Making the Most of Legislator Visits
Summer is the perfect time to invite your legislators to visit your facilities to share with them the important work you are doing in their communities for their constituents. After a long legislative session, the Maine Legislature is in recess and legislators are finally back in their home communities. Additionally, the U.S. Congress has just recessed for their summer break, and now is the time to try to get on their busy calendars.
Most of this post will focus on state legislators, but see the very end if you would like to connect with U.S. Congress Members in August and early September.
Not an Election Year
In an election year, the summer would be the beginning of the full-on campaign season in which candidates will be looking for opportunities to speak, listen and meet voters. In off-election years, state legislators need a little time to recover from the grueling long legislative session to be with their families and turn their attention back to jobs that were put on the back burner while they were serving in Maine’s citizen legislature. But, with two-year terms in the Maine House & Senate, and the U.S. House, the campaign for re-election is always on. So while this is not an official election year, unless your legislator is not up for re-election (term limits or other circumstance), you can rely on their interest in opportunities to be in front of voters and/or the press. As you plan your visit, be thinking of opportunities that would be of interest to them in this light.
Nonprofits matter to the causes legislators care about and it is up to us to show them why. Summer visits provide an opportunity to do all of the following:
- establish yourself as a content-area expert;
- build, strengthen, or repair relationships with policy makers;
- engender an appreciation and better understanding of the work you do for your communities and their constituents;
- express a concern or your support for recent or potential legislation;
- propose a solution to an issue facing your community and ask for their support in introducing legislation; and
- learn about the causes and trends that concern your legislators.
Think of this as an opportunity to do one or all of the above. Advocacy for your cause is a marathon, not a sprint, so start slow and make sure you are building for the long-term. If you’re feeling like you cannot add one more thing onto your already packed to-do list, consider how you could incorporate a legislative visit into things you are already doing.
How can you best showcase why your organization is important to the constituents both you and your legislator serve? Here are a few of our favorite ideas:
- a lunch meeting with some staff, board members and constituents where you talk about a specific issue or just focus on the work of your nonprofit;
- a tour of one of your programs or some conservation lands;
- a collaborative meeting of several nonprofits and others working on a local issue;
- a celebration or fundraising event where the legislator may speak or have the chance to be photographed.
Whatever you plan, it is best to be flexible with the date and time and expect no more than an hour of the legislator’s time.
Identifying State Legislators
All members of the Maine House & Senate serve on various standing committees. Legislators who serve both your geographic area and sit on committees that address issues important to your mission are members with whom to build strong relations. However, it is always good to reach out to your local legislators whether or not they sit on a pertinent committee. Your local legislators may move to different committees throughout their careers, may have good friends on committees important to you, and can be strong advocates as well as sponsors and co-sponsors of legislation important to your mission. Use the links below to find your legislators:
- List of House Members by County
- List of Senators by Town
- List of Joint Standing Committee Memberships
Making the Ask
Make the invitation by phone. Legislators expect to be contacted via the phone numbers and email addresses made public on the state’s website. You may feel free to call a home number as long as you are respectful of the time of day. Plan to follow up with an email or letter confirmation with directions.
What to Discuss
If you are successful in scheduling a visit, be sure to emphasize the public benefits provided by your organization that support goals established by state and local government, like issues related to housing and homelessness, alleviating the workforce shortage (creative child care solutions, perhaps), combating climate change, and promoting quality of life and place. You should also emphasize your economic impact – the numbers of people (voters) employed, the services and goods you purchase supporting other businesses, the numbers of volunteers (voters) you manage in service to the community, and the ways you make your community a great place to work and raise a family.
- For some great information about the economic and social impact of the entire Maine nonprofit sector, be sure to read our “Adding Up Impact” report.
- To understand what messages are effective in improving public understanding of the key role that nonprofits play in Maine’s economy and quality of life, and to help frame messages about your organization's work within the broader context of the sector’s value and impact, check out our "Frames That Work" toolkit.
Be sure to follow-up your visit with a written thank you and the answers to any questions that you may not have been able to answer during the visit. Provide them with contact information should they have questions in the future and reiterate your offer to be of support on issues related to your areas of expertise.
U.S. Congressional Delegation
During the August recess, Representatives Pingree and Golden, and Senators Collins and King will have limited time for meetings. You may find that meeting in their offices will be easier to arrange or that one of the congressperson’s staff may attend a visit to your location in the elected official’s stead. If you are interested in scheduling a meeting during their summer recess, you should try to schedule that now. See the Council on Foundations’ Guide to Advocacy for tips for addressing US Congressional Members and more.
Is it Lobbying?
It may be, but lobbying is not a dirty word and it is perfectly legal within generous limits for 501(c)(3) nonprofits. It truly depends on your conversation. Simply introducing yourself and the work of your organization probably does not meet the definition of lobbying, but if you talk about an issue that is the subject of pending or future legislation and express an opinion on the subject, it may be. For more information on the difference between lobbying and advocacy and how to stay within your legal limits, read our “Raise Your Voice” toolkit.