Planning Next Year’s Lobby Days
Lobby days allow your organization to communicate with dozens of lawmakers using authentic constituent voices, start policy conversations and build relationships. But they can also pull a team into crisis mode. Here's how to plan a smooth event for maximum impact.
Though final numbers are not yet in on the midterm election, many government affairs teams are already on to the next challenge as planning continues for a busy 2023. That means it’s time to organize next year’s Lobby Day.
Lobby days go by many names—fly-ins, advocacy days, Hill days and more—yet all describe the same basic idea: bringing your advocates to Washington or state capitols to meet lawmakers face-to-face and tell personal stories about the issues that matter to your organization. Few strategies are more powerful.
Lobby days allow companies, associations and nonprofits to connect lawmakers with real constituents who are directly impacted by policy. That helps legislators gauge sentiment back home and supplies them with authentic anecdotes to support their position. In a survey by the Congressional Management Foundation, congressional staffers overwhelmingly agreed that, “direct constituent interactions have more influence on lawmakers’ decisions than other advocacy strategies.” In each iteration of the survey, more than 90 percent said an in-person constituent visit would influence an undecided lawmaker.
Of course, like many exercises in government affairs, it is not easy. Lobby days require organizations to gather and train dozens—sometimes hundreds—of advocates. Virtual lobby days, which became popular during the pandemic, can eliminate some costs and logistics. Organizations like Susan G. Komen, Shared Hope, the Friends Committee on National Legislation and many others have held very successful events. But even virtual events require training and coordination, and the amount of work increases dramatically when advocates are coming in person. A successful lobby day requires serious planning.
Creating Successful Lobby Days
Whether virtual or in-person, and regardless of an organization’s plan, preparation takes time and lobby days are best planned 4 to 5 months before the event. But your team doesn’t have to do it alone. Capitol Canary and Quorum have helped scores of organizations execute successful lobby days. To assist your efforts in 2023, here are some of the most important lessons we have learned over the years.
Identify Your Participants
One major task—not to be underestimated—is selecting who will represent your organization. Look first to your ambassador or grasstops programs, because these advocates are often better educated on your issues and may already have relationships with key lawmakers. Another strategy is to survey advocates to find out who is interested in participating and what issues they care about (this can also help segment advocates into email lists by issue and level of participation). Also, be sure to look at participation stats from past campaigns. This can help identify your most active advocates, whether or not they are part of a formal grasstops program.
If your fly-in has a virtual component, it’s easier to invite more advocates, which can diversify your participants. It might open your event up to older or younger advocates, or those who could not afford to travel. Just remember that advocates who have never participated in a fly-in may not raise their hand, even if your lobby day is virtual. Outreach is important. The YMCA of the USA, for example, targetes employee resource groups (ERGs) within their organization, such as a women’s ERG and an African American ERG.
Build a Training Program
It is essential to make sure that advocates who participate are properly trained. For many, it will be the first time they speak face-to-face with a lawmaker or staffer. For in-person lobby days, many organizations traditionally devote the first day of the trip to training programs. However, organizations are increasingly using digital resources for training. For example, the American Society of Anesthesiologists created video learning modules for each step of the process. After an advocate signs up, an email campaign guides them through each module. The videos cover topics from “An Introduction to Federal Government” to “Ways to Be Involved,” and culminate in, “Meeting Your Lawmaker.” Each video includes a quiz afterward. The Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) also used this strategy to help fight Zoom fatigue. Because they knew the actual virtual event days would be jammed, they emailed their educational resources to advocates over several weeks.
Schedule Meetings with Lawmakers and Staff
To schedule meetings at scale, it’s best to use an email tool like Quorum Outbox that allows you to directly pull in staff contact information and personalize your email in bulk. While everyone wants a meeting with a lawmaker, don’t underestimate staff. They are often the gateway. Start by sending the schedulers a request for a Member-level visit. Then, set a deadline so that if you don’t hear back from the scheduler, you can safely move on to the staffer who handles your issue. If you still don’t hear back, see if you have anyone in your organization who can help facilitate a meeting.
