The most important thing you can do before conducting any advocacy activities, besides learning How Congress Works, is to develop an Advocacy Plan.
An Advocacy Plan will guide your work, give you important goals to meet throughout your advocacy campaign, give you a map to follow in order to be effective, and it will ensure success in your advocacy goals.
To help you with your advocacy planning, we have created six steps for you to follow to develop a foolproof advocacy plan.
The Six Steps to Developing an Advocacy Plan:
Step 1. Choose One Policy Issue
The first step is to find the issue that is most important to you.
It may seem like common sense, but this is where most people start off on the wrong foot. It can be hard to focus all of your passion and energy onto one issue, but you will be more successful if you do.
If you are constantly writing your member of Congress and their staff with a different issue every week, you run the risk of getting pegged as somebody who cannot be pleased no matter what happens.
But, if you decide on one issue that you are passionate about, and only focus on that issue, your voice will be stronger.
Additionally, as we discussed before, influencing Congress takes a lot of work. Many people spend their whole career advocating for an issue and never see any substantial progress. You face an uphill battle just trying to get one issue on the radar; you are setting yourself up for failure if you have two or more issues.
Choosing your passion is an incredibly important step in your quest to become an unstoppable advocate. If you pick an issue that is simple and relevant, you’ll find much more success.
If you cannot decide on an issue, try looking at the website of your member of Congress.
On most members’ websites, they list the issues that they are most passionate about. If your passion aligns with an issue that your member cares about, then it might be a good opportunity to work with your member of Congress on that issue.
It is much easier to get a representative to go from a supporter to a champion than it is to have them change their stance on an issue. (Being labeled a flip-flopper is the kiss of death for a politician.)
If you are lucky enough to be represented by somebody who is the chairperson of a committee or subcommittee, they are in a position of power to do something about your issue. You will have a much easier time dealing with that person’s office than somebody who has no committee relationships.
If you live in a congressional district that is 90% Republican, you are going to have a hard time focusing on something like increasing funding to Planned Parenthood. Similarly, if you live in an urban center with 90% Democrats, picking a traditionally conservative issue like welfare reform might not be your best bet. If you are from a relatively moderate district, avoid supporting or working on issues on the extreme of either end of the political spectrum.
Step 2. Make your issue personal
Once you have picked your issue, it is important that you articulate why the issue is important to you.
Many congressional staffers enjoy learning about policy and will appreciate a well-thought-out argument and the statistics to back it up. However, if you really want to get your issue to resonate through the halls of Congress, you need to have a personal and relatable advocacy story — something that puts a human face on the issue.
Ask yourself why this issue matters to you, and craft your story into a powerful anecdote you can share with staffers.
Writing down your personal story allows you to reflect on why the issue matters to you and how to best tell your story. Members of Congress and their staff are super busy, so you really only have a short amount of time to get their attention. Write your story down and shorten it as much as you can without losing any of the meaning. Being concise is key!
Advocacy Planning Example:
A female veteran will have an easier time talking about female veteran services than a male veteran or a civilian because it is personal.
They will be able to share their experiences, put a face to the issue, and a personal story from a member of Congress's constituent can have an impact on their policy decision.
Also, the more specific your issue, the more likely it is that you will succeed.
Improving care for female veterans is more specific than "improving the VA" and is more likely to succeed.
Step 3: Become a "Subject Matter Expert"
Becoming a "Subject Matter Expert" is an important part of advocacy.
If you know an issue well, whether through a hobby or your profession, you could easily become a resource for your member of Congress. Let staffers know they can reach out to you if they have any questions. Since Congress is spread so thin, they rely on SMEs for help with forming policies.
The more research about the policy you do now, the more likely you are to get results. Here are some resources to get you started on your search for issues, legislation, voting records, and more.
GovTrack was started as a hobby in 2004 to help Americans participate in government. Today, their vast database allows you to research specific bills, learn about each member of Congress, search voting records, and gain perspective on each piece of proposed legislation.
