Making Democracy Work

Advocacy Tips

Instructions for successful personal advocacy.

Personal Advocacy Tips

How a Bill Becomes a Law with Public Input

This two-page chart shows how a bill becomes a law in NH, and indicates when and how the public can provide input, pro or con, on bills before the NH Legislature.

Printable in color

Explained in more detail, this text document from the NH Almanac prepared by the NH State Library further explains the process of bills going through the state legislature. Click here for pdf

Advocating without Fear or Offense

Protocols for Meeting with Legislators

1. Be on Time and Prepared: Legislators are very busy and often have multiple appointments and time commitments in a day. Being prompt allows you more time with the legislator to get your points across. Being prepared is essential to getting your message across. Rehearse ahead of time what you are going to say and bring appropriate supporting documents that back up your statements.

2. First Impressions: The first thing you should say is "thank you" to the elected official for meeting with you. The purpose of the advocacy is to gain their support as a co-sponsor or sponsor of legislation, speaking up in conference or writing letters to their own legislative leadership.

3. Roles of Advocates: If you are going to see a legislator with a group of colleagues, try to bring a diverse group of constituents. Someone should be appointed to be the meeting facilitator, to speak first, to introduce folks, to designate certain members to speak on particular issues of expertise and to wrap up the meeting. Another advocate should be designated the note taker, to record what happened at the meeting and the legislator's response. This person should also record any additional information that needs to be sent to the legislator for follow up.

4. Meeting Tone: Advocates are there to educate legislators about the issues and not to berate or lecture them. Remember that honey always works better than vinegar. Never get belligerent or angry.

5. Stay on Message: It is not uncommon for legislators to veer off the intended purpose of the meeting, especially if they do not share your opinion on the issue. Be vigilant and politely bring the conversation back to your message.

6. Leave on a Positive Note: As you wrap up the conversation, make sure you repeat one last time what action you hope the legislator will take and then thank them for meeting with you. Also, make sure you leave them any written material you brought that backs up your point of view.

7. Follow-up: Follow-up is key to successful grassroots advocacy efforts. The meeting facilitator should send a thank you note to the legislator for meeting with them and include any additional information the legislator requested.

Effectively Writing Legislators

Tips on Making Your Voice Heard

  • Always be polite--write calmly and concisely.

  • Address the person by job title: Dear Senator___, Dear Representative _____, Dear Mr. President.

  • Identify your issue in the beginning of your message and what action you want the government official to take. Put the topic in the first sentence, giving the title and the bill number of the proposed legislative action. Example: "Please vote against House Bill #007 that would open the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge (ANWAR) to drilling for oil."

  • E-mail, call, fax or write a letter with only one topic per message. Often the contact information is stacked up in pro and con stacks on a particular subject. You don't want your second issue to be lost. Contact separately about it.

  • Put your name and address clearly in any written communication (perhaps phone number, also) or leave clear contact information if you are required to leave a voice mail message while calling.

  • E-mail, fax or call only (no postal mail) if you are writing to the U.S. President or members of Congress. Since the anthrax incident in 2001 all postal mail to these federal officials is delayed for screening, sometimes for weeks.

  • Tell why this issue matters to you personally. Be specific about how it affects you, your children, someone you know. Give details of the impact of the issue that make it matter to you. A personal message gets attention.

  • Do not use a form letter even if you think it says it so much better than you could. It will likely be ignored or at best put in a pile to be counted--maybe.

  • A form letter or signing a petition from some group is better than nothing--but not much better. Do this only if you do not have time to write a real, if short, note of your own on the topic you care about.

  • Hand address the envelope being sent by postal mail to state and local officials. Aides rarely toss aside hand addressed letters--it might be from a personal friend.

  • Type or hand-write on paper other than white (or with a unique letter head of your own).

  • When calling, you may be asked to give your comments to an aide. Be clear about the topic, why it matters to you and what action you want the official to take. There is nothing to be gained by being argumentative or talking at length with an aide or intern.

  • Letters in the mail get noticed at the state and local level. If there is no immediate crisis, a "snail mail" communication will probably be better than e-mail as sometimes the e-mail is not checked for a number of days (or even weeks) and is rarely printed out. (At the state legislative level, all legislators have an assigned email, but some admit they don't check it regularly--too much spam.)

  • For most federal officials, e-mail is regularly checked (usually by interns) so do communicate this way, with thoughtful comments that show you are informed on the issue and not just ranting.

  • E-mail is often ignored during a busy session so a phone call will be better if time is of the essence. This holds true for members of the U.S. Congress and state officials.

  • At the state level, if legislators get six or eight communications on one side of an issue they are likely to consider it a landslide, as they so rarely hear from ANYONE on issues facing them for a vote. Your communications DO matter.

Persuasive Letters to the Editor

Letters to the editor are one of the best and easiest ways to get an unfiltered message about a particular issue out to the community. They are generally brief, to the point, and in response to a previously written article or other public event. One of the reasons that they are so effective is that after the front page and the comics page, more people read the editorial page than any other section of the paper (even Sports!). Furthermore, letters to the editor carry a certain credibility because they come from average citizens, and the public does not view them with the same bias with which they view the rest of the paper. You can usually find the address to send your letter to the editor on the editorial page of the paper.

Letters to the editor are used to respond to a news event, not to create news. Therefore, in writing a letter to the editor, you generally want to begin by referring to a previously published article in the newspaper or to a well-known event. Referring to a previously written article helps make the letter relevant to the newspaper staff, and it is more likely to get printed. The reference to a previous article or event should generally be in the first line of your letter to the editor, to help set the stage for whatever point you are going to make.

Following your opening sentence, you should immediately begin to make the case for why you are writing the letter. If the news story that was written missed an important point, say so, and explain why it is important. If a news event did not provide the full story, give the full story. If someone gave an explanation that was unclear or misleading, clarify the point for the newspaper's readers.

One word of caution however: While letters to the editor can be used to criticize an elected official, they should only be used as a means of last resort. Office holders generally remember those people and organizations that have criticized them publicly, and they are not likely to forgive or forget a harsh letter in their local newspaper. If you have been authorized to write on behalf of the League, you will not be criticizing an official as that is a violation of our non-partisan policy.

Finally, when you close the letter to the editor, you should include some call to action for the general public. What exactly this is will depend on the circumstances, but it could be calling their Congress member, attending a meeting, or writing a letter to the school superintendent. But it is important that there be some call to action to round out the letter.

The length of your letter to the editor depends on your local paper. Different papers like different length letters. In general, shorter is better than longer, as it is more likely to be read. However, you still need to make all of the points that you want to make. If you send in a letter that is too long, either it won't be printed, or it will be cut down to the size the paper wants. The best thing to do is to read the letters to the editor that are printed, and count out how long each one is. This should give you a good idea of how long your letter can be.

When you send in your letter to the editor, you must include your name, address and daytime telephone and home phone number. Your name is needed because anonymous letters are not as credible as those that are signed, and the large majority of newspapers will not publish them anyway. Your address is critical because newspapers prefer to print letters from local readers, and once again, it has more credibility to elected officials. Your phone number is necessary because a newspaper will only print your letter once they have verified that you actually wrote it. Nearly all newspapers will not publish the address or phone number, merely your name and town.