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Ethical Lobbying is NOT an Oxymoron

How To Trick Your Legislators Into Doing What You Want

The U.S. Constitution and You: Why the Constitution is Still Relevant Today

What if the Declaration of Independence Had Been Composed on Twitter?

What NOT to Say When Advocating

Easy, Easier, Easiest: Tips for Connecting with Policymakers and Staff at Home

Why I LOVE Paying My Taxes

What’s In and What’s Out for 2009

Why the Legislative Process is Like Thanksgiving Dinner

Make the Darn Ask!

Jazzing Up Your Advocacy:  Five Lessons from New Orleans

Ethical Lobbying is NOT an Oxymoron

Now, before you get all upset asking “who are you calling a moron?,” let me explain myself here. Too often, people think that anyone who tries to influence legislators will be successful only if they strut around Capitol Hill with great big wads of cash and very little substance. While I certainly have no intention of apologizing for some of the crazy things that happen in politics (Illinois, I’m looking at you), I can say that the most effective ways to influence policy have less to do with cash and more to do with citizens.
That’s right. I’m making the shocking assertion here that citizen voices matter when influencing elected officials – everyone from your local city council to the U.S. Congress.

In fact, it’s the power of individual voices that has driven the recent trend toward “real people”-based grassroots advocacy campaigns. Organizations large and small recognize the power of connecting citizens, whether members of an association, employees or the general public, with their legislators.

Unfortunately, as this trend has developed so too has a series of serious abuses – from companies sending fake grassroots letters to Capitol Hill to organizations encouraging screaming matches and disrespectful (and sometimes downright dangerous) behavior at townhall meetings. So is it time to consider an ethical “code of conduct” for grassroots advocacy campaigns? I think so, and not just because I’m a goody two-shoes.

Why do I think this is important? A grassroots code of ethics would help all of us seeking to improve policy (granted from our own specific perspectives) in a variety of ways.

• First, it could be helpful in putting an end to the egregious practices utilized by some practitioners to capture the attention of policymakers.
• Second, it could help reduce skepticism on the part of policymakers about the legitimacy of advocacy communications received as part of an orchestrated campaign.
• Third, it could help grassroots practitioners recognize and implement techniques that are both effective and ethical.
• Fourth, it could help those hiring grassroots vendors differentiate between those organizations that adhere to strict ethical guidelines and those that do not.
• Finally, it could play a role in the ongoing development of a robust, well-functioning democracy in which citizens can connect with elected officials in meaningful ways.

This final point is based on the premise that although many grassroots advocacy campaigns are planned, they are not, by virtue of that planning, illegitimate. In the vast majority of cases, those planning grassroots advocacy campaigns are seeking ethical and effective ways to connect citizens interested in a specific policy topic with decision makers in a way that might influence policy outcomes.

So what might be included in a code of ethics? I’ve developed some ideas that you can access at (or, feel free to e-mail me and I’ll be happy to send you the materials). In general, they boil down to legitimacy, authenticity, relevance, transparency, civility and honesty. If it sounds like everything you learned in kindergarten, well, you’d be right.

We’ll be talking about these concepts and how they might practically apply in a grassroots campaign at the forum on January 27th. Whether you agree strenuously or disagree vehemently, I hope you’ll consider taking a look and sharing your views – but no yelling!

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How to Trick Your Legislators Into Doing What You Want

Today’s tip is, appropriately, on how to trick your legislators into doing what you want. Get it? Halloween? Trick or Treating? Try and stay with me here. If you think about it, isn’t Halloween really about using your influence to extract resources from people in authority? We can all learn a great deal from some of the 7-year olds in our communities, particularly in their approach to the time honored tradition of trick-or-treating. Following are a few lessons I’ve learned from my experiences with the scariest holiday of the year.
Be Adorable: I’m not really the most “kid-friendly” person, but I must admit that when a small child of between 4 and 10, dressed as a fairy princess or spider man or even George Will (I live in DC, remember) comes to my door on Halloween, I can be suckered in — especially when they approach all breathless with anticipation at the very idea of coercing candy out of mean old Ms. Vance simply by lisping “trick or treat.” After dumping half the candy bowl in their sacks, I’ve heard these same sweet little cherubs run screaming down the stairs saying, with no discernable lisp whatsoever, “Yo, yo, yo — I got some awesome candy at that mean lady’s house.” While I’m not suggesting that you dress in a fairy princess costume to meet with your legislators, I do suggest that you figure out how to be most appealing. Walking into a members’ office and demanding that since a) you pay their salary with your tax dollars and b) they work for you, they should c) do whatever you say without question or d) you’ll fire them is not so adorable. Try suckering them in with a positive approach – then hit them up for ? the candy bowl.
Stand Out From the Crowd: How many Vampire outfits do you think you’ll see this year? Wouldn’t it be nice to see something different? I remember one year I went trick or treating as Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. OK, not so unusual except that I took my Irish Wolfhound Megan as Toto. I cleaned up. I was eating free candy for months (or at least what I could extract from my mother). The point is that I stood out from the crowd. How do you stand out from the crowd of people communicating with legislators? Simply by doing things other people rarely do, such as expressing an interest in the legislator’s issues, telling a personal, thoughtful story (instead of a mass-produced e-mail or postcard) and timing your communication so that it coincides with a decision point in the process. In so doing, you are tricking the system they have in place for dealing with the thousands of communications they get per week — and you will in turn gain more personal attention.
Don’t Be Greedy (Or, As a Corollary, Be Grateful): Everyone has had the experience of having a trick-or-treater at the door that wants more than his or her fair share — and actually has the gall to ask for it. While I’m a huge fan of “making the ask”, I’m not a huge fan of asking for too much. Frankly, it turns me off when, in reaction to my presentation of an appropriate amount of candy, a trick-or-treater says “geez, is that all? Mrs. Jones down the street gives everyone five pieces.” It doesn’t make me want to hand out more candy. It makes me want to reach into their snot-nosed little candy sack and take back what I already gave (see, I told you I was mean). Anyone “trick or treating” at their legislatures should practice making the ask and then saying “thank you” for what may be received. Effective advocates will wipe that disappointed frown off their face and maintain a positive relationship with elected officials — next year they may be able to be more generous.
Don’t Threaten: While “trick-or-treat” in the traditional sense is a threat (i.e., if you don’t give me a treat, I’ll pull a trick on you) I don’t recommend threatening your legislators. Whether it’s TP’ing their house or voting against them, threats are not only ineffective, but harmful to your relationship with the legislator.
Maintain a Reputation for Having the “Good Stuff”: OK, I know that sounds a little vulgar (and I’ll have difficulty making it through some spam filters). The “good stuff”, in this case, is the really good candy. You know what I mean. Real Snickers’ instead of the Costco brand generic “Snuckers”. Popcorn balls dripping in honey. M&M’s, Starbursts, Hershey’s Chocolate bars — mmm, I’m getting hungry just thinking about it. Just as candy is the currency for Halloween, information is the currency for the policy process. As an advocate, it is important to have quality information on the issues you care about. This includes whatever national facts, figures and trends you can get from a national group, state-level information and, most important, stories and statistics about how your policies impact people on a district-by-district basis. Your legislators are eager to know people in their districts that can answer their questions on specific policy issues. Become one of those people by doing your research — and developing a great reputation as a repository of good information.
See? Who knew there was so much to learn from Halloween? Now get our there and engage in a little trick or treating of your own with your legislators — you may be surprised at what treats you’ll get if you ask!

