part series from POPVOX to help you set the right expectations and get the most out of your advocacy. 




Successful advocates know that the legislative process is a marathon, not a sprint.

People unfamiliar with the legislative process sometimes attempt to take stock of how successful advocacy efforts are by asking: Did we win? Did the bill pass or fail?

Experienced advocates know that each effort is a journey and legislative progress takes many forms.

While there are some lightning-strike examples of policy advancing through the legislative process quickly, that is not the norm.  A policy idea or proposal must pass through many stages before becoming law and even then it usually must be implemented through regulations established by the agency that will admininister it.


The Long Road to a Legislative Win

So what does this long marathon look like? It's different for every effort, but here is an example of the stages a campaign could pass through in the legislative and advocacy process:


1. Identifying the issue

Ideas for bills come from many sources, but usually the spark is lit when someone has an idea to make something better or experiences something that doesn't work.


2. Finding related efforts

The next step is to see if there are others working on the same issue. Search on the internet, see if others are talking about the same thing and if any legislative efforts are underway. Call your legislator's district office to tell them about your concern and ask if others are working on the issue.


3. Building awareness

If you decide to lead the effort, you are going to need friends and supporters, others who see the need for the issue to be addressed or who have experienced the same problem. Together, your stories are the beginning of the case you will make to lawmakers.


4. Finding your legislative champion

For your idea to enter the legislative process, you must find a legislative champion, a lawmaker who will introduce the idea as a bill. And the only way to do that is to tell them why it is important. Start with your own lawmakers who represent you. Politely call their offices and ask to make an appointment to speak with the staffer who covers the issue that concerns you. It may sound intimidating, but if you are respectful and a constituent, they will take your call — it is their job.

For any number of reasons, your own representatives or senators may not be in agreement with your idea or suggestion. You should still be respectful and still thank them for listening. And you should turn to helping your friends in your mission contact their own lawmakers to see if there is interest. (Do not attempt to contact lawmakers who do not represent you. You will do more harm to your cause than good. Your most effective tactic is working with constituents to reach a lawmaker who shares your views.

*** Want to build support around an issue that has not yet been introduced as a bill? POPVOX can help with a "sponsored action," which features your proposal on the site and allows people to write to lawmakers as if it were already introduced. Contact us for more infomation and pricing.***

4. Taking baby steps 

When you find your legislative champion, understand that small steps are still progress. Most policies start as very small bills that then are picked up to be a part of larger bills. Even a small resolution introduced to "recognize the importance of… (something)" gives you the opportunity to educate members on the issue, build a list of cosponsors and aligned stakeholders, and get some media recognition of the issue. Once your bill or resolution is introduced, that is the time to really build your case.


5. Rallying allied organizations

One way that lawmakers evaluate their eventual support or opposition is to guage where organizations they trust stand on the issue. Stakeholder statements (letters expressing support or concerns with pending bills) are key to the legsilative process. You can see an example of the positions that stakeholders have taken on pending bills by visiting the POPVOX Stakeholder Directory. Take note of the stakeholders that are likely to agree with your proposal based on their past activity and reach out to them personally. Ask them to consider writing a letter of support for the bill (and make sure they post it on POPVOX!)


6. Moving constituents to share stories of impact and local consequences

Lawmakers care when their constituents care. One of the surest way to get the attention of a lawmaker is to have constituents from their district or state write personal stories explaining why a policy is important to them and how it impacts the lawmaker's community. This incredibly powerful feature of our democracy is the entire reason POPVOX was created: to help real people share their stories with lawmakers.

The general rule is that lawmakers and staff give the input they receive the level of attention that it appears a constituent put into sharing their thoughts. An original, heartfelt, personal story will always have more impact than form letters, petitions, or tweets. Encourage your supporters to use POPVOX to share quality input with lawmakers… and then amplify their voices.


7. Amplifying your supporters

Those personal stories from your supporters are your power. That's why POPVOX makes it easy for you to see what people are writing to lawmakers, district-by-district, and to share on social media, link to in press releases or outreach to local media, and to capture as a part of your outreach to lawmakers. Nothing is more powerful that going into a meeting with a lawmaker or staffer armed with a long list of personal stories from verified constituents in his or her district.


