Working with elected officials can be an intimidating prospect, requiring careful preparation and strategic thinking about your goals.

So, why try it?

In my experience helping nonprofits work in Washington, D.C. and around the country, the benefits can be significant:

  • Increasing public attention for your issue
  • Engaging officials as voices of support
  • Establishing yourself as a reliable resource

To launch into planning, I suggest starting with the following five steps for building ties with policymakers from city council to Congress.

  1. Do Your Homework: Start with the basic biographies. Learn about policy interests and connections to your work.  This will give you insights into an official’s perspective and help you find common ground.
  2. Know What You Want: Be strategic about who you contact by setting clear goals for your outreach and identifying an “ask” (what you want a policymaker to do) well in advance of any meeting. Your request must be clear and easy to explain.
  3. Know What You Can Ask For: If federal or state rules prevent you from lobbying or requesting appropriations, there are many other valuable requests you can make, for example:
    • Building a crowd for a public event? Invite an elected official to speak at your next conference, fundraiser, or news conference.
    • Hope to draw media attention to your work? Ask an elected official to write an op-ed article or letter to the editor about your project.
    • Want to involve policymakers directly in your project? Ask elected officials or their staff to serve on an advisory committee.
  4. Plan in Advance:  Meetings with elected officials can take place in many settings and vary in length from a few minutes to an hour or more. Be respectful of the time.
  5. Follow Through: Send a thank you note after every meeting. The note should summarize next steps and the actions everybody agreed to take.

Finally, don’t overlook important information about lobbying. Each state has different rules about lobbying, depending on whether you are a small nonprofit or private charitable foundation.  Please check with your state department of justice or the legislative relations director to determine rules where you live.

Do you have a story to share about working with a policymaker?