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The U.S. Constitution and You!

September 17th, 2009 will be celebrated far and wide as U.S. Constitution Day.  OK, maybe not so far and wide.  In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if no one has heard of it.  But on this date in 1787, 39 brave men (yes, they were all men) signed what would become one of the most important documents of all time.  In fact, I argue that it is right up there with the Magna Carta, the Ten Commandments and, of course, the Harry Potter series (I’ll let you decide the order).

“Hey, wait a minute, hold on,” you’re thinking.  “I keep hearing that no one in Washington, DC pays much attention to the Constitution these days.”  Yes, if you listen to recent news reports you might believe that.  But the truth is that many of the crazy things you see going on in Washington, DC can be traced back to the principles and procedures laid out in this historic document.

Read on, gentle reader, for my thoughts on three lessons we can learn from the Convention and the Constitution that apply today.  Just imagine how popular you’ll be at all those Constitution Day cocktail parties you’ll be attending!

Lesson One —- Bickering, Partisanship — and Compromise:  Even without political parties as we know them today, the framers of the Constitution certainly managed to display partisanship.  In fact, the debates at the Constitutional Convention between those wanting a wholly national government and those wanting more power for the states make the discussions over health care reform look like child’s play.

While the speeches were full of “the fine Gentleman from New York” and “the distinguished gentleman from Virginia,” Madison’s notes on the Convention make clear that the delegates certainly disagreed, frequently and heartily with one another.  Their first step was to develop rules for how to proceed and they couldn’t even do that without discussions over how to keep the minutes and whether delegates could call for the yeas and nays.  Almost makes me glad we have a House Rules Committee.

The lesson here, however, is that in spite of (or perhaps because of) the intense disagreements, they did reach a series of compromises on critical issues.  While not everyone could agree (3 delegates of the 42 that regularly attended the convention did not sign), both sides recognized that the cost of intransigence was too high.

Lesson Two —- The Balance Between People and Government:  It’s no coincidence that the Constitution starts out “we the people.”  The people who created it had a passion for creating their own system of government (without the assistance of a monarch, thank you very much.)  At the same time, too many people think that “we the people,” translates to “me the people”: in other words, that the principle of self–governance embodied in the Constitution means that if you don’t like what “the government” is doing, then “the government” is automatically wrong.

The delegates debated long and hard over how to best strike a balance between the rights of individuals to do anything they want and the power of a central government to either curtail those rights or, in a rosier light, encourage individuals toward a more civic–minded perspective.  For example, from a very practical perspective, the power to raise taxes might be something that most individuals aren’t all that fond of — but it sure helped with the building of roads and post offices in the late 1700’s.

Perhaps the best example of the balance that was struck during the convention (and later remedied) was the agreement NOT to include a Bill of Rights.  Although some delegates and watchers were dismayed (Thomas Jefferson most notably), a conscious decision was made not to enumerate these rights in the document.

The lesson here is not that these rights aren’t important (of course they are), but rather that the question of the balance between individual rights and government responsibility is as old as the hills.  No matter where you fall on the spectrum, it is folly to suggest that “we the people” and “government action” are incompatible.

Lesson Three —- Checks and Balance (and Inaction):  If you were running a business, an association or a family, would you want to have two separate elected bodies and an executive agree to every decision you made?  How about if all those decisions were subject to review by yet another group of people (i.e., the Supreme Court)?  How balanced would your budget be if everyone in your community got to decide what you spent your money on?  If you review the three branches of government and their myriad checks and balances, you’ll recognize that the compromises necessary to achieve a near consensus also resulted in a somewhat convoluted process for actually getting things done.

The lesson here is that with the many checks and balances inherent in our legislative process, advocates need to expect inaction.  Our system is designed to be slow moving and deliberative, with a great respect for and some fear of, the power of centralized government.  For those that point to the “fast moving” health care bill moving through the House and Senate, let me point out that we’ve been talking about Health Care reform since the enactment of Medicare in 1966.  The good news is that persistent and effective advocacy can often outlast the process.  But it doesn’t happen overnight.

I recognize that the last time you had to read about the three branches of government, checks and balances, the constitutional convention and blah–blah–blah was probably sometime in middle school.  You may even have thought after your last U.S. history exam that none of this could have any application to your life!

The truth, however is that the constitutional convention debates both foreshadowed and anticipated the difficulties we’re having today.  Partisan bickering? Check. Questions over individual rights? Check.  A complete inability to get anything done? Check.

Despite all this, the delegates were able to construct an astonishing document that still has relevance in the day–to–day lives of all citizens today.  I hope that rather than seeing the constitution as a weapon, persistent and reasonable advocates will see it as a tool to achieve policy change — all you have to do is get most of “we the people” to agree!

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What if the Declaration of Independence Had Been Composed on Twitter?

So, I was reading through the Declaration of Independence the other day (what? you weren’t?) and I was struck, as I often am, by a few key things about this visionary statement.  I share these thoughts with you today because, of course, this last weekend was the fourth of July – and the whole reason we get a nice day off just two weeks into summer is because the Declaration was signed on July 4th in 1776.

Of course, 1776 was a long time ago, so as I was reading the somewhat old-fashioned words I wondered, what would this look like today? Would we, for example, talk about “people” being created equal as opposed to “men?”  Would there be fewer random capitalized letters?  And what if this had been written and promulgated on Twitter?”  Would it look something like this?

Dudes. The King doesn’t get it. Government should secure our inalienable rights, not take them away. We’re bailing to start our own country.

There it is, short and sweet – the essence of the DoI (as the kids would say these days.)  At any rate, regardless of where you stand on whether the Twitter DoI improves or weakens its power, the sentiments behind it are something that advocates from all walks of life can draw strength from.

