How to lobby politicians: community organising tips for effectively mobilising volunteers
“Organising constituents, such as members of a congregation or ministry, to lobby their elected representative can be a highly effective advocacy strategy. In order for community organising endeavours to be successful, a strategic, persistent, flexible and patient approach is needed,” says Michelle McDonald from the Parishes and other Mission Agencies Commission
Over a period of six months in 2018, I worked as a community organiser in the refugee rights space. Community organising is the practice of listening to, mobilising and equipping volunteers with shared concerns and goals to create effective social change. Part of my role involved facilitating workshops for Queenslanders who wanted to see refugees being given a fairer go by teaching participants advocacy communication skills. From these workshops, I recruited 15 delegations of Queenslanders to meet with Federal elected representatives in calling for three specific policy reforms.
Organising constituents, such as members of a congregation or ministry, to lobby their elected representative can be a highly effective advocacy strategy. In order for community organising endeavours to be successful, a strategic, persistent, flexible and patient approach is needed.
The 15 delegations I organised were groups of inter-faith people, groups of medical professionals and groups of educators, with a former refugee also invited to join each delegation. I organised the groups in this way, rather than forming ad hoc delegations, because these people are trusted in the community and offer particular expertise and relevance in refugee rights conversations.
A number of local Anglicans joined these various delegations, who met with Labor representatives for strategic reasons. Some of these Anglicans included people who felt compelled to help, but preferred the option of speaking with their Member of Parliament or a Queensland Senator in a coordinated group, rather than attending protests or marches.
After using power mapping to decide which elected representatives the delegations would meet with, I set about forming and preparing the delegations. This included facilitating introductions between group members, answering questions and helping them with:
- clarifying and communicating policy reform “asks” (i.e. the specific things they were going to ask the elected representative to advocate for – these “asks” were aligned with those of the wider refugee rights movement)
- tactical advice regarding how to secure a 30-60 minute meeting with their elected representative
- conversation strategy
- appointing a group leader
- delegating tasks (e.g. note taker, post-meeting photographer / social media poster, time-keeper, responsibility for bringing the conversation back on track if required, letter writer, etc)
- research I had carried out on the given elected representative
- troubleshooting potential pushback by coaching them in “objection handling” skills
- a post-meeting strategy, so they could determine how to best follow up the “asks” and any commitment the elected representative made.
One of the three key policy reform “asks” of the delegations was about securing permanent protection for refugees on temporary visas.
At the time the delegations were formed, Labor’s National Platform stated that people on three-year Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) would be granted Permanent Protection Visas if/when the Labor Party formed government. The TPV is one of two types of temporary protection visas available to those who arrive by boat to claim asylum and are given refugee status.
The five-year Safe Haven Enterprise Visa (SHEV) is the other temporary visa type for those given refugee status. Unlike people on TPVs, people on SHEVs are required to seek work or study in a regional area – this is the main difference between the two visa types.
Both visas were introduced as deterrents – by deliberately keeping vulnerable people in a state of perpetual limbo. This lack of stability is having severe mental health impacts, impedes people’s ability to secure employment (including in regional areas) and further their education, and is preventing people from rebuilding their lives.
Unlike TPV holders, the Labor National Platform in early 2018 did not state that those holding SHEVs would be granted the stability and assurance of safety that a Permanent Protection Visa provides. With 13,000 people granted SHEVs since 2014, this left many people at risk.
So one of the “asks” of the delegations I organised was for Labor’s National Platform to be amended so that those on SHEVs would also be granted Permanent Protection Visas in the case Labor formed government.
These 15 Queensland delegations, along with approximately 10 others organised in other parts of the country, played a significant role in shifting Labor’s National Platform regarding SHEV holders.
And, in an exciting development, earlier this month the Minister for Immigration Andrew Giles committed to transitioning those holding both TPVs and SHEVs to permanent protection.
So thank you to all those who joined these highly effective delegations, including a number of local Anglicans – your willingness to speak up for vulnerable people and against racism has made all the difference for 13,000 people.
