Lisa Hazirjian, Ph.D., Win Together Consulting
I have a confession to make: I get a little nervous whenever I call a policy maker. OK, more than a little. We’re talking heart racing as I dial, grabbing a sip of water for my dry mouth as I wait for someone to pick up the phone. Yet despite that, when there’s a public policy question on which I want to be heard, I call my elected officials because I’ve seen firsthand what a difference phone calls from constituents can make.
Take, for example, my experiences as a new executive director for a statewide advocacy organization, pacing the halls of the Legislative Office Building in Raleigh trying to catch the NC House Appropriations co-chair, whose legislative assistant refused to schedule a meeting for me. “Are you a constituent?” she asked. I was not.
Yet I was the head of an organization with a list of supporters who lived in that NC representative’s district. Our nonprofit reached out to those individuals with a set of tips and talking points and an urgent request to call and leave a quick message urging the appropriations co-chair to fully fund our program. When I next showed up at that office requesting a meeting to discuss the topic, the legislative assistant replied, “We’ve been getting a lot of calls about that; let me see when I can get you in.” I got the meeting and, eventually, after generating hundreds more calls into other legislative offices, we got the funding commitment we wanted.
I doubt we’d have won that legislative campaign without first helping our supporters feel confident enough to make those phone calls. As important as the legislative victory was for us, in the long run the thing that mattered most to me was that, in the process, we helped everyday people who shared our values and believed in our mission to become more engaged in civic life, helped them to recognize the importance of their perspectives and the power of their voices in the policy making process. The ten tips below – and this accompanying worksheet – are designed to help you use your voice effectively when calling elected officials, too.
1) Recognize why your voice matters. As a nonprofit leader, you bring both your own lived experience and your expertise from your professional life to every conversation. Those perspectives are absolutely vital to policy making related to the issues you know best. By using your voice to influence public policy, you’re helping to ensure that lawmakers are well-informed when making decisions. Always be sure to mention your ties to the district represented by the policy maker you’re calling, too. Remember, when you speak in your professional role, you speak on behalf of everyone your nonprofit serves; mention the approximate number of people your agency serves in the lawmaker’s district!
2) Be clear about your goal. Before you ever pick up the phone, write down one sentence stating the desired outcome you’re trying to achieve. Maybe you want your town council to approve a proposed affordable housing development. Maybe you want your state senator to introduce a bill. Maybe you want your state representative to introduce an amendment that would improve a bill that’s likely to pass. Maybe you want your U.S. congressperson to co-sponsor a bill to create a more generous student loan forgiveness program for people working at nonprofit organizations. Whatever your goal, you should have an ask ready – a clear statement of what you want the person you’re calling to do.
3) Make sure you’re calling the right people. Think about who has the authority to take the action you want, such as introducing a bill, increasing funding for a program, or voting against a bill. You might be surprised at how frequently people mistake their U.S. Senators for their NC Senators (or vice versa)! Always ask yourself, who has authority over this matter: for example, the town council, the school board, the county commissioners, the state legislature, or the U.S. Congress? For local matters, this nonpartisan resource may help you to understand which officials have responsibility for which decisions.
Once you determine which policy making body has decision making power over the issue you want to discuss, check to make sure you know who represents you at that level of government. Everyone in North Carolina has the same two U.S. Senators; you can look up the names and contact information for your U.S. Representative and your NC House and NC Senate members using this tool. For information about who represents you in local government, you can access websites for every NC municipality here and for every NC county here.
4) Know the status of the issue. At the local level, that might mean knowing if the rezoning has been approved for the site of that proposed affordable housing project, or knowing when budget hearings are taking place. At the state level, it might mean knowing if the idea you have for a state policy initiative has been drafted into a bill. If so, what’s the bill number? Has it been heard in committee? Has either chamber voted on it? Two great ways to stay on top of the status of policy issues you care about are to read the Center’s weekly Nonprofit Policy Update and to talk with policymakers who you know are allies before talking to people who need to be persuaded.
5) Understand how your call fits into a broader advocacy strategy. If you are leading an effort to influence public policy, keep in mind that only in the most extraordinary circumstances will one phone call from one person be all it takes to achieve your goal; in fact, I’m skeptical that would ever happen. Policy making takes time and involves many, many conversations, often over the course of months if not years or even decades. The key is to make each conversation you have with policy makers help to move that process in the direction you want - that’s why tips 1, 2, 3, and 4 are so important as starting points to prepare for your call!