There are four things about the Declaration that I find particularly compelling, specifically:

  • It Helped Remove a Terrible Tyrant:  I recognize that there are people in the world today suffering under worse.  However, next time you’re frustrated that Senator so-and-so or Representative-such-and-such doesn’t agree with you, be glad that there is a Senator so-and-so or a Representative such-and-such for you to talk to.  At the time of the Declaration, citizens really had no one to address their grievances to – and the government had already “. . . plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns and destroyed the lives of our people.”  For some of us, this might help put some of our policy woes in a little perspective.
  • It’s a Great Example of Forward Thinking:  The Declaration doesn’t say “we think we should be independent” or “independence is a good thing and here’s why.”  It says “we ARE independent.”  Those who crafted this statement understood the power of stating vision as reality.  Next time you’re having advocacy difficulties, look in the mirror and say to yourself “we have already achieved our policy goal,” and live in the world where your vision is achieved.  Who knows?  Others might join you.
  • It Offers the Best Darn Reason for Government I’ve Heard Yet:  The Declaration suggests that governments are instituted among men (read: people) for the purpose of securing the basic rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  Of all the reasons I’ve heard to have a government (for protection, for commerce, because we’ve always done things this way), this is undoubtedly the best.
  • It Sets the Stage for Citizen Advocacy:  Finally, and most important, the Declaration makes clear that government power comes from the consent of the governed.  But how will government know when people consent (and when they don’t?)  That’s where citizen advocacy — true citizen advocacy beyond simply voting — comes in.  Clearly, those brave people expected us to be part of the process.  In fact, they demanded that we be part of the process and would not take no for an answer.

So what are you waiting for?  Honor the Declaration of Independence and get out there and get advocating!

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What NOT to Say When Advocating

Every policymaker and his or her staff have tales to tell about their, well, “interesting” meetings.  Like those advocates who start their pitch with, “you never agree with me and always take money from the other side.  I don’t even know why I’m here.  But do you think you could vote for this legislation?  What if I paid for your vote with a big campaign contribution?”  With a few notable exceptions (you know who I’m talking about), that approach is likely to get you shown to the door – and quick.

Or how about those folks who are outraged to meet with a staff person instead of an elected official?  They may say something like “I have to meet with just you?  Isn’t there someone more important I can talk to?  I don’t think you’ll be able to understand this complicated issue.”  Hmmm, that doesn’t sound like a good way to make friends and influence people.

And then there are those groups that literally back policymakers in to a corner at public events, all the while shaking their fingers and saying things like “We demand an answer right now.  After all, we pay your salary.  You better do what we say.”  Again, while you may be thinking that, saying it is not always the best way to get opinion leaders on your side.

Needless to say, this is no way to get your policy interest heard on Capitol Hill.  Yet many advocates continue to believe that offering to buy votes, being rude to the staff and overwhelming an office with demands for answers works.  With a new administration, new Congress and, unfortunately, many of the same old problems, more people than ever are expected to reach out to their elected officials and staff people to discuss policy issues.  If you’re interested in making a difference, it’s critically important to know what NOT to say to elected officials and their staff.  Some of these tips may surprise you!
Number 10:  But I thought my appointment was with the Senator.  I don’t want to meet with “just staff.”
Never, ever indicate that you are disappointed to be meeting with a staff person.  On Capitol Hill, having a good relationship with a staff person can make or break your cause.
Number 9:  Here’s some reading material for you – our 300 page annual report.
When meeting with a member of Congress or staff person, try to limit your leave behind materials to one or two pages, and include details on where this information can be located on the web, if appropriate.  Offering the information in a file folder with your organization’s name on the label will also help ensure that the materials are put in a file drawer, as opposed to the round file.
Number 8:  How much of a campaign contribution did your boss get to vote against (or for) this bill?
Believe it or not, most staff have no idea who contributed to their boss’ campaigns.  Not only is this question insulting, but even if it were accurate, the staff person isn’t likely to know.
Number 7:  I assume you know all about HR 1234.
With thousands of bills being introduced during each Congress, no staff person will be able to keep them all straight.  Always provide information on the bill title, number and general provisions when communicating with a Congressional office.
Number 6:  No, I don’t have an appointment, but I promise I’ll only take ½ hour of your time.
Unless it’s an emergency, or you are good friends with the elected official or staff person, try not to engage in the dreaded “stop-by.”  Most staff are happy to try to set up a meeting if you are relevant to the office (i.e., you are a constituent).
Number 5:  No, I don’t really need anything specific.
If you don’t ask for something – a bill cosponsorship, a congressional record statement, a meeting in the district, whatever – some staff will wonder why you came by.  Updates on your issue are fine, so long as they are accompanied by a request.  That will ensure that someone in the office thinks about you and your issue for longer than 5 minutes.
Number 4:  What you’re telling me can’t be right.  I heard Jon Stewart of The Daily Show say otherwise.
Jon Stewart is hilarious.  But the phrase “opening monologue” should be a big clue as to whether you should take his assertions with a grain of salt.  Most staff, or members for that matter, won’t lie to you.  They know that lying will get them in big trouble.  Sometimes, they may see things differently than you do, but if they say a bill definitely is not going to be considered on the floor, or if there is no such legislation, I’d believe them.  A perfect example is a petition that was floating around the Internet about a House bill number 602P from a Congressman Schnell that would impose fees on use of e-mail.  There is no such thing as either House bill 602P (that’s not even a possible number), nor is there a Congressman Schnell.
Number 3:  We have 10 (or more) people in our group.
Congressional offices are tiny.  If you have more than 5 people in your group, you’ll be standing out in the hallway.  Plus, having so many people talking at once can dilute the impact of your message.  Try to limit your group to no more than 5.
Number 2:  What do you mean we have to stand in the hall?
See number 3.  A request to meet in the hallway is simply an indication of space limitations.  Nothing else.
Number 1:  No, I don’t represent anyone from your district.  I just thought you’d be interested in what I have to say.
Members are elected to represent their constituents.  Period.  If you are not their constituent, you are not relevant to them.  Some members do rise to higher positions, but that just means they represent the interest of other members, not the entire nation.  Your time is always best spent working with your own elected official and turning them into an advocate for your cause.

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Easy, Easier, Easiest: Tips for Connecting with Policymakers and Staff at Home

Memorial Day usually marks the start of summer.  In advocacy land, it also marks the start of “build your relationship” season.  OK, I confess, I made that up.  But I’m not making up the fact that summer is a great time to build relationships with policymakers and their staff.  That’s why this edition of the tipsheet focuses on “Easy,” “Easier,” and “Easiest” options for making this summer the best advocacy season ever!  Go Advocacy!

  • Easy — Setting Up Local Events:  Legislators and their staff will be back in their districts and states many, many (many) times this summer.  I swear, you’ll be sick of them (if you aren’t already).  In addition to their weekends back at home, they will also be there for the Fourth of July and August District Work Periods (we used to call them “recesses” but that just sounded like too much fun).  For more information about the Congressional schedule, check out the House and Senate schedule pages.

