Winning Plays for Moving Policymakers to Advocacy Champions

As advocates, we’re all looking for that saving grace, the lawmaker(s) who rises up to champion an issue, bill, appropriation, or rule change that makes life better for the children, youth, and families we care about. At our recent “Lunch & Learn: How to Talk to Policymakers, Effective Tips for Messaging Your Issue,” we invited a panel of statewide partners to answer that question. Joining with Michigan’s Children President & CEO Matt Gillard, they were asked to outline their strategies for pitching a winning “ask” before decision-makers.

We invited panelists Deb Frisbie, the Kinship Care Coalition of Michigan; Erica Willard, the Michigan Association for the Education of Young Children (MIAEYC); Sara Plachta Elliott, the Detroit Resource Center; and Patrick Brown, the Michigan Association for Community and Adult Education, to join us because they’ve had years of practice and success in building mutually beneficial relationships with elected leaders necessary to seize the day. This Legislative year has just begun, and roughly one-third of the state Legislature has turned over with many newbies replacing termed-out lawmakers. It’s an opportune time to make yourself useful and present your case. We’re also at the start of the state budget process, meaning this is a significant time to share your budget priorities with lawmakers and ask them about theirs.

Also, know this about lawmakers. They’re ordinary people from all professions, experiences, and demographics. What they want most of all is to be relevant and needed by the constituents who sent them to the Capitol. And this is key: They don’t know as much about your issue as you do. You’re the expert on kids and families. So don’t be intimidated. Give them enough background, crisp data, and human interest stories to help them summarily understand and want to act. Target your message, and don’t overwhelm. Focus on what they need to know to make the right decision. Establish yourself as a valued source of information about the children, youth, and families in the lawmaker’s district and you will be performing an important service to your organization’s mission and as a citizen.

Secondly, learn what‘s influencing your legislator. Research them. Who in the community has their ear? Do they have personal, professional ties with a particular perspective on the issue you’re advancing? Do you take different sides of the issue? Find common ground. Bring other valued partners in to help build on what they know. Even a handful of calls and emails supporting a particular issue from different sources gets a lawmaker’s attention, said Gillard, a former three-term legislator. We win, he adds, when we can persuade elected officials to see issues as impacting real people.

Plachta Elliott echoed that sentiment. “Balancing the real-life experiences with the policy side of an issue is the winning combo,” she said. “Speak to the heart and prepare your specific ask.” Know your power players, and employ them; those most influential are typically parents.

Be specific with your request to gain their support, Frisbie said. “Lawmakers want to get on the bandwagon with something, even small, they can fix.” To increase the chance of gaining their support, consider strategically tying your request to what’s important to them, Willard added. If their focus area is unemployment, discuss your issue as meeting the needs of working parents, or in the case of MIAEYC, the early childhood workforce. Patrick Brown said you never know where you’ll find a champion for your cause, so dig deep and ask lawmakers questions so that you can determine what they really understand about a policy issue and where you can influence them. Ultimately, advocacy is both a long- and short- game, he said. Sometimes change comes quickly, but mostly, advocacy must require going back time and again, sharing key information points, and most importantly the lived experiences of constituents. Engage the hearts and the minds of your lawmaker over time. Let them know it matters.

Teri Banas is the Director of Storytelling and Media for Michigan’s Children.