Of course, we sometimes call our elected officials because another organization that’s leading an advocacy campaign has asked us to. In those instances, the call to action may have clues to the strategy, such as language like “we need for Congresswoman Fake to hear from as many constituents as possible TODAY urging her to vote yes on this bill when it comes up for a vote tomorrow,” or “we’re reaching out to you in particular because we know Senator Mock cares about your agency’s mission, so we believe a conversation with you would help us persuade him to co-sponsor this bill.” A call to Congresswoman Fake only requires you to leave a succinct message; for a conversation with Senator Mock to have the desired effect, you’ll need to be ready to have a more substantive dialogue.
6) Be prepared to leave a message. Most of the time, if you call a state or federal legislator, you’ll either reach a legislative aide or voice mail. If all you need to do is register your support (or opposition) to a specific piece of legislation, leave a message that specifies the bill number and that includes your name, phone number, and where you live in their district. Speak slowly and clearly, and be sure that your reason for calling is clear. I’ve done this dozens of times; I still always write down my ask the way I want to say it in a message to help me deliver it well. If you need to have a more substantive conversation and reach voice mail, you might just choose to call back another time, or leave a message identifying yourself as a constituent and asking for a call back.
7) Be prepared to have a conversation. If you reach a legislative aide, it’s worth having a substantive conversation with them, as they are well-positioned to make your case to the lawmaker they staff. Also, don’t rule out the possibility that a state lawmaker will answer their own phone – I’ve seen it happen! To prepare for those conversations, make sure to have some talking points sketched out in front of you. Know how you’ll introduce yourself in a way that conveys the reasons your voice matters to the lawmaker. Have a succinct ask written out, such as “can I count on you to ____?”. If there’s a bill number, have it at hand and know the bill status (you can look up state bills here; for federal bills, look here). Be ready to explain why you want them to do what you’re asking. Tailor your case to appeal to the policymaker’s interests and values, focusing on the arguments for your position that align best with their priorities. Also keep in mind that in conversations, it’s often effective to personalize an issue with a compelling story that illustrates how a policy decision would affect real people who live in the lawmaker’s district.
8) Be prepared to have a harder conversation. If you’re calling about a controversial issue, it’s likely the office has received calls from the other side. Having counterarguments at the ready will help you to make your case; it’s always better to refute the opposition than ignore it. But often, the greatest challenge in talking to a lawmaker is simply keeping them focused on the subject you want to discuss instead of the fifteen other things vying for their time. Be prepared to pivot back to your point by having a phrase you’d be comfortable using to redirect the conversation, such as “sure, but right now I really want to talk about X.”
9) Role play your conversation. Rehearsing helps to get out nerves and provides an opportunity to try out different ways of saying things. Find the language with which you’re most comfortable and stick with it. Find the arguments that feel most persuasive and go into your call ready to use them. Then – make the call!
10) Do three things at the end of the call: (1) Ask the person you’re talking to to recommit to doing what they said they would do. (2) Make sure you have the correct email addresses of the legislative aide and legislator. (3) Thank whoever you spoke with; if it was a legislative aide, ask for the correct spelling of their name so you can address them properly in writing.
Right after your call, write down notes on everything you can remember about the conversation so you can refer to them later. Then, send a quick email to both the legislator and their legislative aide, restating your point and thanking them again for their help. You can also use follow-up emails to send data that would be cumbersome to convey on a call, to attach a one-pager on the topic you discussed, or to answer any questions that came up in the conversation that required research and follow up. Remember, just as your phone call is part of an ongoing policy advocacy effort, your follow-up correspondence is as well (get tips on writing to policy makers!).
Lisa Hazirjian, PhD, founded Win Together Consulting to help nonprofits, campaigns, and social justice organizations to develop strategy, build capacity, engage supporters, and leverage strengths to achieve their goals. She holds a bachelors degree in public policy studies, graduate certificate in women’s studies, and Ph.D. in U.S. history from Duke University, and is working toward a Nonprofit Leadership Certificate from the Harvard Kennedy School.
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