Take advantage of the time they are spending at home to visit with them either in regular old meeting or, even better, in a site visit.  Show them how the policy issues you care about connect to something (or someone) specific in the district.  These types of local events make policy issues real for legislators because, believe it or not, sometimes that aren’t as aware of what’s going on outside the beltway as we’d like them to be.

The good news is that setting up a local meeting or event is relatively easy.  Well, OK, I’ll admit I’m cheating here.  It’s easier than flying to DC, for example, or running a marathon (I’ve done that, I know).  But there are really just five steps involved, specifically:

    • Develop a plan:  What would you like to show the elected officials or staff people?  Who should attend?  What or who will be compelling?  What can you show that connects to policy issues?
    • Issue the invitation:  Once you’ve come up with an exciting plan, contact the legislator’s local staff people and see what can be arranged.  Whatever you do, DON’T ignore the staff.  In fact, you might want to have an initial visit with the staff as a “test run.”  They can be some of your biggest allies in getting the members themselves engaged.
    • Secure the appointment:  This is a step all by itself because it generally takes several communications via e-mail, fax and phone to get a meeting time set, especially when seeking a member-level meeting.  Only the persistent survive this process.
    • Conduct the visit:  This is, in fact, one of easiest steps.  Be sure you have all the logistics in place for planned (and unplanned) aspects of the event.  In addition to all the logistics of the visit itself, you’ll want to have a photographer, someone taking notes and a plan in place for scheduling, transportation or weather problems (or be prepared to control the weather – your choice).
    • Follow-up:  Did the visit happen if you don’t follow-up?  No, it sure didn’t.  Be sure you know what the official or staff person was most interested in and whether you need to answer any questions.  And send those pictures to the legislator’s office!  They serve as photographic evidence of their interest in your issues.

If you’re thinking about doing your own event, let me know.  I’ll send tipsheet readers a free “site visit template” appendix from my new book,The Advocacy Handbook:  A Practitioner’s Guide just for the asking.  So ask by e-mailing me at

    • Easier — Build on Existing Events (Your Own or Theirs):  Even easier than setting up a whole new event is to build on anything you’ve already got going on (or anything your elected officials have going on).  These might include:
      • Townhall Meetings:  When they are back in their districts for the district work periods, many members of Congress hold townhall meetings to hear from their constituents.  Take advantage of these opportunities to bend their ear for a short time about the issues that matter to you most.  Take a look at their websites (you can find them through or simply call their offices to find out when they will be holding these meetings in your area.
      • Your Own Events:  Whether you are a business, a school, a public institution or simply a concerned citizen, it’s possible you have events this summer you’re already arranging that it might be appropriate to invite your legislators to attend.  Are you having a company-wide BBQ?  A community fair or block party?  Summer reading programs or book sales at your school or library?  A 5K walk or run for a specific cause?  A neighborhood garage sale to benefit a specific charity?  Take a minute to look at any events you’re working on to see if an elected official or their staff might want to stop by.  You might be surprised at what they’d like to do!


  • Easiest:  Building a Relationship from the Safety of Your Couch:  OK, I admit it.  There are times in the “dog days” of summer (like the middle of August, for example) that even the Advocacy Guru can’t get all excited about getting out there and doing advocacy.  But have no fear!  There are plenty of things you can do just sitting in your office (or on your couch), like:
    • Friend Your Elected Officials on Facebook:  Believe it or not, most of them are on there.  Take some time to check out their web pages and connect with them online.  And friend me too while you’re there at
    • Sign up for their Twitter and/or Blog feed:  It’s kind of fun to read tweets from legislators while they’re attending the State of the Union or other DC or State Capitol activities.  And, at a minimum, you’ll be the first to get the dirt when a legislator accidentally sends an inappropriate tweet (happens all the time and it’s really funny).  Just go to, set up an account (if you haven’t already) and search for your legislators.  Oh, and you can follow me if you want.  My user ID is AdvocacyGuru.  I try not to send out inappropriate tweets, but you never know what might happen.
    • Check out the “degrees of separation” between you and your legislators on Linked In: This is especially useful if you’re trying to get to a legislator who you haven’t had a lot of success with in the past.  Once you have an account set up, you can run a search on that legislator and you’ll find not only the legislator themselves, in many cases, but connections to current and past staff and supporters.  These may even be people you know or may be closely related to people you know.
    • Utilize online resources to research your legislators (in preparation for your next in-person interaction):  Whenever you approach your legislators or their staff, it’s always a good idea to know something about what makes them tick.  You should be knowledgeable about some key things related to your legislators, such as what policy issues interest them, what committees they are on, whether they have any personal relationship to your issues or even what hobbies they have.  This will help you frame your advocacy message in a way that captures their attention.  Feel free to use my Legislator Profile worksheet if you like.

In exploring some of the easy, easier, easiest options noted here, you may just be able to finally get those legislators to pay some attention to your issues – even during the summer!

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Why We Should all LOVE Paying Our Taxes

When you’re in the midst of a recession that has been compared, and not favorably, to the Great Depression, the last thing you might want to do is pay thousands of dollars in taxes to the Federal government.  And yet that’s what millions of Americans will have to do on April 15th (or risk scrutiny by the IRS).   If you’re not skipping merrily down to the post office all excited about the investments you get to make in our nation’s infrastructure, safety and human services, just repeat to yourself one (or all) of these mantras.  You might not wind up skipping, but hopefully you’ll feel a little better.

I’m Making Investments in My Country Citizens around the country and, indeed, the world have been mesmerized by the stand-off between Somali pirates and Captain Richard Phillips of the Maersk Alabama.  And while that stand-off ended less-than-optimally through violence, how was the Captain rescued?  That’s right, by Navy SEALS.  And who pays for those Navy SEALS?  That’s right, you do.  Now, granted, Navy SEALS may not be your thing.  What about roads?  Parks?  Health care for the poor and elderly?  Food stamps?  Public broadcasting?  In fact, whatever your particular interest is, some portion of your tax dollars are going toward that project. If you’re curious as to where your tax dollars go, check out the National Priorities Project and their interactive tax chart.  Here you can enter the amount of taxes you actually paid (if it doesn’t make you cry) and determine where those dollars went.  Then, as you’re filling out your 1040, pretend to yourself that you’re making a donation to the programs you love best.  You can even include that in the “memo” portion of the check – believe me, IRS workers have seen it all. That might ease the pain a little.

