In the closing days of the state legislative season, it can be hard to get your voice heard. “Toward the end of session people are tired, the capital is full, and everyone is very busy,” says Abigail Sztein, director of government affairs at the American Forest & Paper Association.
Chaotic though it may seem, this is a now-or-never moment — a chance to make one more grassroots advocacy push. At the same time, government affairs and advocacy professionals also need to start lining up efforts for “district days,” when members of Congress come home in June.
In short, the pressure is on. But there are ways to keep grassroots advocacy on track amid this spring fling.
A Big Year at State Level
This year, in particular, the waning days of the state legislative sessions call for renewed grassroots efforts.
“Right now, a lot of policy is being made at the state level. The logjam in Washington, D.C. has led to much more vigorous activity in the states,” says Deborah Kamin, vice president of policy and advocacy at the American Society of Clinical Oncology. “That is driving a lot of our approach to advocacy right now,” she adds. “There’s both an opportunity and a risk. There will be a patchwork crazy-quilt of policy, but on the other hand, there’s an opportunity, if you’re concerned about doing something to make a difference more quickly.”
Budget cycles, too, add urgency to the end-of-session effort. Right now, “there’s a compressed timeframe in terms of budget decisions that are going to affect the organization’s strategy going forward for a two-year legislative cycle or budget session,” says Amy Showalter of The Showalter Group, Inc., a consultancy serving the grassroots advocacy and PAC communities. “What they do now has long-term effects on future strategies, options, and opportunities,” she adds.
How can you get the most out of your grassroots efforts in this crucial time?
Be crystal clear
At the end of the session, “things can get kind of hairy,” Sztein says. “Bills that you thought were uncomplicated could suddenly have new language in them. Legislators that had time to meet with you suddenly are dealing with 30 or 40 different deadlines all at once.” To be heard above the noise, “it is incredibly important to have clear language that we can stick to — having it clear, concise, consistent.”
Late-season action can be disheartening to your grassroots advocates. “Let’s say you weren’t successful in getting your particular bill across the finish line. People get discouraged,” Kamin says.
To counter malaise, be willing to pivot. “Maybe you need to change your strategy a little bit. What’s a different way to approach it? How can you refresh your approach to have greater success in the next session?” adds Kamin. “You need to remind yourself [and your advocates] that you have to continue to invest in the relationships. It doesn’t count if you just go one time and shake hands. You’ve got to keep going back and reminding people about your issues.”
Highlight the stakes
If grassroots advocates are feeling fatigued at the close of session, fire them up by reminding them what’s at stake.
“Your issue is just as important to somebody on the other side, who’s just as sincere and well-meaning and educated and polite as you are,” Showalter says. “So you have to let your advocates know what the other side is doing. You have to let them know about the competitive nature of the democratic system.”
Gearing up for District Days
Even as organizations rally their grassroots advocates for a late-session final push, they simultaneously need to ramp up their efforts in advance of district days, when state representatives come home at the end of June. District days provide an opportunity to meet legislators in person and mobilize advocates to strengthen relationships and push state issues forward at the federal level.
Lay the groundwork
“The big thing in preparing for district days is building a relationship with district staff ahead of time,” Sztein says. “Connect with the legislative offices in advance, so that your members already have a foundation for these important conversations when they’re in town for a limited period of time.”
Prep the advocates
Don’t just give them the talking points: tell them about their legislators’ specific interests so they can make the most compelling pitch.
“Keep in mind the people you’re dealing with. What are their concerns? What are their priorities?” Kamin advises. Then prepare the advocates. “If you’re the one who has been in these circles every day, help them understand the landscape before they go in to make their case.”
Vet your voices
District days represent a limited window of opportunity, not to be squandered. “A common mistake is picking the wrong advocate for a meeting: somebody who doesn’t come across as knowledgeable on the subject, somebody who can’t read the room, who’s not considered genuine,” says Philip Giles, a D.C.-based independent grassroots advocacy consultant. His point: be selective about who you send in during the limited window offered by district days.
Technology is Key
Digital advocacy solutions like VoterVoice play an essential role at this stage of the legislative cycle, with matching capabilities to connect your advocates with lawmakers to ensure your message is heard.
VoterVoice makes it easy to reach grassroots supporters via email or text to drive them to your Action Center, where pre-filled supporter information means they can take action with just one click. Tech-supported newsletters, polls, and updates keep the grassroots engaged during this critical period.
Technology “gives you a broader reach. It supports information-finding, making it more accessible to more people. It also helps to have a platform for setting up visits and organizing your time,” Kamin says.
“I have many clients who use VoterVoice,” Showalter says. “The number one benefit is speed: It allows you to communicate much more quickly with folks. That’s important in today’s legislative process.” The platform “also lets us target communications to lawmakers in particular districts,” she says.
In a grassroots effort, “one of the things that is very highly correlated with success is making sure that you’re communicating with people in the district of that lawmaker,” Showalter adds. With a tool like VoterVoice, “you’re not just sending things to everybody and their uncle and their house cats. You are making sure to target your communications. That’s really important.”
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