Advocacy 101 for Individuals

Apr 26, 2010

Advocacy 101 for Individuals

You have the right—and the responsibility—to participate in the legislative process. NPAC hopes to empower arts supporters to become advocates for arts-friendly policies and more widespread support for the arts.

Identify and Contact Your Elected Officials by E-mail

Great Basic Resources

Through the Performing Arts Alliance’s online advocacy tools, arts advocates can learn about current issues affecting the arts, and at the federal level; learn who their elected officials are and send e-mails to them in a matter of moments.
Arts for LA’s Web site includes a useful set of guidelines for participating in candidate forums.
The Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance’s Web site provides a strong Advocacy 101 section, including tips for Communicating with Legislators and for In-Person Meetings with Legislators.
Your state’s arts advocacy organization—and some local communities’ arts advocacy groups—may also have online advocacy tools to support easy and quick email contact with elected officials. Visit your state/local arts advocacy organizations’ Web sites for access to these tools.

Communicating with Elected Officials

When e-mailing an elected official, make sure to include a note in the subject line indicating that you are a constituent, such as “Message from an Arts Supporter in District XX.” Elected officials want to hear from their own constituents, but often don’t have the time to consider the opinions of people who live outside their district. (That’s why you should not send a blanket e-mail to every legislator at the Capitol.) Within the body of the e-mail, make sure to sign the message with your full name and home address. If you are writing about a specific issue and want a response from your legislator, make sure to ask them to write back. “I’m looking forward to your response on this important issue,” for example. (If you don’t need a response, legislators appreciate being told that, too.)


Contacting Your Elected Officials by Letter or Fax

Writing is one of the most effective means of getting your message across to elected officials. Your letter documents your views and it also reminds your legislators that their decisions have a direct impact on you. Write to elected officials who serve on the committees that help shape legislation affecting arts and culture. If you only have a few minutes, at least write to your own legislators or city council member. You can find your legislators online.

Sometimes an issue will need more immediate attention. Most elected officials also have fax numbers that are available to the public.
When writing:
  • Use the correct address and salutation, e.g. Dear Councilmember [last name], Dear Senator [last name], Dear Representative [last name] or Dear Governor [last name]
  • Type or write your letter clearly. If your letter is not easy to read, it could be discarded. Be sure to include your return address on the letter. Non-constituent mail may also be thrown out.
  • Use your own words and stationery. Legislators feel that personal letters, rather than form letters, show greater personal commitment on the part of the writer, and therefore carry greater weight. 
  • Be brief. Choose a few bullet points that are direct and succinct; however, include enough information to explain why you are writing.
  • Be specific and keep your message focused. To be sure that your most important message stands out, avoid writing a “laundry list” of issues. If possible, give an example of how the issue affects your district.
  • Know your facts. It is important to be accurate and honest in your letter. You can seriously hurt your credibility by offering inaccurate or misleading information.
  • If you can, find out how your elected officials voted or the views they expressed on this issue or similar issues in the past. Personalizing your letter to reflect the viewpoint of the elected official can be very effective. If the elected official has voted in favor of your issue in the past, express your thanks. The Americans for the Arts Web site provides national voting records.
  • Be timely. Contact your elected official while there is still time for him/her to consider and act on your request.
  • Be persistent. Do not be satisfied with responding letters that give a status report on the bill, promise to “keep your views in mind” or otherwise skirt the issue. Without being rude, write back and ask for a more specific response.
  • Say thank you. Like everyone else, elected officials appreciate a pat on the back. If, however, your elected official did not support your position, let him/her know that you are aware of that, and explain why you think he/she should have decided differently. It might make a difference the next time.
  • Be polite: Don’t use a negative, condescending, threatening or intimidating tone. You will only alienate your elected official and cause bad feelings that might hurt your case. Only write in a tone that you would care to receive in the mail.

