Several years ago, I interned at a nonprofit organization in Washington, DC and met a fellow intern who had near-perfect knowledge of current (and historical) congressional offices. The “Wiz Kid” viewed his love of congressional stats the way other people love baseball – he could rattle off historical data about the fifth district of Georgia the way others could tell you about the Mets’ 2015 season.
If he represented what most advocacy professionals knew, I was convinced that government relations was not the profession for me. I am terrible with numbers. Surely I would visit a congressional office and confuse the district numbers or accidently say the name of a former representative (and worse, of the opposing party).
After some organizational changes, I made my way to a role at Independent Sector focused on advocacy and government relations, and have quickly learned that the Wiz Kid’s deep knowledge was, in fact, an anomaly, rather than the norm for people in my role. When I visit congressional offices, staffers treat me with respect, and understand that I am a subject matter expert.
This is a core tenet of Independent Sector’s philosophy – all nonprofit employees are subject matter experts in their specific area, and therefore the perfect advocates to help policymakers better design public policies to serve those affected by their issue areas.
Over the last few years, with help from my colleagues who have worked on the Hill, I have learned how best to prepare myself and represent my organization when visiting congressional offices. It’s exciting work, and not nearly as intimidating as I first thought it would be. In some ways, it is made all the less intimidating as staffers continue to take meetings virtually, due to the pandemic, rather than rushing between back-to-back meetings or navigating the dank tunnels of Congress.
If you are ready to advocate on behalf of your organization’s interests, but need a place to start, here is a step-by-step guide to demystify the process. I’ve written this guide with congressional offices in mind, but you can also use the same steps for your local policymakers, too.
- Send an Initial Meeting Request
As I began to take meetings without my colleagues, I set the goal of reaching out to all freshman congressional offices by the end of 2021. I excel when I have a defined target, and with that list in mind, I set forth to divide and conquer. To make it easier, I split up the 64 offices into three groups of about 20, aiming to keep state delegations together. With our government relations software, I found legislative assistants whose portfolios aligned with Independent Sector’s priorities. From there, it was only a matter of sending out about 20 emails with several blocks of time I had available over the next two weeks. And then – the waiting game.
- Follow Up
Though about a third of offices would respond promptly, 12 offices left me hanging. I’d wait another week before responding to my initial email outreach, offering again several blocks of free time over the subsequent two weeks. When I did receive a response from an office, I would immediately create a meeting invite with Zoom links and attachments (AKA leave-behind materials) covering topics I would talk about in our meeting.
- Do Your Homework
On the day of the meeting, I would research the Representative, spending time learning about their voting record and nonprofit sector organizations in their district or state. These specifics don’t always come up in these meetings, but it helps me feel more prepared and ready to discuss with the office.
- Dress to Impress
I know that I only increase my own confidence when I look put together. Though I have met with staffers who were dressed in the spectrum of today’s professional attire (everything from sweat sets to shirt and tie), I have my two favorite button downs always ready for these meetings.
- Connections and Introductions
If you take away one piece of advice from this post, I hope it is this: my main aim for these meetings is not to convince anyone to do anything, but rather to build relationships. With this framing in mind, I start off by talking about myself and my role at Independent Sector. I am ready to be friendly and inquisitive. Are you yourself from the district? How long have you been working in this congressional office? These are just a few questions that help me get to know the staffer better, and often I learn more about the district itself.
- Why I’m Here
Ok, ok, ok – I know I just said that the main aim of these meetings is to build relationships, but it wouldn’t hurt to get our issues out in front of the staffer. I usually come prepared with two different types of asks: either a specific policy ask (put this bill in front of your boss to consider co-sponsorship) or FYI (we are working on this issue area and when it comes up, I hope you’ll think of us as a resource).
As I learned how to conduct these meetings, I took hints and tricks from my government relations colleagues, who modeled how best to build a well-practiced script for these meetings. Of course, I freshen it up with each office I visit, but I have now learned how to tell the story of our work and how legislators can help us get to where we want to go.
Once I have gone through my presentation, I ask the staffer about their office’s priorities and how my organization can be a resource. I like to end the discussion this way as I reminder that both of us have resources and skills we can share to help each other.
- Follow Up Email
Finally, within a day or two, I follow up with a thank you email, attaching any material we spoke about in the meeting.
And that’s all it takes. Remember, these initial meetings are meant mostly to establish relationships and rapport with policymakers – you never know when something will come up in the office and they’ll think of you. Happy advocating!