“Because FCNL has on-staff lobbyists as well as really active grassroots advocates doing work in their own districts and states, if there were offices not getting back to us for whatever reason, I could look in a member’s profile and see that José met with this member’s office two weeks ago,” said Justin Hurdle, grasstops advocacy manager at FCNL. “I’m going to go to José and say, ‘Hey, the office isn’t answering us, but we have 20 people from California who want to talk about this issue. Can you connect me with the right staffer?’”
Remember to be flexible. Legislative schedules change frequently. Make sure you have a way to easily communicate scheduling changes to advocates, even if they are last-minute.
Create a ‘Lobby Meeting Roadmap’
In any meeting, time may be limited and it’s important to use it wisely. To that end, FCNL creates what they call a “Lobby Meeting Roadmap” so advocates know what to do when they arrive. This includes knowing who will play each role. At FCNL, this includes a group leader, who will kick off the meeting and help the conversation move along; a note taker, who is responsible for tracking what is said; and a storyteller, who is going to deliver a personal tale. “The first thing we tell folks to do when they get on the call is to ask the staffer how much time they have,” Hurdle said. “We wanted to make sure to prepare folks—don’t plan for an hour-long meeting. You’re not going to have that. Plan for 15, be excited for more.”
Don’t Forget the Swag
For in-person lobby days, you should use swag to get noticed around the halls of the Capitol or state house. With a brightly colored t-shirt, creative buttons, or other merchandise, it is hard for legislators to miss that your organization is present and active. At a virtual event, these branded items are still important. Creating virtual backgrounds with your organization’s logo and colors can help legislators remember your brand.
Help Participants Build Community
Lobby days provide an opportunity for advocates to network among themselves and feel more connected to your organization. The YMCA has had success driving engagement by reframing lobby days as professional development. “We’re trying to build an outlook on advocacy at the Y: that advocacy is a skill,” said Kelsey McKim, manager of advocacy communications and engagement at YMCA of the USA. “We’re looking at our upcoming national advocacy days as kind of a professional development opportunity where people can learn to strengthen their advocacy muscle.” At in-person lobby days, networking opportunities happen naturally. But in a virtual environment, it’s essential to build them into programming. Virtual “coffees” in small breakout rooms, promoting shared activities and creating online communities through social platforms or email threads can all be helpful.
Engage Lawmakers on Social
A lobby day is a great time to show off your advocacy work. Consider creating a hashtag that advocates can use to post photos from their meetings and retweet each other. Encourage advocates to tag the legislator they met with, and the lawmaker may amplify the post. Consider these tips for engaging Congress on social media.
Log Your Advocates’ Interactions
Advocates can gain valuable insight from lawmakers in their meetings, and you want to capture that information. One of the best pieces of intel is what part of your issue a lawmaker supports or opposes. This provides an opening for a lobbyist to continue the conversation. FCNL has advocates log their notes using Quorum’s interaction logger, which is integrated into their digital lobby day resources. The information obtained is automatically attached to a legislator’s profile, and available to your lobbyists immediately. With that information, your lobbying team will be equipped for effective follow-up, so make sure they have a plan in place to keep the conversation going.
Remember to Say Thank You
Thank the lawmakers and your advocates. Provide materials for each advocate to write thank you notes to lawmakers at the end of the day. This leaves a positive impression and serves as a reminder of the conversation you had. Be sure to thank your advocates as well. For example, the YMCA sent out a thank you email saying, “This time we just want to say thank you,” McKim shared. “There’s no ask in this email. We appreciate you. Your voice mattered.”
For organizations that run a grassroots advocacy program, a lobby day can be a major step forward. Communicating with dozens of lawmakers using authentic constituent voices can start conversations where none existed, further work you have already done, and cement relationships, both with your own advocates and with lawmakers at the state and federal levels. Few things can move advocacy that far, that fast.
But a lobby day is also a major effort that can easily throw an entire team, and parts of the organization behind it, into crisis mode if not addressed correctly. There are simply too many moving parts for casual treatment. Planning is the hedge against that kind of chaos. Spreading the workload out over time, running a shared checklist of “must do” items and building on the success of previous years can all reduce problems. Organizations with events scheduled for the first half of next year still have months to prepare. The time to start planning is now.