We’re about to hit the August Recess – a perfect chance to supercharge your grassroots lobbying.
When Members of Congress head home to spend quality time with their constituents, will those constituents be playing on your organization’s team?
If you work at a big nonprofit, you’re probably already preparing for opening day (August 5, 2013). You already know the basic drills for August advocacy: get your supporters to request an in-state meeting, show up at the parade, etc. But here are some new plays you may have overlooked that will help you pressure and persuade your Members of Congress this summer.
(Fair warning, I really like baseball.)
Show Up at the Right Playing Field
Effective August recess activities need to be geared toward the right policymakers.
For every campaign, there are three types of Members of Congress you’ll meet at the ballpark: opponents, fence-sitters, and champions.
There can be value in trying to influence all of these policymakers. But this summer, the game is appropriations, and your focus should be on cultivating your issue’s champs.
Just because the budget is a mind-boggling mess right now doesn’t mean you can ignore it. Policymakers are still going to be forced to make decisions on what dollars go where. These decisions affect your organization. And your supporters can affect the outcome by adding a local human touch to the number-crunching in Washington.
This summer, you should focus on the limited number of people who can influence those decisions: the chairs and ranking members of the Senate and House Appropriations Subcommittees that relate to your issue (Labor, Agriculture, Transportation). Once you’ve identified the right subcommittee and where its leaders live, then rally your base of supporters in those states. Because when Congress returns to session, you’re going to need at least one of those people committed to championing your issue when budget decisions are made.
Draft Your Dream-Team
In your eyes, all of your activists are all batting 1000. But during recess, you have to ask yourself what local voices can most help your issue come out swinging in meetings with Members of Congress. Think carefully about who’s on your state rosters and who’s not – but should be.
One set of supporters who hold particular sway are your cause’s storytellers. It’s hard for policymakers to forget a constituent who shares their personal story – either in person or online – about how a piece of legislation will affect them and their families. Make sure storytellers are part of your August starting line-up. Have them star in videos you tweet to Members, author op-eds that you help place in hometown papers throughout the month, or attend in-district meetings with Senators and Representatives (more on that in later innings!).
Come Out of Left Field
You can catch your policymaker’s attention through powerful personal stories. You can also catch them by surprise.
Here are two ideas for coming out of left field to capture policymakers’ attention in unexpected ways this August Recess:
(1) Find a surprising connection that ties your organization closer to your Member of Congress.
Start by making a list of what your Member of Congress holds important: Where did they and members of their immediate family go to school, attend church services, or volunteer? What summer camps did they go to when they were young? Where do they vacation? What local causes do they champion?
Once you have your playbook, send a short survey to your board and core supporters listing your target’s camps, schools, organizations, and other top affiliations, and ask whether anyone has any direct experience or ties. You might find out that your social media intern went to summer camp with the Member of Congress’ niece. Or that your board member’s husband shares an alma mater with your rep. After running so many campaigns, we’re no longer surprised by the unexpected human connections organizations can find among their fans—when they ask.
(2) Send your supporters to places where you know your Member will be making a public appearance during August Recess, and have them ask questions to catch your targets off guard.
This is a classic pop-the-question strategy: Get a hold of your Member’s schedule for the August Recess, and plant supporters at those events to ask a question when they can. Members of Congress spend a lot of time during recess doing the “see and be seen” schtick. They will eat fried food. They will shake hands. They will, clichés be damned, kiss babies. Track these meet-n-greets (they are sometimes listed on the Member’s website or in the community section of the local paper), and get your local supporters to show up and bring up your issues.
Be sure to talk with your supporters about the tone your organization wants to set: there’s a time to get aggressive, and there’s a time to be polite. (Just ask Michelle Obama).
Step Up to the Plate: Schedule In-District Meetings
Of course, when they’re not out and about, Members of Congress will be taking constituent meetings in their district offices. The key to getting a meeting with your Member of Congress is to have your local supporters call their district offices now.
Notice that we didn’t say YOU should call the office.
It might be hard to hear, but come August, it’s the constituents who have the home team advantage. You’ve got to give up some control. Your pre-season job is to coach your constituents and empower them with information they need to set up meetings, attend those meetings, and then report back to you about the outcomes.
Bookie’s Tip: If you’re not in a position to field a team this August recess, buy a local newspaper ad in August aimed at a key Member of Congress. You could even launch an online fundraising campaign in July to raise money for the ad. You don’t need to swing for the fences and buy a full-page ad to be noticed. It’s ok to bunt – just raise enough money for more affordable banner ads on the hometown paper’s website, or geo-targeted ads on Google or Facebook.
First Base Hit: What to Do in a Meeting
Once a meeting is on the books, prep your team in three ways:
(1) Make an agenda and decide who is going to say what. The last thing you want is a who’s-on-first routine when you get in the room with policymakers.
(2) Arm your constituents with two copies of supporting materials that help make your case: One for the Member, the other for a staffer. These can be topical reports, fact sheets, Q&As, or constituent stories with photographs.
