Meeting With Government Officials
Writing letters is a good way to keep in touch with official and their staff, but nothing is better than a meeting for raising the profile of both your chapter and your issues. But chapters shouldn’t schedule meetings with officials just to say hi. While meetings are good ways to introduce your chapter, you should always have a good reason to set up a meeting. The most common is the introduction of a new bill or a new set of regulations.
Before chapters begin to schedule meetings, they should think about these questions:
- Why are we setting up this meeting, and what do we want to accomplish? Make your goal as specific and as action-oriented as possible: Support a bill (or regulation)? Oppose a bill? Offer an amendment? Introduce a bill?
- Is this the right person to be meeting with? Of course, chapters will want to meet with officials who represent them. But equally important, think about what kind of influence the official has on the issue. Does he or she sit on the committee that will be examining the issue? If so, that official will have a lot more influence than another official who doesn’t.
- Is the issue timely? While it’s nice to give a legislator a heads-up that a bill will be introduced in six months, that’s not always a great reason for a meeting (perhaps a phone call to staff might be better). However, if the chapter wants the official to lead the effort and some initial groundwork needs to get done, then meeting that early in advance makes sense.
- Consider your timing. If you want an official to oppose an issue, don’t wait until a day before the vote to set up a meeting. By that time, his or her position is probably pretty firm. It would be better to meet with the official as the bill was being introduced so the chapter could convince him or her on the issue. The official would also have time to speak with colleagues and perhaps convince others of your view.
- How many members should we bring? No more than five, and three or four probably works best, as that allows some diversity of organizations and causes to be represented. Most offices, especially on the state level, tend to be small, so any more than four or five tends to present logistical problems as well.
- Whom should we bring? Try to find at least one member who has some connection to the official, which is usually possible on the local and state level, but a little more difficult on the federal level. This is a great way to “break the ice” as the meeting begins and get everyone comfortable. But it doesn’t matter if you don’t have anyone who knows the official. They’re here to serve and will respond to constituents’ issues, especially if they’re elected.
Once you have a meeting set up, it’s usually a good idea to have all participants get together ten or fifteen minutes ahead of time to discuss how the meeting will go. Meetings with officials can go better if participants understand their roles.
Usually someone is assigned to “lead” the meeting, introducing the chapter and its issues and why they are here. Typically, there’s someone who knows the intricacies of the issue better than others and is called upon to explain the some of the more technical details. Others often chime in with how the issue will affect their organizations. Of course, these are not strict roles that everyone has to stick with, but it’s good to have a general sense of how the meeting will flow.
Once you get to the meeting, there are a few more guidelines and points to consider:
- Arrive on time but be prepared to wait, especially if you’re meeting with a legislator and the legislature is in session.
- Get to the point and do not waste time. Introduce yourselves, talk a little about your organizations, and then address the reason why you are there. If the legislator wants to speak about other matters for a little while (particularly if you have brought a personal friend), enjoy the conversation. But even back home in the district, a legislator frequently has an extremely busy schedule.
- Be mindful of with whom you’re speaking. Lawmakers tend to be interested in the basic story of your concerns, not the details. A few statistics and a couple of anecdotes will usually be all they need. On the other hand, many staffers will be quite knowledgeable about issues and will want to hear more specific explanations.
- Prepare a one-page fact sheet/position paper. Any supporting documents you hand over to a lawmaker should be brief, concise, and to the point. “One pagers” with bold type and a few bulleted points are quite effective. Attach longer, supporting documentation if necessary, but do not depend on someone reading it. The AFP International Headquarters can assist you in providing data and preparing appropriate material.
- Be polite. If the lawmaker does not agree with you, find out why. Try to come up with a counter-argument, but don’t push too hard. If you cannot reach agreement, thank the official for his/her time and write a nice thank-you letter. Remember, an opponent on one issue may be your closest ally on the next.
- Be sure to follow-up after the meeting. Contact the office a week after the meeting and inquire as to the status of your request. Your entire effort can be wasted unless you keep your issue on the “front burner.”
Sample Meeting Strategy
Five members of a chapter are discussing their upcoming visit:
Aaron – chapter government relations chair, works for local arts organization
Betty – works for local college
Cathy – works for community health foundation
David – private consultant
Elizabeth – works for religious institution
These members are meeting their local U.S. Representative. They asked for the representative’s bio in advance and found that he spent two years studying at the college for which Betty works, and in the past has served on the board of several arts organizations.
The group decides that the goal of the meeting will be to educate him about AFP and the fundraising profession, and ask for that he cosponsor a bill about charitable giving incentives.
After introductions, Betty will discuss the typical work of a charitable fundraiser. Aaron will then talk about AFP and its focus on ethical fundraising. The members agree that this discussion will “set the table” for the rest of the meeting and dispel any misunderstandings or misperceptions that the official may have. Betty can also bring up the official’s connection with her college, further “breaking the ice” and creating a positive atmosphere for the meeting.
Once the official has a fair understanding of AFP and the profession, the group will move discussion towards legislative issues. Cathy’s organization would benefit greatly from the bill. Other members will also offer their own testimonials about how such a bill would benefit their organizations. The same will be done with another giving incentive or aspect of the discussion, only David will lead the discussion.
The group decides that this rough outline is sufficient. If the official responds positively to the group, Aaron will include in the thank-you letter an invitation to speak at a chapter function.