Meet the Legislators: The Basics of an Effective Meeting
Marcia Avner has more than 40 years of experience as a leader for progressive policy working both within the administrative and legislative branches of government, and of course, leading thousands of nonprofit advocates to stand up for their values.
Relationships are fundamental to advancing policy goals. As I said in Part 1: Tips for Building Relationships with Lawmakers, savvy nonprofits take the time necessary to cultivate relationships with lawmakers and other government officials.
While you are identifying whom to meet, you should also develop a sequence of objectives for these meetings. What are you trying to get out of them? These objectives may include introducing your organization, offering to be a resource and share research and publications, explaining your key accomplishments, expressing your interest in their issue priorities and even thank them for their previous leadership on your issues. Your goal is to build your nonprofit “brand” as a trusted, knowledgeable source on your issues and valuable “people of the process.”
Use your nonpartisanship to your advantage. Be available to elected officials of all parties and reach out to all reasonable people as you initiate working relationships. In some instances, nonprofits can be bridge builders provided they are not perceived to be aligned with any political agenda. Not everyone will agree with you or support you, but you are well positioned if you are well respected.
Initial conversations with a newly elected member are best held before you have an “ask.” Consider incorporating these ingredients for an effective meeting:
- Obtain a meeting! Get a time to meet with lawmakers, in the district or at their offices. The best way to start is with a formal email or mail request and a follow-up call to their office at the capitol. It works well if you have someone at the capitol to make the appointments in person. (People don’t like to say no to someone standing in front of them!)
- Prepare materials. Bring concise and interesting materials to share. A single page that explains who you are and what you do may be all that you need. Save the bulky information for those who want to know more or for follow up meetings.
- Plan the meeting. Include 3-4 people—more than that may make it difficult to get good information in a brief time. Your policy staff person, a board member, someone who can attest to the value of your work (client? participant?) and a constituent from the elected official’s district can be an ideal mix.
- Timing: Ask for 30 minutes, expect half of what is promised in most cases. Arrive early and plan to wait. Chat with the staff as long as you are not intruding on their work, and be sure that key staff know who you are and what you offer.
- Do some basic research. Read the member’s bio, legislative history, personal website, Facebook page, etc. Always important to know your audience before you meet.
- Designate a stage manager. Allow your policy staff person to be the stage manager at the meeting, introducing the group and stating the purpose of the meeting. Best opening offer: “We want to know what we can do to be a resource to you.”
- Get them talking. Once you have described what you do, with a vote of confidence expressed by the board member and a very short story from the program participant or community advocate, pivot the focus of the meeting to hear from the legislator. This is a tough transition. It means asking an open question, beyond “Do you have any questions?” Try “What are your priorities for this session?” Or “What do you think will be the highlights of the session and what will you focus on?” The more they talk, the more clues you will get about your shared interests—and differences.
- Ask for support. If your issue is already introduced and moving, state your position, ask for the individual’s support, and ask where they stand on the issue.
- Identify the next step. Wrap up a meeting with a commitment to a specific next step—providing information, setting a meeting, inviting them to visit you, planning to return when your issue is more fully developed and you want to share specifics about it.
- Before you leave, ask each legislator about the best way to communicate with her/him: email, calls, texts, etc.
After the meeting, take care to follow up. Follow through with any promises, write a thank-you note, record what you learned so that you can track your relationships, and find ways to connect casually in the district (e.g. Town Hall meetings) as often as possible. Remember to be a resource. You should view the meeting as just the first step in building a relationship with the elected official.
What else does your organization do to get the most out of meetings with elected officials? Share anything you’ve found helpful in the comments section below!