(3) The most important thing to drill into your team is to make an ask of the Member. It’s hard to believe, but we have seen advocates in meetings forget to ask what they went to ask! Your organization’s ask – for a vote or co-sponsorship on a particular bill, a hearing on something in committee, or even stronger leadership presence on an issue – should be referred to by your team throughout the meeting.
Steal Second: Amplify Your Message
You can magnify your face-time this August by backing it up with letters-to-the-editor (LTEs) and call-in days.
LTEs that mention a member of Congress by name in the local paper are a smart way to get their attention any time of year—but you can steal second by placing an LTE in August while lawmakers and their staff are in the hometown frame of mind.
If you plan to have a field presence in multiple states or towns this August, find out if your online toolset has letter-to-the-editor capability, or create an offline template LTE for your advocates to customize. Leave some fill-in-the-blanks for state advocates to add the name of the city/state, the elected official you want to reach, and some local place that will be affected (say, a local food bank or a nearby national park). Then give your advocates easy-to-follow instructions about how and when to submit the letters to their hometown papers once they’ve added their personal touch and story. Be sure to tell them to keep it short and, when possible, refer to an article that’s been published on this issue in the paper.
If you follow these steps, you’ll get more participation and more placements. And it will only take an hour or so of your time in June or July.
Another great way to make your starting lineup seem bigger and bolder is by inundating your Member’s district office with phone calls. Consider sending an email campaign urging supporters to call their district congressional offices en masse on one day. Give them a simple script and what number they should call, and make it sound easy. (It is!)
LTEs and call-in days can be effective even without in-person meetings – and they’re a great way for busy supporters to pitch in. But when they’re bolstering your face-to-face time, it sends an even stronger message.
Make It a Triple: Get a Boost on Social Media
Most Members of Congress have a presence on social media and they often host online events (tele-town halls or Twitter chats, for example) during summer downtime. Watch for those to be scheduled and then use social media tools like promoted posts or image shares to encourage your supporters to weigh in or ask a question through the chat form or on Twitter.
If you want to ask a question of your Member outside of one of those forums, try using a new online tool like Thunderclap. Thunderclap allows you to have some control over messaging. You set a goal for participation and promote your Thunderclap to your supporters. Once the targeted number of participants sign-up to participate, the Thunderclap “releases” the activity –100 Tweets, for example – all at once. Imagine being a Member of Congress and suddenly 100 people are tweeting at you about an issue you’re still making up your mind on! Think of this as the online equivalent of your team’s cheering section.
If you don’t have large amounts of supporters online, don’t overlook the simple power of one person tweeting or re-tweeting directly at a Member for your cause. C-SPAN makes it easy to find your Members of Congress on Twitter with this directory.
August is also a great time to do either a classic or creative social media engagement with supporters that you can direct Members to see or engage with on their own. An example of a social media push that has been done countless times (because it still works) is the individual supporter holding a personalized sign. If you have a few hundred bucks to spare, you can promote a post to drive up likes and comments.
Remember, social media is powerful because Members (and their press officers) know it’s out there for everyone to see.
Slide Into Home: Follow Up
Finally, any time you or your organization’s supporters interact with Members of Congress or their staff, get contact information, and promise to follow up. Then – do it. And always remind your constituents themselves to follow up, too!
Members need to know that supporters of your cause are in this for the long haul and will still care about your issue come election time. The only way to show them that dedication is to stay in touch. Get your organization and your supporters to tweet at your Member of Congress thanking them for each meeting or acknowledging each time you encountered them. After a district meeting, ask your supporters to write a post on your Facebook page reporting back about their experience meeting with their representative – and then make a quick image share about it and post it to your page and the Member’s Facebook page.
Once recess is over, there are a few easy (dare we say fun) ways to ask your supporters keep the conversation going. For example, you can work with your in-state supporters to send Members they met with a “wish you were here” postcard once they return to D.C. in September. Or collect some key media coverage and constituent photos to make a “summer album” and then send it to your Member and their staff over email or have your field supporters mail or drop albums off in person to the district office.
Make sure your organization’s lobby team knows who in the field met with which Members and what kind of activities happened over recess. They will want to keep track of those touch points so they can reference them and build upon that work the rest of the year.
If you know you’re going to see your Member in person later in the year, bring along a leave-behind thank you gift/swag that reminds the Member and their staff about your summer visit. Be creative, here! Things like thank you cards decorated by the constituents your team is advocating for, or usable things (pencils) with clever slogans about your issue on them (“Don’t Erase Kids’ Futures!”) are great to remind Congress and their staff about you all year long.
One last thing: never underestimate the utility of a good, old-fashioned email or phone call just to say thanks. The staff of your Member’s offices will appreciate it and it will nudge them to keep you in mind.
Now get out there and show ‘em what you got, slugger! We’ll see you in the Hall of Fame.