8. Getting co-sponsors to sign on

Turning your supporters actions into legislative impact requires you to "make the ask." In many cases, the most basic and useful ask is for a member to sign on as a cosponsor. Cosponsorship signals support to other members and helps the leadership of the legsilative chamber start to count poptential votes in favor of the proposal if it were to either come to an individual vote or be included in a larger package. Especially for smaller bills (resolutions and recognitions), cosponsorship builds a base of tangible lawmaker support as a foundation for future efforts. Asking a member to cosponsor should be the baseline ask in any meeting with lawmakers or staffers, and you should encourage your supporters to incrporate that tangible ask into their activism

Absolutely essential: Thank your cosponsors. Big time. Whether a personal letter, a tweet or Facebook post, an ad in the local paper, a press release, or a letter to all of your supporters encouraging them to support and praise the members who have signed on. Lawmakers get very little positive feedback. If you go out of your way to recognize those who have supported you, it will be remembered. (Bonus points for recognizing the staff who do most of the legwork!)


8. Taking the next step

If you did everything right, it is still possible that the most you could accomplish with a new legislative proposal is just getting a favorable resolution introduced and a few cosponsors. In fact, depending on the issue, that could be an enormous victory. If you used it as a platform for building cosponsors and coalition partners, and a growing list of supporters (and followers on POPVOX), then you are ready to take the next step in a new legislative session.


9. Re-engaging supporters and co-sponsors

That means working with your legislative champion to plan the next phase of your strategy, which might be a different bill. With the groundwork laid, you can plan the rollout strategy together, including:

  • Pre-introduction outreach from your supporters, asking members to join as original cosponsors (a great use of a POPVOX sponsored action).
  • Readying letters from coalition organization groups so that the announcement of the bill is accompanied by statements of support and quotes from allies
  • Preparing outreach by supporters in their own districts and states so that the introduction of the bill corresponds with local events, letters to the editor, and local press


10. Getting a score from the Congressional Budget office, finding a “pay-for”

When a new bill really starts to roll in Congress, it will need to get a "score" from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO),s tating how the bill would impact the deficit. States have different processes, but many have legislative budget offices that will issue a "fiscal note" analyzing the costs of the proposed policy.

Congress has operated for nearly a decade with "PAY-GO" rules, meaning that for every dollar spent, a corresponding savings or revenue raiser must be found. And, so in order for your bill to progress, a "pay-for" must be found. That's something to work with Congressional staff to strategize.


11. Being ready when the time is right

In Congress, it is less common that a bill gets a "standalone" vote by itself, at least for final passage, and more common that it gets wrapped up in a larger legislative package. KNowing when these opportunities will arise is complicted and one of the most important functions that professional lobbyists bring to the table. They follow committee movements and watch the signs for which bills "have legs" and look like they will move. But this is also work that Congressional staffers regularly do. They follow the same reports and look for ways to ask that their boss's priorities are included in larger packages. That's where your legislative champion and his or her staff come in as a part of your advocacy strategy. Stay in touch and make sure you are ready to support with outreach from supporters if an opportunity arises for your bill to move. 

***POPVOX weekly updates are a great way to stay on top of what bills are getting a vote that week and which are getting attention.***


12. Celebrating success

If your bill passes, even through committee or one chamber of the legislature, it is cause for celebration! Just as introduction is a victory in itself, getting a vote and passing is tremendous. Recognizing supporters and allies and thanking those who voted with you will go a long way towards preparing them for next steps. And there are always next steps….


13. Staying engaged in the regulatory and implementation process

Some bills may require regulations to be implemented and that process has ultiple opportunities for public comment and input. Much more to come on that!

While that might seem like a long road, it doesn’t even include all possible steps. For anyone setting out on the journey, it's important to set the right goals, keep allies and supporters in the loop, and help everyone what is happening at every step.

The 1986 Firearms Owners’ Protection Act, which eased federal restrictions on gun owners and gun dealers, took 18 years to pass. The Family and Medical Leave Act, which guarantees job-protected time off for serious illness or the birth of a child, took nine years to pass. Attempts to pass health reform started with JFK. 

And, of course, sometimes the legislative goal is not to see a new initiative pass but to preserve an existing policy or to express opposition to a proposed policy. We'll cover all of that in future posts.

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