Congress.gov is Congress’s official resource, with much of the same information. It’s a little harder to navigate than GovTrack but tends to be more thorough.
Opensecrets.org is The Center for Responsive Politic's website that tracks money in politics and its effect on US elections and policy. They have a searchable database of all organizations currently lobbying Congress; you can use their website to find out who might oppose your issue as well as potential partners.
Congressional Research Service (CRS) is a research arm of the Senate and the House of Representatives. They provide public policy research and legal analysis for congressional staffers and members of both the House and Senate, regardless of their party affiliation.
Step 4: Create a legislative "Ask"
One of the most important things you can do for your issue is to come up with a solid “ask.” Since members and their staff have so much on their plates, it is important to give them a clear task to complete on your behalf.
Here are some examples of good "asks" to Congress:
Include a funding request in their annual letter to the appropriations committees,
Speak about your issue on the House floor,
Hold a Senate hearing on your issue,
Vote yes or no on a specific Bill,
Vote yes or no in a committee markup,
Add an amendment during a markup,
Publicly support an issue,
Make comments about your issue at a local event,
Here are some questions you should try to answer before developing your ask:
How does the issue split down the political aisle?
It is important to know how both sides of the political spectrum feel about your issue and why they might support or oppose changing legislation.
How has your member of Congress voted previously on issues related to yours?
If your elected official voted in favor of your issue, great! If not, then you might have more work to do to convince them to fight on your behalf. Either way, it’s good to know whether a similar issue has come in front of your member before, how they voted on it, and why.
Is there legislation already in action for your issue?
If there is already legislation out there, make sure your member knows about it. If you want them to co-sponsor a bill, you will need to bring a lot of information on the specific piece of legislation to make their job as easy as possible for them. If there is no legislation, find out whom the best person to write a bill would be.
What committees and subcommittees deal with your issue?
Members of Congress are more likely to help you with your cause if they sit on the Congressional committee or subcommittee that has jurisdiction over the issue.
Step 5: Practice, Practice, Practice
We have all been in situations where we have said something and immediately regretted the words that came out of our mouths. With our friends, we might feel embarrassed for a little while, but the embarrassment usually fades with time as we go about our daily lives. With members of Congress, however, the stakes are much higher.
A simple slip-up, such as using the wrong tone of voice, can do irreparable harm to your issue. This principle applies to every advocacy activity you perform, but it is especially important when calling your member of Congress, in-person meetings, or speaking at a local event. Emails and letters to Congress require practice to do well, but at least you have an eraser or delete key if you need it. With in-person meetings and other live events, it is vital to be prepared.
Practice talking to your friends or family about the issue. Some of the best advocacy occurs during casual conversation, so being able to talk about the issue without a script is critical. You can also have other people read your letters or talking points and give you suggestions on how to make a stronger argument.
Finally — just do it. You will be happy you did when the time comes to give it live and you must think on your feet.
Practice your pitch in a mirror, record yourself, and fine-tune your presentation.
Step 6: Partner with others
The average congressional district has over 700,000 people, so one person is going to have a hard time changing a member of Congress's mind if they are going at it alone. That is why finding groups and organizations to partner with will be key to your success.
To find other organizations working on your issue, a simple Google search is your best bet. This will give you a list of civic organizations to reach out to, most of whom will be happy to hear from passionate individuals who care about their work. Reach out to the organizations and see what issues they are advocating for and, if it aligns with your cause, how you can participate in their efforts.
It is also helpful to think about nontraditional partners who would care about the issues that you are passionate about. For example, there is an ongoing fight over the ownership and management of public lands in the US. Some think states should control land and be able to profit off the resources; others think that public land should be managed by the government and conserved. In this fight, a nontraditional coalition has formed.
Progressive environmentalists have teamed up with conservative sportsmen groups. Both groups have the same goal in mind: to keep lands under federal management so they can be preserved. This is a great coalition and a good example of non-traditional partnerships. See if you can think of some groups who might care about your issue, even if it is for a different reason than you.