Sunday, July 29, 2007

A DAY ON THE HILL: FROM IDEA TO ACTION

I'm just a bill/Yes, I'm only a bill
And I'm sitting here on Capitol Hill
Well, it's a long, long journey
To the capital city
It's a long, long wait
While I'm sitting in committee
But I know I'll be a law someday
At least I hope and pray that I will
But today I am still just a bill. --SchoolHouse Rock, 1970

I went on my first "hill visit" last month. I was very excited about educating our congressman on the challenges nonprofits face. I didn't know how naive I was until I sat in his office.

First, although we had an appointment, we were greeted by an "aide" with a notepad. No actual congressman face time. Second, there was no spark of interest until we described (in detail) what work we were doing in HIS district. So what about city-wide services, just tell me about mine!; Third, the aide did not write anything on the notepad (although she held her pen at the ready) UNTIL we mentioned a specific piece of legislation in committee. She eagerly wrote down the numbers of the bills in question.

As I left I realized that she hadn't heard a word of our "message" and didn't have any better understanding of the challenges facing our nonprofit, than before our visit.

Disheartened at first, I realize now that there was an important moral to that story. Want change? Work with legislature to put it into a bill. If it becomes a law...then voila...you have legal validation of your work (and maybe funding as well).



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2 comments:

Tom said...

I posted this on the Give and Take blog, and thought it was only fair to post the comment here as well.

The unfortunate truth is that representatives, and their aides (who serve a critical purpose) are overwhelmed with requests for aid and assistance. The general rule is always to have a solution, not just talk about a problem. And it’s also true that you’re going to do well if you describe a specific bill or, failing that, a specific program that should be targeted to improve the situation. Members will want to know why you’re there. “Why is this person sitting in my office?” If you can’t demonstrate this quickly, then you’re going to have a tough meeting.

Another point that is not inconsequential: representatives, whether in Congress or in a state legislature, are elected to represent a district. So talking to them about things that don’t take place in their district might not have an impact. That’s the way it is, and there’s no point in disparaging a member of Congress for doing the very thing that they were elected to do. Representatives from California don’t really care about someone who runs a local program in Nebraska, unless it has some sort of national or precedent-setting impact. This doesn’t mean that they’re rude or uncaring. Quite the opposite – it means that they’re setting the needs of their constituents first, which is exactly what they’re supposed to do.

I don’t know what the specific purpose of your visit was, but it sounds like there wasn’t a strongly defined objective. “The challenges nonprofits face” is certainly interesting to me (since I work at a nonprofit), but there’s no place in here for a legislator to help. When you’re visiting a member of Congress, they want to know where they fit in. I’ll be blunt – their job is not to sit and listen to you complain about how hard life is. They want to know what they can do to help. So I’d suggest 1) a clear objective that a member of Congress can help with, 2) a specific ask (support this bill/ this program/ this nominee), and 3) a short succinct presentation. And 4) don’t assume that speaking to the aide is a blow-off. The aides are the people who screen issues for their representative. If you can sell the aide, you’ve got a good chance of getting a real meeting with the member of Congress. But if you treat the aide as if you’re getting a consolation prize, you’re not going to get far.

I spent several years lobbying with a local organization, and learned these lessons the hard way. I hope that my experience will help inform your future visits. These visits are tough, and the more you're prepared ahead of time, the better chance you have of a successful outcome. Best of luck.

About Dorothy said...

Thanks Tom. I think the word "visit" lulled me into thinking we'd be having tea and getting to know each other. Maybe "business meeting" would have better prepared me.

I had a jolt of culture-shock on my first "visit".

On the upside, we just received notice that we did receive funding from the congressman!

In retrospect it seems like a pretty simple practical matter. Q: What can I do to help? A: Add park funding to SB1282 and earmark some for the XYZ park in Council District 12.

No prob