My Taxes Benefit Me Directly If you’re not convinced by the broader benefits to society that paying your taxes brings, think about it from a purely selfish perspective.  Every minute of every day you are impacted positively by government actions.  Think about it.  Did you wake up this morning?  If you did and heard the clock radio alarm or watched television, you were affected by FCC regulation of the radio spectrum.  Did you take a shower?  Clean water regulations (hopefully).  Have some coffee?  Trade tariffs on coffee beans.  With cream?  Dairy price supports.  Use the restroom?  You better hope there are combined sewer overflow regulations in your area.  Drive on a road? Well, you get the point. If you want to test this out, pick a day when you’ll stop every few moments to write down how government affects you (you can even use Twitter, if you’re so inclined).  Then, imagine that your personal tax dollars are bringing you these benefits.  In fact, I’ll be doing this through my Twitter feed on April 15th, so sign up to follow AdvocacyGuru and see what I come up with!

I’ll Gain Access to Potential Perks You know the old adage “you’ve got to spend money to make money?”  Well, that definitely applies in the tax world.  This year, thanks to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and other recently passed bills, Americans can claim all kinds of credits on their returns.  The catch is, you’ve got to file to get the cash.   For example, raise your hand if you lost money in the stock market.  Wait, wait, I can’t see over all the hands!  Well, if you sold your stocks at a loss before the end of the year, you may be able to claim that loss on your taxes.  If you bought a car or a house, more credits may be coming your way.  So take a careful look at all the existing and new deductions and credits.  You may be surprised at what you’ll gain!

I’ll Avoid Public Humiliation and Additional Fees (and possible Jail Time) Famed mobster Al Capone wasn’t sent to jail for the many violent crimes he allegedly committed.  No, what brought him down was tax evasion.  And, although they certainly shouldn’t be equated with mobsters, tax problems have dashed the career hopes of everyone from cabinet nominees like Tom Daschle to the coffee shop owner here in DC who just didn’t pay his local taxes for about ten years.  With penalties and fees, his tax bill topped $400,000 – and now he’s out of business.   Whether you’re concerned about how your tax situation will be addressed during your nomination hearing, or just want to avoid losing your business, it’s important to stay on top of your tax obligations.  In fact, many employers now look at how individuals manage their finances as one important hiring criterion.  You don’t want to lose your dream job because you just couldn’t bring yourself to write that check on April 15th.

 I Have the Right (and Responsibility) to Advocate on Government Spending “But wait,” you’re thinking.  “The main reason I don’t want to pay my taxes is because government spends my money on things I don’t like.”  Sure, it’s all very well and good to imagine that you’re spending money ONLY on those government programs that make sense to you.  But as a practical matter, that isn’t really the case, is it? Well, here’s the most wonderful thing about our tax system and our overall system of government.  If you don’t like where your tax dollars are being spent, you have a right and a responsibility to let your elected officials know!  For example, if you paid $5,000 in taxes, you’ll find out that $1,470 went to the military and just over $1,000 went to health services.  For some people those ratios are just fine:  others believe that more should be going toward non-military programs.  Wherever you stand on the spectrum, let your elected officials know what you think we should be investing in as a nation.  You can reach them through a site like

When All Else Fails…

If things get too stressful just try to be thankful that at least you’ve got some income to pay taxes on, right?  There are too many Americans struggling to make ends meet (especially in this economic climate).  So sit back and relax with a little television – and who knows?  That show might not have made it to your set without some sort of taxpayer investment.

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What’s ‘In’ (and What’s “Out”) in Effective Advocacy

For a variety of reasons (both good and bad) I’ve had the opportunity to spend some time in quiet reflection the last few months.  On the positive side, my husband Tim and I spent a week in early January scuba diving in Belize.  Nothing like communing with the very quiet fishes to make one think about effective advocacy.

On the negative side, I didn’t get to do as much scuba diving as I would have liked because I fell and sprained my ankle, bruised my knee and broke my finger on Christmas Day.  There’s a long story about how that all happened, but the short story is that it involved a dog, a squirrel and a leash.

The many hours I spent in late December and early January laying on the couch and icing what felt like 75% of my body gave me the opportunity to think about things like New Year’s Resolutions, goals for 2009 and the like.  For example, I decided that 2009 would be the year of not falling down.  It also may be the year of dog obediance training.

In the midst of all this contemplation came what felt like a tsunami of change, embodied in the 2 million Americans that came to Washington, DC to witnesses the swearing in of a new president.  Apparently, there’s a new sherrif in town with a new way of doing things.  Oil is out and Green Energy is in.  Pure Bred First Dogs are out and Mutts from the local shelter are in.  Economic distress is out and – oh, wait, that’s still continuing.

Perhaps most signficant from our perspective is the idea that dysfunctional government is out and government that works is in.  While I’m not exactly holding my breath on this one, I do fervently believe that our only hope of ever achieving that goal is through effective citizen-based advocacy.

So in the spirit of what’s “in” and what’s “out” in this new era of change, change, change this edition of the tipsheet offers my own top five advocacy ins-and-outs.  Enjoy!

Out In
Panicking Planning – The next time the government gives away 850+ billion dollars, it might be nice to be a little better positioned to make the most of these funds for your good cause, right?  Take some time to set goals, including:

  • Internal:  What do you want your network and overall GR effort to look like?  How can you prepare them to be ready to advocate at the drop of a hat (or the Dow?)
  • External:  How do you want those outside your organization to view your work?  How can you attract them to your cause?
  • Short Term:  What needs to happen in the next few months?
  • Long Term:  How can you build relationships for the future?  Where do you want to be in five years?  10?


Mavericks (a.k.a. going it alone) Coalitions – Playing nicely with others sends the message that your policy perspectives are reasonable, universally liked and, hence, easier for an elected official to support.  Take some time to build your coalitions by:

  • Identifying up to five new potential partners to help you advocate for your cause.
  • Matching your partners with your audience, so the right people are delivering a message that will resonate
  • Being creative!  What’s the craziest partner you can come up with?  You may not decide to approach them, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to brainstorm.


Quantity Communications Quality Communications – Be sure you’re up-to-speed on the trend toward fewer, more thoughtful communications.  Studies show they have far more impact than form communications.  For each communication ask yourself:

  • How can I establish relevance with the audience?
  • What does my audience care about?  Why would they care about what I have to say?
  • How can I personalize the communication with my own story?


Being Secretive Training Others – Effective advocacy isn’t (or shouldn’t be) a secretive black box.  All citizens should know how to get their message across.  You can help by:

  • Sharing these tips and techniques with others ( for more free resources)
  • Joining one free webinar per year through our Advocacy Roundtable(and encouraging others to do the same)
  • Purchasing Citizens in Action and sharing with others in your community (or, better yet, check it out at your local library.  If it’s not available, ask them to get it!)


