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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Top 10 Tips for Effective Advocacy on the State Budget

Guest Rat Vicky Selkowe, who works (hard) to keep River Alliance Board Member and State Representative Cory Mason in line, shares words of wisdom on how to get your legislators to really listen:

Many of us are concerned, dismayed, and outraged by numerous provisions in Gov. Walker's proposed budget bill. What's important is that we channel that outrage into effective advocacy. I have more than a dozen years of policy advocacy experience in Wisconsin at groups like the Institute for Wisconsin's Future, the Neighborhood Law Project, and the Wisconsin Council on Children & Families. I've worked for the last two years for State Rep. Cory Mason (D-Racine) and staffed him on the Joint Finance Committee during the 2009-11 biennial budget. Every day, I see examples of amazing advocacy efforts...and countless examples of "advocacy" that makes me cringe because it falls short of being effective. Don't be in the "cringe" category. Make your advocacy on the state budget as effective as possible.
Below are my Top 10 Tips for Effective Advocacy on the State Budget, plus some bonus tips at the end for in-person meetings with legislators. Use 'em, share 'em, make 'em your own but whatever you do, speak up! We are at a crossroads in our state and there is too much at stake for you to be silent.

Top 10 Advocacy Tips:
1. Provide your full name - say it clearly and slowly if you're leaving a voicemail message and make sure your email includes your first and last name. You should always do this, and you should especially do this if your email address is something like and gives no clue as to your real name.

2. Provide your full address and your phone number. Include your street, city, and zip. Though legislative staffers enjoy hearing from and reading the views of citizens from around the state, we are most interested in responding to constituents. To confirm that you are a constituent, we need your full address. Again, if you're leaving a voicemail, say it clearly and slowly - staff writing down your information are not mind-readers, nor can we understand you when you speak at mach speed or mumble, nor are we likely to play your message three times to try to understand it if you're not clear.

3. State your position clearly. If you are emailing, put your position in the subject line of your email, i.e. "I oppose Walker's Medicaid budget provisions" or "Budget Cuts to K-12 Will Be Devastating to My Community" or "I'm Opposed to Budget Changes to Recycling." In a voicemail, state it early on in your message after your name, phone number, and address. Picture the bleary-eyed staffer sifting through hundreds of emails and take pity on that poor soul AND make your message as effective as possible by making it clear whether you're writing for or against a provision and what provision you're referring to.

4. Don't send form messages. Tell YOUR story. Are you a teacher? Are you a correctional officer? What will the budget as a whole or specific provisions mean for you and your family? Give some context to help the staffer or legislator understand the real impact of this bill on your life, your family, your colleagues, your work. The emails that are most compelling and memorable are the ones that are personalized. The ones that legislators want to read as part of their testimony on the Assembly or Senate floor are the ones that put a budget provision into a personal context. Many, many staffers print out the best emails for legislators to read - but we sure don't print out the form emails unless we know the sender. Imagine your email message being read out loud by the legislator, and make it powerful. I know form emails from listserves & action alerts are easy to send but take the extra 1 minute to personalize your message and its effectiveness increases dramatically.

5. Do not e-SHOUT, yell, threaten, use hyperbole, or send repeated emails. Keep in mind that the person listening to your voicemail, reading your email, or talking to you is likely a staff person, not the legislator. Putting your email in 44 point all-caps red font or menacingly threatening the legislator's re-election will not enhance your credibility. We also tend to roll our eyes at messages that are clearly exaggerations. Make yourself credible by sticking to the facts. (And there are plenty of provisions in the state budget that will be detrimental to our communities - no need to resort to hyperbole or exaggeration to highlight the consequences of these provisions.) You're also not likely to be well-received if you send an email every day. I understand the impulse, but being a pest doesn't make you more effective.

6. Don't email "all legislators." While it's fine to email all legislators and all staff, you really are just cluttering the inboxes of all of the state reps and state senators who don't represent you and who are likely to just delete your message. Be more effective and more efficient: find out who actually represents YOU here: and contact YOUR state Representative, state Senator, and, of course, the Governor, who supposedly represents us all.

7. Speaking of the Governor, don't forget to contact him. Even though persuading him is perhaps a bit of a lost cause, you still want to be "counted" as on the record about the budget and the provisions you're concerned about. So make sure you send him an email letting him know your views:

8. Feel free to email your legislators' staff members in addition to the Representative/Senator. Don't feel "bad" about it. It's their job to respond to constituent contacts. The official "rep" and "senator" email boxes are full to overflowing and you may get a faster response if you cc staff. Find the staff names & emails for the Assembly here: and for the Senate here.

9. Do your homework before you contact a legislator. Spend a couple of minutes trying to figure out if your representatives are for or against the bill before you make contact. Most legislators have staked out a position on this bill already. Nothing makes you look like a turd more than calling a legislator's office and yelling at whoever answers the phone that "he'd better not support this piece of crap bill or I'm going to vote him out of office!" (see also #5, above, re. threats and yelling...) when the legislator you're calling has been a vocal and outspoken opponent of the bill.

10. Absolutely contact your legislators even if you know they're already on your side. They love to hear from constituents who have their back and agree with them on an issue. It makes 'em feel all warm & fuzzy. And because they're working around the clock right now and are anxious and exhausted, your encouragement and thanks are often what sustains them through the long hours. AND legislators are keeping tallies of how many constituents contact them about different budget provisions, so you want to be counted. So yes, even if your legislator is a progressive champion and you're pretty sure he or she is on your side, call or email anyway. Just be nice. And it never hurts to flatter them.

If you can, schedule an in-person meeting with your Representative or Senator's office about the budget provisions you're most concerned about. These meetings, if done right, are incredibly effective. So if you're meeting in-person with your elected official, all of the above tips apply plus the special "bonus" tips below:

11. Be Nice to Staff: If you get a meeting with a legislative office, you will more than likely meet with staff. Don't be disappointed by this. You'll likely get more time with staff than you would with the legislator anyway, and staff have the ears of their bosses.

12. Remember "the legal pad": In a legislative meeting, the legislator or staff will likely be taking notes on a legal pad of paper. You want four main things recorded on that pad of notes at the end of the meeting so make sure you gear your communications to getting these four things conveyed effectively:
  1. Who are you? (A constituent? A teacher? A local elected official? A health care professional? A bus driver? The Exec Director of a nonprofit?)
  2. What is your issue? Provide a clear, concise - ONE PAGE MAX - statement of your issue.
  3. Why is your issue important? (Why does it matter to you and why should it matter to the elected and his/her staff?)
  4. What do you want the elected official to do about it? (What is your "ask"?)

13. Don't Wing It! Effective Advocacy Takes Preparation. Do your homework ahead of time to prepare for your meeting. You'll want to think about questions like: what is the legislator's background? What is her/his voting record on your issues? Who is the best messenger to bring along from your group/community on your issue? (A business person? A doctor? A teacher? A local elected official?) What district-specific facts or stories can you gather? What is your "ask"? (Do you want the legislator to author an amendment to undo a terrible budget provision? Speak out against the provision at a press event? Vote against the entire budget?) Who will speak at your legislative meeting, and in what order? Who will do follow-up, and when?

Feel free to email me at if you or your organization is looking for additional advocacy tips. A recent powerpoint presentation/podcast I prepared for Forward Community Investments is available here.

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