Contacting Your Elected Officials by Phone

When calling your elected official, DO:
  • Ask to speak with the aide handling your issue (if applicable). The aides have the elected official’s ear, and may be knowledgeable about the details of your issue. Be sure to take down the name of the aide with whom you spoke so that you will have a contact person in case you need to reach the elected official again. You will also have the name of another person to thank.
  • Be prepared and be brief. It is a good idea to have notes or other information in front of you to help you be brief and concise. Don’t keep the aide/elected official on the phone for more than five minutes unless they prolong the conversation—there is a lot going on in an elected official’s office and they will have many other people vying for their time. Use your time wisely and get your main points covered as close to the beginning of the conversation as possible.
  • Leave your name, address and telephone number (as well as e-mail and fax if you have them). This will enable the aide to get back to you with information on the elected official’s position. Let him/her know that you want a reply.
  • Follow up your phone call with a brief note of thanks for the conversation, a concise summary of your position and additional information if it has been requested.
When calling an elected official, DON’T:
  • Bluff. If the elected official or aide asks you a question that you cannot answer, say that you will get back to him/her and then do the appropriate follow-up.

Meeting with Elected Officials in Person

10 Short Tips on Lobbying for Arts and Culture in Person

1. KISS: Keep It Short and Simple.
The meeting should be brief and concise—expect only 15 to 20 minutes of the elected official’s time. Know why you are there, why they should care and what you want. If you are with a group of people, you may even want to designate one spokesperson. Go to the meeting with a short list of bullet points that you want to communicate. Practice beforehand what you want to say. This will help you be more articulate and come right to the point. For organized lobbying efforts, the organizing entity (such as your state arts advocacy organization) may provide you with talking points.
2. Have your facts straight.
Spend a few minutes reading through materials and thinking about your issue so you have familiarized yourself with it before you meet your elected official. Talk about how the elected official’s constituents are benefiting from the thing you want. If the elected official asks you something that you don’t know, don’t guess—find out the information and send it later. Learn your elected official’s position on arts issues through candidate surveys, which at the federal level are available through Americans for the Arts and which may be available on your state arts advocacy organization’s Web site.
3. Be on time, polite and patient.
There is no quicker way to lose support for your issue than by being rude to elected officials. BE NICE. The elected official may have two committee meetings going on while they are supposed to be meeting with you and may be late. Don’t be offended—just be glad you have gotten some of their time and make the most of it. Don’t show up unannounced or assail those individuals or organizations who oppose your issue. Criticizing your elected official or your opponents can only hinder your efforts.
4. Introduce your team members and note what connection each person may have to the elected official’s district.
Make sure that the elected official knows your connection to his or her district—whether you are a constituent living in the district, an artist working in the district, etc.
5. Make your issue personal.
How have these grants benefited children in your area? Senior citizens? Brought the community together? Tell stories about how your organization or other grantees have benefited the people in the elected official’s district.
6. Be a good listener.
Listen intently to the elected official’s comments and feedback. If your meeting was part of a larger, organized advocacy effort, it could be important for you to share what you learn with the advocacy campaign’s organizing entity. Did they give you any advice or display knowledge of any specific cultural organizations or issues? Take a few minutes to write down your impressions and any specific statements of support or opposition that the elected official made.
Always remember that as an advocate you are dealing with multiple issues, perspectives and personalities. Be gracious in victory and in defeat because today’s opponent may become an ally in the future.
7. Be a resource.
If your elected official needs more information than you have on hand, you can offer to obtain it. Let the Coalition know if you need help, and be sure to follow up with information in a timely manner.
8. Before you leave, say “thank you” again.
Leave some information for the elected official to read, but keep that information simple, too. Before you leave, ask how you can be of help to them. Be direct by asking at the end of the meeting, “Will you support _________?” His or her answer will determine your future efforts.
9. Maintain your relationship with your elected officials.
After a meeting, promptly send a note thanking them for their time and giving other information about your organization that may be of interest to them. Invite them to local arts and culture events, openings or other activities that they or their families may enjoy.
10. Provide opportunities for positive publicity (photo opportunities, events, occasions to meet people, etc.)
Invite your elected official to your organization’s annual meeting, an opening night gathering, a community event, any and all publicity events, shows, previews, and openings.
*Special thanks to the Minnesota Citizens for the Arts for their advocacy tips, from which these tips were adapted.

 Photo by Glenn Ross, 2008 National Performing Arts Convention

Tags: Advocacy Basics, Advocacy 101, Contacting Elected Officials

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ADVOCACY: Be an Advocate