Doing it for the Money Doing it for the Cause – Making a difference on your issue rarely happens overnight: you’ll need your passion and enthusiasm for your cause to carry you through.  Whether you’re a citizen advocate or a professional lobbyist, take a minute to step back and reconnect with your own passion for the issues.  Not only will it improve your message, but it might just be enough to carry you through the tough times.


In his inaugural speech, President Obama said “[t]hose values upon which our success depends — honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism — these things are old.  These things are true.  They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history.”  In my opinion, these are also the quiet force behind any successful advocacy effort.

So get out there and get advocating!

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Why the Legislative Process is Like Thanksgiving Dinner 2008

The legislative process has been compared to the process of making sausage: while some may find the final product palatable, you don’t really want to see how it’s made. However, I’ve recently come to a profound and somewhat startling realization: Forget Sausage. Think Thanksgiving Dinner.

Every year we host Thanksgiving dinner for 10 to 15 friends, and every year the menu has been the same. I mean EXACTLY the same. Each guest brings the same dish at the same time to the same house. In fact, in the last couple years our “invitation” has simply been one sentence: “Thanksgiving – you know what to do.”

This year, my husband, in keeping with the enthusiasm for change that is sweeping the nation, desperately wanted something different. While he agreed in theory that (in his words) “the fundamentals of our holiday are strong,” he sent an impassioned plea for new culinary delights — for “Yes We Candied Yams” or “Swing State Sweet Potato Pie.” In keeping with the theme of change he has even committed to making Cranberry and Pineapple Salsa.

Salsa. On Thanksgiving. Needless to say, everyone is horrified. There’s been talk of a boycott, dismay over the abandoning of traditions — even accusations of, dare I say it, un-American activity. While some of the guests are willing to sit down with Tim (but only with preconditions) to determine the course of the meal, others are ready to take the maverick course and walk out.

Why all this drama over a simple meal? Each of our guests has a very different and very steadfast idea of what the Thanksgiving feast must include. In past years the Chardonnay faction went head-to-head with the Pinot Noir bloc. The green bean casserole enthusiasts simply could not come to terms with those preferring green bean almondine. And I sincerely thought that the mashed potato and gravy vs. sweet potato casserole controversy would erupt into a fist fight.

Don’t even get me started on Pumpkin versus Pecan Pie. Until you’ve tried to get pumpkin pie out of your carpet (or out of your dog’s mouth) you can’t honestly say that you’ve hosted a Thanksgiving dinner.

So will we select between these conflicting and equally worthy menu items? Will we embrace change? Will we make the “hard choices”? My guess is no. As in year’s past we will have two kinds of potatoes, two kinds of green beans – even two kinds of turkey (regular and “tofurkey” for the vegetarians, including myself). And the varieties of wine available will become too numerous to count.

Incremental change may occur, although probably without much enthusiasm if the great “bacon-wrapped turkey” experiment of 2007 is any guide. We might have a fruity salsa to go with our regular cranberries out of the can. We will probably, as always, forget that we bought dinner rolls until it’s too late. We’re stuck in our ways.

So when you wonder why no big changes ever occur in the legislature, or how Congress comes up with these bills that have 18 million unrelated items, just take a good look at your own holiday traditions. Here are a few tips to (hopefully) help you think of all this in a different way:

Understand where the other person is coming from: Is your Aunt Millicent really insisting on her beloved “Brussel Sprout Surprise” because she’s a horrible person? Will explaining to her over and over again that no one else likes Brussel Sprouts really convince her to forgo her long-time favorite? Not likely. Remember that members of Congress are representing the same diverse and, umm, interesting perspectives when it comes to policy matters.

Fight for your form of potatoes: Speak up! If you just have to have sweet potato casserole at Thanksgiving, say so – and do everything you can to make that happen. Don’t just sit there at the table all squinchy-faced thinking about how your meal is ruined because it doesn’t include what you want. You may not be successful in lobbying for your potatoes, but you’ll feel better if you ask. And who knows? You might not get your potatoes this year, but maybe you can have something to say about the style of cranberry sauce (but no salsa, please). Or perhaps a promise (be sure to get it in writing) of your form of potatoes for next year.

Develop alliances: My step-sister and I always join forces in lobbying for the sweet potato casserole, and we’ve developed strong alliances with other factions. As a result, support for our preference has remained rock solid, despite repeated efforts to have it removed from the menu. Think strategically and politically about how you form these alliances. Who has the ear of the “menu-planners” in Congress? How can you join forces with them to get your menu item on the table?

And finally, be prepared to give thanks, regardless. Many of us, thankfully, have enough resources (and space for leftovers) to please the majority of our Thanksgiving guests. That’s a pretty big thing to be thankful for at a time when millions of people around the world go hungry. In the policy arena, remember that the U.S. Congress is dealing with somewhat more finite resources. Actual choices must be made and sometimes the things we like lose out, especially when new menu items – like an economic crisis — start filling up most of the plate.

So, take a deep breath, think of the things you are thankful for, raise your glass of Chardonnay, or Pinot Noir, or whatever you want, and vow to continue the fight for your potatoes another day!

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Forming an Advocacy Habit

I have a confession to make.  When I woke up this morning I thought to myself “yeah, I should go vote in the DC Primary today, but I don’t really want to. It’s not an important election and I’m really busy.”  In my defense, there are only a few contested races for positions that I, frankly, know little about.  It just doesn’t feel like a good use of time.  Anyone else feel that way occasionally?

See, even the Advocacy Guru has those days when she’s not all about civic participation and democracy.  That said, though, I will go vote, mainly because I like the little “I Voted” stickers.  OK, that’s not the only reason.  In fact, I do make myself participate in these “they don’t really matter” elections because I think they are essential to forming a positive advocacy habit.  What’s an advocacy habit?  I’m glad you asked.

If you think about it, many of the things that are good for our health, our family and our community aren’t necessarily things that many of us just love to do everyday.  Think exercise.  Or flossing.  Or putting money into a 401K instead of a new sports car (maybe that’s just me).  Yet we do these things because we know they’re beneficial (umm, except maybe the exercising…) — and the tool we use to get ourselves to do these things is the process of forming habits.

When you form an advocacy habit you don’t have to think about whether you’ll vote or send a letter to an elected official or attend a townhall meeting.  You just do it.  Over time, the benefits of “just doing it” compound. You may be asked to make a statement at a local hearing.  Your state and federal legislators reach out to ask your opinion.  You may even be asked to run for office. In short, your decision to “just do some advocacy” today will reap amazing benefits for the future by giving you the power to influence the issues you care most passionately about.

So how do you form an advocacy habit?  Just follow these three simple steps:

Step One — Commitment:  Say it loud and say it proud “I will form an advocacy habit.”  Really, I mean it.  E-mail your spouse, post a blog entry, call your friends or reach out to your local or national association and tell them that are forming an advocacy habit.  Add a comment on your Facebook page, drop me an e-mail or post a notice on our social networking site.  Studies show that a public commitment is essential to forming any good (or eliminating any bad) habit.

