As a leader, there is a very real possibility that you could one day have to meet with legislators, either in your state’s capitol or in the nation’s. Whether it’s in a business capacity, or through a volunteer leadership role, you need to make the most of your limited time with your legislator. Being prepared is essential.
As the executive director of a non-profit agency, it is imperative that local legislators know me and the agency that I represent. It is my job to make them aware of the important work that my organization does and how it impacts them and their constituents.
Here are some lessons I have learned that will help you make the most of your visit.
- Make an appointment. Most likely you will have to make a request for an appointment on the representative’s or senator’s website. You may be required to provide your zip code in order to prove that you are a constituent of the requested law-maker. Enter as much specific information into the form as you can, as early in advance as you can. Some senators and representatives book their appointments up to six weeks in advance.In your request for an appointment, clearly explain your reason for the visit, and the representative’s role in addressing it. For example, “We need the Senator to reauthorize this bill which is about to expire,” or “We are asking that the Congresswoman vote yes on this issue.”Next, you will likely be contacted by a legislative aide who will assist with setting up the appointment. If you are scheduling multiple appointments, leave at least 20 – 30 minutes between each appointment to allow time for moving between offices (which, in D.C., can require a lot of walking and additional security checks).
- Prepare. You will have a very short time to meet with the legislator or his/her aide – somewhere in the 10 to 15 minute range. Know the items that you would like to discuss and explain what you would like them to do about it.While you may feel that some officials are just being polite and want your vote, others will actively engage in a conversation with you. Be prepared to answer questions they might ask, such as how your proposed bill will get funded or who else is in support or opposition to this bill. It is critical that you really know your stuff, but if you get a question that you cannot answer, simply state that you “don’t know” and that you will get back to them with that answer – then make sure that you do follow up with the answer!
- Be on time and be aware of their time. Senators and Representatives are very busy and are often seeing constituents in between voting sessions and assembly time. Arrive at their office a few minutes early and bring your notes to look over in case you have to wait. There is always the possibility that you will have to meet with a legislative aide, but that is okay. They are the eyes and ears of the senators and representatives that they work for. They will take notes during your meeting and report back to them.During your meeting, keep a close eye on the time and do not let your meeting run longer than 20 minutes. This will show that you respect their time, which everybody appreciates. If they invite you to continue the conversation past the 20 minute mark, that is fine, but still be aware of lulls in the conversation that could signal they need to move on. Be sure to get a business card of anybody that you met with.
- Leave a summary of your request. Having a document to leave behind allows the Senator or Representative the opportunity to have the info handy when they have time to review it later. Make sure you have “call to action” items on it, so they know what you are asking them to do. Your take-away should be easy to understand and not too long, as you want them to look at it and quickly be able to respond. If it is too long or too complicated, it may just hit the trash. Also make sure that there is contact info on the handout in case they need to contact somebody with a question. For example, “Email Al Big at Autism Speaks for more info: firstname.lastname@example.org.”
- Send a thank you note. As simple as this sounds, within three days of your meeting, send a hand-written thank you note. Use a real stamp instead of running it through the postage meter. This personal touch is a great way to remind the senator or representative about any follow-up items they need to take care of, or what you were going to do. If you met with an aide send them the thank you note. Thank you messages sent by email don’t count – go old school!
By following these important but simple steps you can begin a relationship with your legislator, and in time they may look to you as a resource for information. After all, that’s what a good leader is: a resource for many!
Mary Rosswurm is the Executive Director of Little Star Center, Inc., an Indiana-based not-for-profit organization that serves children and young adults with autism. Mary is also a doctoral student with the Center for Values-Driven Leadership.