How to Influence Washington:
Eight Steps to a Successful Public Policy Pitch
By Rich Tafel
To be a champion for those without a voice, world-changing leaders need to perfect the art of influence, and no arena is more challenging than Capitol Hill.
Staffers on the Hill typically hear pitches in about 100 meetings a week and can only support a few of these requests. The sheer volume of these meetings means that nonprofit leaders must perfect their policy pitch to be successful.
Eight steps will guide you toward effective communication:
1. Headline: Why Are You Here?
Start your pitch with a headline that tells listeners why you are using their precious time. The best headlines add value for the listeners and make them want to hear more. Most nonprofits forget the headline, leaving staffers to question their presence rather than listen to what's being said.
If you are from the member's district, mention that at the beginning. If not, either appeal to his or her national expertise or explain why you would like to implement your program in that specific member's district in the future.
Drop the jargon, including acronyms. Instead of saying "We are building capacity for underresourced youth populations to overcome societal challenges," tell them that you work with poor homeless teenagers from their district and help them get jobs.
2. The Challenge
Quickly tell them what challenges you seek to address. Pay close attention to body language to see if they agree. It's a great idea to ask for feedback from your audience in each of these steps.
Example: "The challenge in your district is that in the last year, more than 500 young adults living there became homeless. Most of these displaced young people eventually end up in our prison system. Is that an issue of concern to you?"
We love to talk in terms of the process, but Hill staffers respond to results.
Example: "We help get 2,000 homeless kids off the streets in your district each year. Over the past 10 years, that adds up to 20,000 constituents who have avoided a life of homelessness."
If there is a return on investment for the government, mention it. Calculate and present any effective increase in tax revenue or decrease in long-term government program spending.
4. Quick Case Study
Case studies humanize the work done by nonprofits. People understand stories, so be sure to tell yours. It is also perfectly appropriate (and powerful) for you to bring a client with you to share a relevant case study.
Example: "Just last week, I was working with Kevin, who was kicked out of his home. We originally gave him a safe place to stay, and he has now completed his GED and is applying to community college."
Identify a specific "ask." Don't be wedded to this, but use it as a way of engaging staffers in the world they live in. You are meeting with them because you want to change things, so have some idea of exactly what you want them to do for you. Referencing some policy that they need to address will help you get a meeting.
Example: "We hope to change policy language in the new housing bill by amending Section IX, C. We would appreciate your support and suggestions."
Speak to them about the concrete results that policy change will bring.
Example: "If Rep. Jones agrees to change just this one line in this law, we believe we can double the number of jobs we can get for homeless teens in his district. That's something we are currently unable to do."
7. Third-Party Endorsement
Most nonprofit pitches sound heartfelt and compelling. One way to increase your impact is to cite respected sources.
Example: "The Harvard School of Public Health and the Heritage Foundation just rated our program as the most successful model for offering stability and keeping teens off the streets. I have a copy of that report here." They may not read it, but the fact that you have it will make you stand out from others presenting to them.
One paradox of being a great advocate is that you must be a better listener. Once you have done your homework and are meeting with the right staffer, that person is actually your best strategist. Ask him or her for help.
Example: "Based on what we're trying to accomplish, can you suggest people here on the Hill or at HUD to whom you think we need to reach out? Should we engage the administration or someone else? Do you have suggestions to improve our strategy?"
When you hear them say, "Well I probably shouldn't tell you this, but ..." you know you've successfully gained an insider strategist for your cause.
If you seek to call yourself a leader, you must be effective at influence. Begin by practicing these eight steps. Those you serve, who can't walk the corridors of power, are counting on you.
© 2011 Rich Tafel. All rights reserved.