Step Two — Take Daily Action:  Yes, that’s right.  I said daily.  To successful form a new habit you’ll need to keep it “top of mind” every day for several weeks.  But I don’t mean you should contact your elected officials every day or vote more than the appropriate number of times during an election (just once, for anyone doing the math on that).  Just find 5, 10 or 15 minutes everyday that you can use to feed that habit.  The following wealth of ideas should keep you going for at least the first month:  if you want more, let me know!

·         Read sections of How Our Laws Are Made to familiarize yourself with the legislative process (one section should take 10 minutes)

·         Look up your state legislature on the Internet and learn about the state-level process

·         Fill out a legislator profile form to learn more about your elected officials (local, state or federal)

·         Review the websites of the state and national organizations that represent your interests.  Learn more about their policy efforts on your behalf

·         Respond to an action alert or two from your membership organizations

·         Start or add to a database that tracks details about your communications with your elected officials

·         Call your elected officials and find out the name of the staff people that handle your issues

·         Call your elected officials and find out when their next in-district meetings are

·         Review the House and Senate schedules at and

·         Search the Congressional Record for statements about your issues

·         Look up the bills your member of Congress has introduced

·         Read the Constitution (section-by-section, 10 minutes each)

·         Read the Federalist Papers (just one should take 10 minutes)

·         “Friend” your elected officials on Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn

·         Send a letter to the editor of your local newspaper

Step #3 – Persistence:  This is the one I have trouble with, especially when it comes to the aforementioned exercising.  I am really good at my habit forming efforts for about a week and then, well, I slack off.  I’m not the only one with this problem, am I?

So, to help my tipsheet readers with their advocacy habits, I’m offering two FREE options for getting a daily “nudge” about advocacy:

  • An e-mail autoresponder program.  All you need to do is send an e-mail to and I will send you a new advocacy habit forming activity EVERY DAY through the end of September (the first one starts today!).
  • Or you can follow me on Twitter (User ID:  AdvocacyGuru).  I’ll be sending out daily “tweets.”

That should give you plenty of time to get on the advocacy bandwagon.  Each tip is short (one or two sentences) and designed to be completed in no more than 15 minutes.

Through commitment, daily action and persistence in no time you’ll be an advocacy superstar.  In fact, you might get to the point where you’re jonesing for some advocacy whenever you’re away from the democratic process.

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Make the Darn Ask!

Anyone who has ever read my tipsheet, participated in an Advocacy Roundtable webinar, read my book, seen one of my workshops or, you know, talked to me, knows that one of my main messages for advocates is “make the ask.” In my opinion it is almost always a waste of time to talk to an elected official without asking for something.

Believe it or not, though, people have actually had the audacity to disagree with me on this. I know, it shocked me as well :). I’ve listened to the critics and I’m here to say, well, they’re partially right (see, I listen to other people despite what my husband says). But I still stand by my “make the ask” advice. Let me explain what I mean.

First, though, before I get too much in to it, perhaps I should explain what I mean by “make the ask.” Simply put, advocates should ask for something specific as opposed to simply trying to “educate” or “inform” elected officials. Frankly, trying to educate elected officials without asking for something specific is like trying to educate a middle-schooler without telling them it will be on the test. It goes in one ear and out the other.

Those who disagree with this advice usually have something to say along the following lines: either they believe they’ll “get more attention if they don’t ask (since everyone else is);” they “just want to say thank you;” or they’ve “already asked and don’t want to be a pest.” These criticisms sound perfectly reasonable and in many cases are partially true. Let’s examine each in more detail.
“Everyone’s always asking. I’ll get more attention if I don’t”

Unfortunately, if you use all your time with an elected official to just say nice things, you won’t get their attention over the long term – and you’ll probably be ignored.  I’m really sorry to have to put it that way, but it’s true. Yes, it’s nice for the legislator to have a meeting with someone who “isn’t always asking for something.” It’s even nicer for the legislator to have a meeting with someone who asks “how can I help you on your issues?” — and I’m not in anyway suggesting that these questions should not be a part of your message.

That said, “making the ask” flips that switch in an elected official’s brain that says “hey, I better pay attention to what this person is saying.” It achieves that goal far more effectively than a polite “I don’t really need anything right now, I just thought I’d stop by.” The good news is that if you’re feeling non-aggressive, you can ask for something easy that, and here’s the key, provides the legislator with as much benefit as it does you! Here are some examples of what I mean:

·         A site visit: Ask your elected officials to visit a facility in the district, perhaps a place where they can meet with constituents and be seen in a positive light in the media. You’re helping them connect with people in the community, and you’ve made an “ask.” In this case, the ask is “will you come and visit us in the district?”  One of our lobby clients used this technique to approach members of Congress who would normally be, shall we say, a little skeptical of their views.  By asking for something easy, like a site visit, instead of launching immediately in to a hard policy ask, these advocates have been able to build positive relationships with their legislators that will serve them well when the hard policy issues arise.


·         A statement of support: Perhaps your elected official would be willing to make a public statement of support, either in writing or by making a speech.  This can be especially useful when it’s connected to a “hook” of some sort.  So, for example, if it’s National “hug a puppy” week, the elected official can make a statement about how wonderful it is to hug puppies – and you can be sure the media is there to get a picture of the puppy hugging activity (my puppy is available if needed).  The ask, in this case, is “will you make a statement in support of ‘hug a puppy’ week?”  And be sure to follow-up with all the talking points and other materials to make this happen. (hey, can we start a “hug a puppy” week?)


·         An article for your newsletter:  For advocates affiliated with a state or community organization that puts together a newsletter, asking your elected officials to write an article for that newsletter can be a great way of getting their attention. Most elected officials welcome the opportunity to put their name in front of their constituents, and your request that they post something in your publication will require them to think about your cause. In addition, if they agree to write the article (or, in most cases, to review the article you have drafted for them and agree to sign their name to it) they will almost always want to speak positively about your issue. That makes it much harder for them to vote against you should the time ever come.

In essence, these “relationship building asks” help you set the stage for future, sometimes more difficult or more controversial, policy asks.  They are an ideal way to capture a legislator’s attention without being too pushy.

I don’t want to ask: I just want to say “thank you”

I heard a variation of this from a legislator who was also speaking at one of the conferences at which I was presenting. In fact, the legislator went on right before me and told the attendees that they should do nothing but thank the legislature for all the support for their issue and that there was no need to ask for anything specific. I was in a bit of an awkward position as I, well, completely disagreed.

