Making New Policymakers Your New Nonprofit Champions
by Randy Ford
Founder & Principal, First Story Strategies
This month, the new Congress is getting organized, state legislatures are kicking off new sessions, and countless newly elected and appointed officials settle into their jobs at all levels of government. Nonprofits are understandably eager to build new relationships.
Here are a few strategies to welcome policymakers, become trusted resources, and cultivate new champions.
1. Teach first, lobby later.
Think about the learning curve at your last new job. Imagine you were expected to know everything on day one. Imagine that everyone is asking for something, and the rest of the world is watching. That’s life these days for a new office holder and their team. A good move is to position a nonprofit not as another group piling on, but as a resource – a place to come for information, institutional knowledge, networking and meeting venues. Of course, you should make the organizational ask, too, but keep it soft at first.
2. Know their issues.
Your nonprofit should study up on their newly elected members’ issues and learn the language they use to talk about hot topics. Look for issues that overlap and ways to connect your issue to the ones they seem to care about most. But it’s just as important to know if there are any big areas where you might differ and develop messaging strategies that help you agree to disagree.
3. Research their influencers.
Start building relationships with the people close to the policymakers you want as champions. Look for their political allies, campaign contributors and journalists they seem to know. It always helps to have mutual friends.
4. Tell the stories.
White papers and data are important. But it’s always the stories of real people who break through the barrage of information coming at us all the time. Evolution has wired us to relate to new information by turning it into stories; the most effective communicators fill in those story details up front so there’s less room for interpretation. We all do nonprofit work because it makes a difference for somebody. Let’s tell those stories – or even better, let the people in the stories tell the stories themselves in visits, letters or video pieces.
5. Offer content.
While a policymaker and their staff like to call the shots in their media strategy, your organization can offer to pitch in. Draft an op-ed for them to consider signing and placing. Let them know of a story they might want to tweet about. Offer to draft social media posts in the issue areas important to you. Or provide content for issue-based speeches, written in a style similar to theirs. Both chambers of Congress give rank-and-file members plenty of opportunities to deliver speeches, publish remarks and appear at hearings on topics of importance to them. Offer to help draft some of that material.
6. Help localize big news.
When I was a reporter, I often had just a few minutes to get a public official’s take on a handful of topics. When I became the press secretary to a member of Congress, I developed an even deeper appreciation for how masterful the best politicians are at moving from one issue to another, even those they don’t work on directly every day. There is constant pressure to localize a story. If a topic of the day intersects with work your group is doing on the ground, let your policymakers know.
7. Host a town hall.
A policymaker’s team may take a nonprofit up on the idea of bringing together other organizations and leaders for a public meeting. If you can keep the subject matter narrow to your issue areas, great! You may have to expand to other topics, but you are still recognized by all involved as the host and will have plenty of opportunities in the event coverage to talk about the issues important to you.
8. Educate your organization.
It’s important to have an ongoing dialogue with the stakeholders in your organization about who you’re engaging with and why. Train people to be both spokespeople and storytellers. And keep them posted on the state of play and your expectations.
Here’s to a successful 2019!
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