Many people who participated in the workshops and/or joined the delegations often named racism as the underlying problem of successive governments’ punitive policies. Participants often commented that if people coming here seeking safety were “white” they would not face the same barriers that successive governments had legislated.
Committed to ending racism and fostering peace, these good folk put their moral courage, generous hearts and newly acquired advocacy and lobbying skills to effective use. Their efforts have contributed to a number of significant government decisions, including all refugee children being evacuated from Nauru to Australia by late 2018 and, more recently, Andrew Giles’ welcome announcement for SHEV holders.
Top 15 tips for organising a delegation to lobby an elected representative for policy reform
- When seeking to identify the reforms your congregation or ministry will advocate for, first identify “what issue is widely and deeply felt” among your faith community.
- If you are organising a number of delegations across different electorates, use power mapping to identify which elected representatives your delegations will meet with. Power mapping is a very simple visual tool that helps identify the best individuals to “target” to bring about social change.
- Be strategic. For example, instead of organising groups of ad hoc people, I chose to organise groups of faith people, educators and medical professionals.
- Embrace a best practice “not about us without us” approach by engaging people with lived experience. These people are experts in advocacy spaces – they can provide personal stories and unique expertise and insights. This is why I asked a former refugee to join each delegation.
- Ensure that you only recruit people who can stay respectful and calm under pressure. Equip delegation members with objection handling strategies (such as bringing the conversation back to shared values).
- Seek to have a mix of differently skilled people in your group – people who are variously good with policy, leading a conversation, handling objections, taking notes, photography and posting on social media, etc).
- Think about group numbers. I recommend recruiting more people for a given group than you will need, as some will invariably drop out on the day of the meeting (e.g. due to sickness or caring responsibilities) – I recommend that you recruit at least eight to 10 per group.
- Encourage the group to be persistent when seeking to secure a meeting. For example, as some of the delegations needed to contact the office of the MP or Senator several times to secure a meeting, I ensured that each delegation had a community leader (e.g. a priest) whose name could be “dropped” to help secure a meeting.
- Support your groups. For example, I assisted each group with the initial email text requesting the meeting; trained each delegation; and, debriefed with them after each MP/Senator meeting.
- Arrange meeting with the group at least twice prior to their meeting with the elected representative, so you can answer questions and confidently prepare them. This is especially important if you are not joining the delegation (e.g. in the case you are not a constituent). If possible meet in person the first time and then in person or online for subsequent meetings.
- Ensure that the “asks” are kept to a manageable number (three maximum), and are clear, achievable, positively framed and solutions focused, and (if possible) aligned with those of a respected peak body or leading charity. Well-intentioned elected representatives whom I have spoken to in casual conversations sometimes say, “Michelle, constituents who visit me need to tell me what they want me to action – I can’t action whinges.” Well framed and clear “asks” are absolutely essential.
- Encourage the group to foster genuine dialogue with the elected representative, while ensuring that the conversation stays on track. I know other politicians who are skilled at “hijacking” a group’s willingness to dialogue by intentionally turning the discussion into a rapport-building, feel-good exercise and away from action items / asks.
- If the group has a number of “asks”, consider leaving the ask that is expected to get the most push back until last, even if this ask is important to the group – otherwise you could get stuck on this ask and spend the whole meeting discussing it with no eventual meeting outcomes.
- Ensure group members follow up after the meeting, such as with a collectively signed (emailed) letter outlining the “asks” and summarising what the elected representative committed to. In the letter, I recommend that you ask the elected representative to get back to you by a specific (reasonable) date, factoring in the Parliamentary Sitting calendar.
- Ensure that a persistent individual with good email/phone skills is willing to continue the post-meeting follow-up regarding “asks”, especially those the elected representative commits to.
First published on the faithful + effective website on 16 September 2022.
Editor’s note: The theme for this year’s International Day Of Peace is “End Racism. Build Peace”. Professor Megan Davis will deliver this year’s lecture in St John’s Cathedral on Wednesday 21 September 2022. Register online via EventBrite.Jump to next article