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Making the Most of Legislator Visits

by Brenda Peluso

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. Right now, the Maine Legislature is in recess and legislators are back in their home communities. Additionally, on August 5th, the U.S. Congress will recess for 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.

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.

Why Bother?
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.

Visit Ideas
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 the committee(s) that address(es) issues important to your mission are important 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:

Making the Ask
Make the invitation by phone. Legislators expect to be contacted via the phone numbers and e-mail 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 e-mail or letter confirmation with directions. Non-legislative e-mail addresses (not maine.gov) are usually more reliable addresses, but unless they specify otherwise, a confirmation letter to their home via the postal service is probably the best.

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, such as reducing crime, improving educational opportunities, 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 + raise a family. If your organization pays property or sales taxes, payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs), or services in lieu of taxes (SILOTs) to your local communities, be sure to share that as well.

For some great information about the economic and social impact of the entire Maine nonprofit sector, be sure to read our “Partners in Prosperity” report which includes great stories and strong statistics about the size and make-up of the sector as well as its contribution to the economy in jobs provided and money spent.

Following Up
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 Michaud, 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 in August, you should try to schedule that now. To help you be successful with your U.S. Congressional member, there is a good article titled, “August Recess: Hit a Home Run for Your Cause,” if the constant baseball references don’t drive you crazy.

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.

Resources:

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