When asked what makes the biggest impression on legislators about the arts and especially arts organizations, policymakers at the state and national levels tell us these two important factors:
- Successful programs in the arts and arts education that reflect service to a diverse, broad-based constituency within our classrooms and our communities
- The economic impact of the arts – how your community is able to grow jobs and businesses for district residents, enliven communities, and leverage federal, state, and local public and private monies to serve their constituents.
To make the best impression, use these ten tips:
- Do Your Homework. Understand your issue and make sure it’s a legitimate state concern. Don’t contact a state legislator about federal or local issues, but instead, focus on issues where a legislator actually has influence and impact. Whenever possible, cite a specific bill or law as the focus of your communication. The more specific you are, the more impact you will have.
- Use Personal Experience. To address a problem with state government or a possible solution, describe in your own words how this problem affects you and how the solution might help resolve your concerns. If there are possible negative ramifications to your approach, it’s best to tell the legislator of those potential problems before the legislator is asked to help resolve the issue. Don’t surprise your legislator by giving him or her only half the story.
- As Much as Possible, Be Timely. Follow the news media so you understand when the Legislature is in session and when it is likely that issues will be addressed. The most effective communication is one which arrives early in the legislative process, preferably at the committee level where most of the work is done on legislation.
- Never Threaten. There is no quicker way to ensure your opinion will not count than to threaten legislators with reprisal if they do not vote the way you wish them to vote.
- Choose the Best Way to Reach a Legislator. Use common sense as to which method is most appropriate:
- Write a letter or email. This is generally the preferred means of communication. When you write a letter, you provide a written documentation to which the legislator can refer as he or she tries to address your problem. Generally, people are more complete and thorough in writing down their thoughts, views or questions. Letters reach legislators when they have time to carefully review them and reflect on their content. A letter to your own district legislator is more effective than contacting legislators from other parts of the state.
- Visit your legislator at the Capitol. Most legislators are at the Capitol only a portion of the week, typically Tuesday through Thursday. Contact a legislator’s office directly to set up an appointment in the Capitol. Or, it’s possible the legislator has office hours locally where you can contact him or her face-to-face, or in most cases, legislators will be willing to meet with constituents locally, provided you have flexibility to a time and meeting place.
- Visit your legislator at home! It’s fine to travel to Madison to meet at the Capitol, but you can also – and probably more easily – schedule a meeting in their district office, at a local coffee shop, or at your arts center. You can schedule an in-district meeting through the legislator’s Capitol office.
- Use the telephone. Generally, there are three ways to contact your legislator by phone: using a toll-free hotline if available, calling directly to the legislator’s office, or contacting the legislator’s home or home office. Except in cases of extreme urgency, calls should be directed to the legislator’s office. Direct communication with the office is probably the quickest way to get attention to an issue. Home phone calls are discouraged, because of time constraints on a legislator as well as the likelihood that the legislator will not be home when you call
- Use e-mail. Email is useful for scheduling and providing information, but don’t use it as a substitute for a real conversation.
- Ask the Legislator for a Response. If it is appropriate, ask for a specific action as well. For example, if a bill is coming up for a hearing, ask a legislator to try to attend the hearing and share his or her thoughts concerning the topic. If you know the bill will be voted on by the full Legislature, ask the legislator to drop you a line telling you how he or she voted. If the legislator fails to respond, follow up with another communication.
- Reward Good Work. Say thank you. If the legislator really makes a special effort on your behalf, try to recognize that by attending a campaign fundraiser, writing a letter to the local newspaper editor praising the legislator for his or her good work, sending a thank you note or giving a legislator appropriate recognition before a group.
- Use the Legislator’s Staff. Every state legislator has staff. These are full-time or part-time state employees who generally work on constituent questions with state agencies and who also work on legislation. In most cases, a contact with a staff member is as effective as a direct contact with a legislator.
- Maintain a Relationship. The best way to get a legislator’s attention is to be a friend. It’s especially helpful if you contact your legislator from time-to-time with a good word or some update on your business or personal ventures, rather than just contacting your legislator when you have troubles.
- Remember, Legislators are human. Each legislator is one out of dozens of decision makers. You should not expect a legislator to perform miracles. Also, remember that legislators have many demands on their time and attention. Be considerate of the legislator’s family and personal time. Most of all, treat your own legislator as you would like to be treated.
- As Winston Churchill said during World War II – never, never, never, never give up. Real change takes time.