Although I am known by the somewhat spiritual title of "Advocacy Guru," I must admit that I'm not really of any particular religious ilk (although many of my closest friends belong to some of the world's finest religions). Normally I wouldn't really notice the start of the Lenten season, but in February, my colleagues and I happened to be having a, umm, "staff meeting" at a local watering hole. There we saw a number of people with the mark of the cross on their foreheads in honor of Ash Wednesday.
OK, yes, it seemed a bit odd that the first thing our fellow customers did after being absolved of all their sins was head out to happy hour. But, perhaps that's how it's done. Like I said, I'm not a religious expert. Nevertheless, events like this always get me thinking about sins (my own and those of others), so I’ve compiled the seven deadly sins of lobby days. Learn from our trials by not committing any of the following sins yourself:
Sin #1 -- Non-Constituency: When requesting a meeting, whether with the member or a staff person, the first question you will be asked is "are you from the district or state?" Elected officials and their staff are there to represent a discreet group of people. You absolutely MUST demonstrate your relevance to that discreet group of people or they won't meet with you. Our meeting request letters always include the city of constituent asking for the meeting - and some offices will ask for a full street address just to be sure!
Sin #2 - Non-Written Requests: OK, I lied. Actually the first thing you will be asked by the usually incredibly young person who answers the phone is "have you sent your request in writing?" Don't even bother to call before you have either faxed in the request (go to www.congess.org to look up fax numbers) or e-mailed it through the Congressman's website (accessible through www.house.gov and www.senate.gov)
Sin #3 - Assumption: As Robert Siegel once asked me when I worked at NPR "do you know the etymology of the word "assume?" My response was "who uses a word like 'etymology'?" Anyway, if you don't want to make a donkey's behind of yourself, never assume that your faxed or e-mailed request actually got to the office or that the scheduler will just magically get back to you. With hundreds of requests to go through a day, things get lost. Often. Be sure to follow-up (and be very polite - they don't lose things on purpose, they're just overwhelmed).
Sin #4 - Member-itis: Never, ever insist that you will meet only with the member instead of a staff person. First of all, nine times out of ten you won't get a meeting. Members of Congress have unimaginable demands on their time and, believe it or not, you are not the only constituent in town at a given time. If you are offered a meeting with a staff person, that's a good thing! They often have more time to get to know you and your issues. All you'll probably get with the member is a "grip and grin," and the vague feeling that your issues weren't really covered.
Sin #5 - Inflexibility: This is particularly a problem when it's combined with high expectations. Too many groups offer a very small meeting window and then are irritated when staff or members are not available in the time slot they've designated for meetings. Try to have an entire day available - and ask participants in your lobby day to bring a good book.
Sin #6 - Overzealousness: If you have multiple people coming from one district or state, do everything you can to coordinate before requesting meetings. In too many cases, each individual will request their own meeting. By the fifth meeting on the same topic, the staff are generally pretty cranky. They will thank you for your consideration of their time if you coordinate well.
Sin #7 - Abandonment: Once you've had a meeting in
In eschewing these sins you will leave a better, fuller, happier advocacy-related life. Believe me, as the founder of the cult of effective advocacy I've had plenty of experience in this area. Please feel free to send your worldly possessions my way.