Now, don’t get me wrong. My mother raised me right. I do believe that we should all say “thank you” as frequently as possible. And if you’re communicating with your elected officials frequently (say once per month or more) go ahead and use up one of those communications as a pure and simple thank you.

However, in this case the advice was directed at a group of people who talked to their representatives once-per-year. In these situations, while a thank you is a great way to start out, it should be accompanied with an “ask,” even if it’s one of the easy asks noted above.  Without that ask (and the required follow-up on the ask), those lobby day participants would probably not have found any other occasions to talk to their legislators at any other point through the year.

I already asked and I didn’t get an answer.  They know what I want.   I don’t want to ask again.

This one really irritates me.  The whole purpose of an ask is to eventually get an answer, right?  Sure it’s frustrating when our elected officials don’t respond to our “asks” as quickly as we’d like.  Why does that happen?  Usually it’s for one of three reasons.  Either:

the elected official simply forgot about the request — with dozens of requests a day, this happens often.

the elected official hasn’t had time to form an opinion on your question

the elected official is waiting to see how much you really want what you’re asking for

All of these problems can be solved by asking again.  I recognize that it might take months or even years to get a straight answer out of a member of Congress, state legislator or even city council member.  But you sure won’t get one at all if you don’t ask again.  Giving up after the first or second try just makes it way too easy on them.

When it comes down to the bottom line, elected officials and their staff expect you to eventually present them with an issue and a specific solution to that issue. Otherwise, why are you communicating with them?  I can’t think how many times as a legislative staff person I had meetings I just thought were a complete waste of time because no one asked me for anything.

So how are the critics partially right?  Well, I guess if you’re communicating with your elected officials frequently then you can afford to spend some of those communications on the niceties.  And since everyone SHOULD be communicating frequently with their elected officials, then we all should be spending time on the niceties.  But in the real world, where we might reach out a couple times per year, making the ask is an essential component of getting what we want from our government.  And isn’t that what it’s all about?

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Jazzing Up Your Advocacy:  Five Lessons from New Orleans

Long time readers of the tipsheet know that the guru and her husband often go to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. If you aren’t sure what that is, check  If you want to know what others are doing in New Orleans check out the webcam at Tropical Isle on Bourbon Street anytime after 6:00pm or so…

As usual, in the midst of three days of fun, frivolity and fantabulous jazz I, of course, got to thinking about advocacy.  I mean, wouldn’t you?  And this wasn’t just in a daiquiri-induced haze while wandering around the French Quarter.  No, in fact, I was struck by the similarities between Jazz Fest and every advocacy campaign with which I’ve been ever been affiliated.

Following are five techniques you should use to get you through any advocacy campaign – or music festival for that matter.

Strategize:  One does not just walk into Jazz Fest and wander around.  With eleven stages offering up multiple acts, only careful planning will ensure that you’ll catch what interests you most.  At Jazz Fest, this tactic applies doubly to your food options.  Before the festival, my husband and I looked over the musical acts and decided what we wanted to see in about ½ hour.  We spent another 3 hours drooling over the food.  Jambalaya.  Bread Pudding.  Po Boys.  Muffalettas.  See, no one can eat everything.  But you can eat some of everything with a good plan – and stretchy pants.

The same applies to your advocacy efforts (the strategizing, not the stretchy pants).  Think of your strategy development in four stages:  First, you want to outline your specific goal – usually in terms of dollars or policy outcomes.  Then you want to look at the variety of ways to reach that goal.  For appropriations, for example, this might include earmarks, additional line item funds or even report language directing the agency to spend more.  Third, consider the competition, distractions and road blocks standing in your way, such as other worthy programs in need of funding (yes, there are a few). Finally, in light of all this information, identify your preferred path.  We navigated through Jazz Fest using this four step process – I know it will work for advocacy.

Develop Themes:  Themes help you develop a strategy and stick with it — even in the face of temptation.  Saturday, for example, was “fried things” day in the food court.  Sure, I was tempted by the chocolate dipped strawberries and the Veggie Mufaletta.  But I had made a commitment to “fried things.” I wasn’t going to let “fried things” down.  I stayed focused and the fried green tomatoes and fried eggplant did not disappoint.  Then on Sunday I shifted my theme to “things with cheese,” thus reveling in many other delights at the festival.

Advocacy efforts can be as distracting as the Jazz Fest food courts.  One moment Congress is happily focused on transportation issues – two seconds later they’re debating the War in Iraq and then the Farm Bill.  It can be difficult to stay focused on your issue when 25 different and equally compelling issues are being waived in your face.  Don’t be tempted!  Find a theme and stick to it through thick and thin.

Improvise:  On the flip side, all the strategizing and thematic development in the world won’t help you when all your best laid plans go awry.  Maybe that fabulous act (or fabulous Congressman) that you were looking forward to turns out to be not that fabulous after all.  Disappointed, for example, in one of the acts I went to see, I stopped by another tent and danced, bopped and shouted my way through a phenomenal show from a blues / soul / jazz artist named Ruthie Foster (really, go look her up).  I had never heard of her before and would never have found her if I hadn’t improvised.

Every once in a while circumstances might dictate that you abandon all your strategies and themes and just make stuff up as you go along.  Don’t like that member of Congress?  Go see if you can find a new one.  Aren’t pleased with how the legislation is progressing?  Find new and creative ways to change it in to something you can support.

Build Coalitions:  On Saturday I parked myself in front of one of the three main outdoor stages and waited for one of the acts I REALLY wanted to see later in the day – Santana.  I quickly became dependent on the kindness of strangers – as they became dependent on me.  See, when you’re smack dab in the middle of a throng of 10,000 people, it’s hard to get out.  So we built alliances and assigned jobs.  Some people had the job of foraging for beer.  Some went for food.  Others shared umbrellas (as shields from the sun).  My job was to help coalition members map out the shortest route from our fiefdom to the outside world.  Without their help, I’m not sure I could have survived 8 long hours in the 90 degree heat.

Effective advocacy campaigns rely on coalitions as well.  Maybe your partners aren’t helping you get beer – but in a winning coalition everyone performs specific tasks that keep the group moving toward the mission.

And, of course, there’s persistence.  Votes won’t always go your way.  Legislation won’t always be introduced in a timely fashion.  The food court might even run out of Spinach Artichoke casserole (hey, it happened).  But every year it gets a little easier and you learn a little more.  You learn to bring your mud boots with you in case it rains.  You learn to buy your sweet potato pies from Mr. Williams’ pie stand on Friday because he attends church on Saturday and will not be selling pies.  You learn to stuff yourself with spinach artichoke casserole as soon as you get to the festival.  Armed with this information (and enough beer, sunscreen and advocate motivation) you will be able to persevere until the fat lady (or Santana) sings.