Go Forth and Advocate

Stephanie Vance
Go Forth and Advocate: But How?


Top Five Questions from my Advocacy Travels

I spend a fair amount of time traveling around the country conducting my “Go Forth and Advocate” sessions for a variety of groups. Yes, I realize that makes me sound like a traveling preacher (complete with the religious fervor attending such an occupation) and perhaps I am a bit – after all, effective advocacy and passion for your cause go hand in hand.

From Seattle to Providence and from librarians to cancer survivors, what I find in these programs is a universal interest in the process of effective advocacy, as well as universal confusion on a few key points. Following are the top five questions I’m almost guaranteed to get in any session (and, of course, my responses).


  1. Do elected officials pay attention to form letters and/or petitions? Survey says: not as much as they pay attention to personalized communications. Sure, sending a form letter or signing a petition is the easiest way to express your opinion. But look at it this way: isn’t it true that your level of passion about an issue is directly related to the amount of time and effort you spend on it? Elected officials understand this, which is why they pay much more attention to the very few personalized communications they receive. One thoughtful, personal, relevant letter says far more than a thousand postcards.

    Wait, wait. I know what you’re thinking “I should be able to communicate with my elected officials in any way I want” or, “I’m a busy person – I don’t have time to write personal letters.” That may very well be true. My point is that what you’ll get more out of the process of communicating with your elected officials if you put more effort into that process. If you’re not willing or able to do that, don’t be disappointed if your signature on a petition doesn’t generate immediate change.

    Think about it in your own life. What gets your attention? Form e-mails and/or letters? Spam e-mails from the deposed dictators club (you know, the ones where some exile from a far-off land is willing to give you the sum of ONE HUNDRED MILLION AMERICAN DOLLARS in exchange for your bank account information)? Or, personalized, thoughtful communications that relate directly to your life and/or work in some way?


  2. How come I have to meet with a staff person? As a former staffer, this is one of my favorites, especially when the person asking has that touch of an oh-so-attractive whine in their voice (as in, “how come I have to meet with JUST a staff person? I’m too important for that.”) While it is true that constituents are some of the most important people an elected official will meet with in a day, it’s also true that simple physics often prevent the official him or herself from meeting with everyone (if, for example, you have 750,000 people in your district, even if only 1% of them every come to visit, that’s over 7,000 people!).

    The good news is that meeting with a staff person is often more productive than meeting with the elected official, who will almost always have to limit the meeting to a “grip and grin” (i.e., quick handshake, cheesy smile and a “hey, keep up the good work.”). Staff people often have more time to delve into the issues. In addition, they make many of the day to day decisions and recommendations in the office. Don’t get on their bad side by intimating that you don’t think them important enough to talk to.


  3. How can I better “educate” my elected officials on our issue? Do you remember High School? All those people wanting to “educate” you. That was fun, wasn’t it? OK, well some people enjoyed it (I guess), but others of us found the process of “being educated” by someone else somewhat less than stimulating. Sure, your elected officials need to learn about your industry in order to understand how proposed policies might positively (or negatively) impact your work. But they, like most people, learn best by doing.

    What does that mean? It means you should ask them (or their staff) to come see your organization in action: in other words, meet your employees, see how your product is developed, or participate in day-to-day operations. This is the best way to “educate” them, or at least far better, in most cases, than asking them to sit down for an hour long lecture and power point on your issues.


  4. What should I leave behind? Survey says: not much. Remember that the people collecting this information (generally young-ish staff), have very little space in which to keep papers. Perhaps more important, though, paper is a somewhat alien form of communication to a generation dedicated to communicating via electronic means. This means that anything you really want them to read should be available on a website, because that’s the first place they’ll turn when a question comes up. Effective advocates will boil the essence of their issue down to one or two pages, put it in a file folder complete with their contact information and leave that information with the office.


  5. I’ve tried everything but my [council member, congressman, state legislator, fill-in-the-blank] never pays any attention to us (or worse, is hostile). What should I do? Well, first of all, make sure you REALLY tried everything. Have you asked for something “easy” (such as a site visit)? Have you tried to get to know the staff (if applicable)? Have you learned something about this cantankerous legislator and asked how you can help on what he or she cares about? Have you developed a list of the types of groups / interests / people that might influence the elected official in question and built an alliance with them?

    Sure, there are certainly times when you’ve tried ALL these techniques and still aren’t getting anywhere. Yes, Virginia, there are mean, unscrupulous politicians out there (shocking to hear, I know). In those cases, I believe you have two responsibilities. First, work to replace that person with someone who DOES understand your issues. And second, keep communicating with that lawmaker over and over and over again, even if they disagree with you. Why? At least you’re taking up their time – time they cold be using to wreak havoc on the things you care about.

Stephanie Vance, The Advocacy Guru at Advocacy Associates
Copyright 2008. All Rights Reserved.

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