You asked for it, now you’ve got it. It’s your first day on the job. You landed a brand new advocacy position. Or, maybe you didn’t ask for it, but somehow you’ve found yourself doing advocacy just the same. Either way, here you are in unfamiliar—albeit exciting—waters, and you want to make the most of it. But, where do you begin?
1. Learn your story: Your first task should be to learn your organization’s “story,” says David Thompson, an attorney and vice president of public policy at the National Council of Nonprofits. Thompson has decades of advocacy experience on both the lawmaker the nonprofit side of government relations.
“Learn all about the activities of your organization, the solutions it provides and the impact it has, as well as understanding its place in the broader community of nonprofits,” he says.
According to Thompson, the nonprofit community employs 10 percent of the U.S. workforce, contributes hundreds of billions to economies across the country, engages daily in problem-solving in every community, and touches the lives of every American, daily. “The breadth and impact of this community is typically not understood by elected officials or even the public,” he says. “Knowing how your organization fits within the bigger picture can help make new government relations professionals the go-to people when questions arise.”
2. Build relationships: Justin Barnes, chairman emeritus of the HIMSS Electronic Health Record (EHR) Association, agrees that becoming the go-to person is key, and the way to make that happen is by building relationships with legislators and their staff. Barnes has more than a decade of experience as an advocacy professional, where his friendships led him to numerous opportunities to educate congressional leaders, White House staff and regulatory officials.
“Don’t think so much about your issue that you forget to ask people about themselves,” Barnes says. “Ask them how their day is, and ask them if there is anything you can help them with. This will often open up some good discussions.”
Thompson likes this advice from an older Alabama lobbyist: “You don’t want to have to ask a stranger for a favor, so get on up there (to the Capitol, the newspaper offices, the Rotary Club luncheons) and make some friends.”
Along with learning your story and building relationships, Thompson and Barnes also offer these tips:
3. Know your area of expertise and how to teach it: Take the position of being an educator, don’t focus on lobbying, Barnes says. Knock on doors and let people know you are available to educate them when the need arises. “Be the master of your domain,” he says. “Be able to explain your complicated world in very simple terms to a staffer or member of Congress.”
4. Advance your mission: “It’s all about the mission,” Thompson says. “Issues come and go, people come and go, but the primary filter for determining where to spend your time is whether your action advances the organization’s mission.” He also advises that you remember that other people in your organization can greatly contribute to advancing the mission, even without being government relations professionals.
5. Stay nonpartisan (if that’s your thing): Charitable nonprofits are prohibited from supporting or opposing candidates, Thompson says. “It is a solid best practice to treat all elected officials and opinion leaders as potential supporters of policies that advance the organization’s mission, and then to deliver facts, data, and stories that address her or his unique perspective.”
Your job will be twice as hard if you don’t go the bipartisan route, says Barnes. Issues pushed strictly down party lines generally don’t pass. Staying with a bipartisan approach will also allow you to transcend changes in administration. And while you’re at it, don’t forget to make your strategy bicameral, as well.
6. Collaborate: Success is built when you think of yourself as leading your issue, or helping to lead the industry on your issue. If you don’t, then you can expect some firepower against you, Barnes says. “You can pick up a lot of steam with collaboration, or you can be crushed without it.”
Barnes suggests creating or joining the boards of organizations with similar interests, or with slightly conflicting interests, so you can help contribute or lead the discussion regarding your issues. Creating coalitions of various groups all oriented toward a similar goal is also useful in gaining momentum for your issues, while at the same time creating a venue for working through differences.
7. Use your passion: Thompson says, if nothing else, lawmakers will remember your passion. “You’ll know you’re doing it right when your issue comes up and your story pops into their heads,” he says.
“This job should never be work, it should always be fun,” Barnes adds. “Your passion will give you the energy you need to be successful.”