Advocacy 101

By Hannah Wallace April 30, 2006

If you're a nonprofit organization, digging up dollars and the necessary political clout in Tallahassee is never easy, says Jack Levine, president of Tallahassee-based Advocacy Resources, a company that helps groups with public policy and organizational development.

Levine, who spent 25 years building relationships and negotiating with lawmakers as president of the nonprofit Voices for Florida's Children, says politicians face numerous demands on their time, but getting their attention doesn't mean you have to play party politics. You just have to learn how to be an advocate.

"Advocates don't believe any party has the leg up," says Levine, who started Advocacy Resources two years ago. "The ideal policy poker game is when legislators see a need and outbid each other for the solution."

One of the biggest mistakes organizations make is assuming that a good cause alone is persuasive enough, Levine says. "What's persuasive is a clear message delivered by a diversity of messengers."

Levine has culled the following 10 tips from his experiences to help board members, volunteers and the people vested in a cause get their message heard by policymakers. And by the way, these same tips work in the for-profit world as well.

A TOP 10 INSIDER'S GUIDE TO LEGISLATIVE ADVOCACY The most persuasive messages come from familiar faces. Know them by name and make sure they know you. There's no substitute for face-to-face meetings. "They're the top of the hierarchy in building relationships," says Levine, who as a children's advocate made about 175 trips around the state per year. "In person you can gauge what people are reacting to." Invite officials to community partnership programs for conversations and photos. "When it comes to creating a positive impression, seeing is believing," Levine says.

1. Don't be a stranger to your elected officials and their staff.

2. Introduce yourself at every opportunity. Always have business cards with you and hand them out like candy at Halloween. Ask for cards from others and send them a note or e-mail within a day or two of the meeting.

3. Always say "thank you" before you say "please." Even if you disagree with your elected official's positions on some (or even most) issues, they are more likely to listen to you if you've found some way to praise them. "The ego among decision makers is huge," Levine says. "People like to be complimented and thanked. At a minimum, tell them thanks for serving."

4. A brief, well-written thank-you note is always appreciated. Remember, officials get 25 complaints for every compliment. E-mail may be efficient, but "there's nothing more effective than a real letter with a real signature," Levine says.

5. The hometown connection is essential to help elected officials listen with both ears. Concentrate on principles of policy, rather than too many specifics. Trust that your "everyday professional advocates" know the details; your job is to set the stage with your elected officials and to pave the way for your allied advocates at the Capitol.

6. Always be concise. The issue or program you advocate should be compressed into a paragraph and a two-minute presentation. The key to influence is not volume, but precision. Every industry has jargon. Avoid it, Levine says. "Children's advocates will talk about the continuum of care," Levine says. "Audiences will think, 'Oh, I thought they needed healthcare and a place to live.'" Elected officials are not experts, but don't want to be overwhelmed with your knowledge. Have them trust you as someone to turn to for more details if they are needed.

7. Schmooze the newsies. Engage the media who have the power to send your message far and wide. An expert source and passionate volunteer are golden to every reporter and editorial writer, but be careful: They should not perceive you as seeking publicity.

8. Write letters to the editor. Submit guest op-ed columns and encourage allies to do the same. The opinion pages are read word for word by public officials. It's where powerful people test the pulse of the thinking community.

9. Advocacy requires the art of compromise. Never expect it all. "While we strive for unanimity, we work for majority," says Levine. There's a difference between compromising principles (a no-no) and a healthy policy discussion.

10. While there's strength in diversity, there's power in unity. Bring as many diverse voices to your cause as possible, but reach a unifying message. Agree on the important unifying goals, and success will be achieved. "Most people want to do good," Levine says. "And what's persuasive is a clear message delivered by a powerful messenger-someone who is on the board or someone who volunteers."

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