Whether you call them Hill Days, Lobby Days or Fly-ins, gathering your group in Washington, D.C. to meet members of Congress is still one of the most powerful tools in your advocacy arsenal.
A well-organized event can help you draw attention to an issue, establish and strengthen relationships with policymakers, generate a feelgood factor for membership, and ultimately, move the needle on your organization’s legislative priorities.
But pulling off a great Hill Day that attendees will be talking about for months to come is no easy task. There’s an incredible amount of planning and moving parts to organize.
Read on to see how you can nail it.
“When it comes to your overall advocacy strategy, it’s [Hill Days] one of the few boxes you absolutely have to check,” said Matt Duckworth, vice president of government relations at Hart Health Strategies.
That’s the good news. The bad news is they can be a logistical nightmare to plan and execute flawlessly. And the last thing you want your members or lawmakers commenting on after the event is how poorly it was run.
So, before you mark “Hill Day!” on your calendar for next year, make sure you get planning at least six months out, and ask yourself these big framework questions.
Then, download our free “Hill Day Checklist” and get planning.
What kind of Lobby Day is best for my organization?
Depending on your goals and resources, there are several ways to organize a lobby day. Most groups opt to keep the “Hill” in “Hill Day” and have their members come to Washington, D.C.
Others focus on the local and connect their members with federal or state representatives during “at home” time in the legislative district.
Some even arrange to have advocates meet with staff virtually.
“There’s no cookie cutter way to do it,” said Duckworth. Creating an advocacy campaign has never been faster.
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You can also combine methods, running a virtual lobby day at the same time as a D.C. fly-in giving you extra oomph for your issue or cause.
Staggering a virtual event six months after in-person meetings will also help to reinforce your message and keep you front of mind.
What are the important planning milestones?
While some groups have been know to throw a Lobby Day together in reaction to an issue in super-short timeframes, a serious one should start about four or five months out, ironing out what issues they’ll be addressing and who they might like to invite and meet with. Much of this early planning will depend on logistics like size and disparity of your group.
“If you have 1,000 people coming, you’re going to need more time,” Duckworth says.
CJ Babb, executive director of Prime Advocacy, which helps organizations plan congressional meetings and Lobby Days, says many groups start scheduling appointments anywhere from three weeks to two months before the event. It’s a tedious process, he warns, especially for advocacy leaders with a lot on their plates.
About a week before the fly-in, Babb recommends reaching out to members’ offices to confirm meetings and make sure both teams are working with the same information.
“Mistakes happen,” he said. “Miscommunications happen.”
Briefing the attendees
The lead up to the lobby day is an excellent time to educate members on what to expect and how to prepare. Remember just because Hill meetings are somewhat the norm for you, it’s likely a bunch of your attendees may never have been to D.C. and could be intimidated (and hopefully wowed) by the process of seeing Congress up close.
Lauren DePutter, Senior Manager of Grassroots Advocacy and PAC at the American Pharmacists Association, uses this time to host webinars on lobbying and interacting with policymakers online. The webinars also cover lobby day talking points and reference material, training members on everything from the different branches of government to how to use the D.C. metro.
“I like to give them a lesson in Congress 101,” she says.
One of the most critical steps in the process of planning a lobby day is matching your advocates with their correct member of Congress. You’ll need their addresses to do that. But Babb recommends taking it one step further.
He’s worked with medical organizations whose members have performed surgery on a senator, or played golf with a representative. Asking your members about personal relationships can help you establish a valuable connection in your meeting request.
DePutter also advises including biographical information about each advocate attendee, outlining their experience, their role in the district, and their expertise on the issue being discussed.
While it’s important to pair people with the right policymaker, it’s also important to be mindful of the advocate and the office’s time.
If you’re flying in dentists or small business owners to meet with Congress, remember they’re taking away from their time on the job.
If the lobby day goal is to get more cosponsors on a bill, tempting as it is, it’s redundant to have advocates meet with members who have already committed to signing that bill. It may be productive to have them pop in for a quick “thank you”, but they (and you) will likely get more out of the experience if they accompany a team meeting with another office that might be open to persuasion.
“I want to make sure they’re having constructive meetings,” DePutter says. “I want to make it worth their time, and the staffer’s time.”
For logistical purposes, it’s also important to gather advocates’ phone numbers, email, and travel plans well in advance of the event.
Initiating those all-important meeting requests
Setting up the meetings is time consuming. Some groups hire outside teams to manage the process, while others rely on advocacy staff to get the job done.
When selecting an internal candidate, Duckworth recommends choosing someone who already has experience liaising with people on the Hill. Consider putting a few people in charge to help spread out the responsibility.
“If you’ve never done it, you don’t realize how much time it can take,” he said.
And don’t rely on an intern or a temporary staffer to handle your team’s meeting requests, he says. You need someone with more experience.
With enough follow-ups, you’re likely to get close to 100 percent response rate on your meeting requests. Especially if your mission is not controversial, says Duckworth.
“If you have constituents flying in, that should be enough reason for congressional offices to meet with anyone,” he said.
If your lobby day is a big one and you’re thinking of outsourcing it, vet any candidate’s profile thoroughly and make sure they can prove their results. But be prepared to spend on those results. Services can run into the tens of thousands of dollars.
DePutter encourages the American Pharmacists Association’s advocates to set up their own Hill day meetings.
“I really want members to learn how to lobby on their own and to develop a relationship with the offices,” she said.
DePutter provides a template for advocates to follow, but encourages them to personalize it, so it doesn’t look like all the other form letters Congress receives.
Make your meeting requests as concise as possible, said Babb. Use bullet points to identify three topics you want to discuss. Include a short paragraph about your association, and a brief bio on each attendee, including their full address so staffers know they’re in the lawmakers district.
“You want to make it as easy as possible on the scheduler,” he said. “The offices staff is going to want to ensure their boss is meeting with constituents.”
Most offices are prompt in their response to meeting requests, but some will need a few follow-ups. Generally, it’s recommended sending a confirmation follow up about a week before the big day. But DePutter said she doesn’t set a hard deadline for this because it can be too constraining.
“I want advocates scheduling meetings up to the very last minute,” she said. She’ll often jump in as the fly-in nears, relying on her relationship with offices’ staff to finalize her advocates’ requests.
Hill Day Checklist
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Make sure attendees know why they’re there
Before going into the meeting it’s important to establish a clear “ask”, whether it’s signing a letter, co-sponsoring a bill, etc. Advocates should understand – and feel comfortable with that ask.
Get your leave behind details together
DePutter makes a folder for each office with leave behind materials that the advocates can use as notes and visuals during the meeting. She recommends ensuring the leave behinds include contact information for someone in the group who can answer the member or staffers follow-up questions.
At the actual meetings
Chances are about half of the meetings will be with a member’s staff. This isn’t a bad thing but your attendees may not know that and feel slighted when the member doesn’t meet them in person. Make sure you’ve briefed them that while some staffers may strike them as very young, staffers deserve the utmost respect.
Meetings with staffers might be also be even more effective than meeting with a policymaker, Duckworth said, as they may very well know more about your topic or issue. And, at the end of the day it’s the staffer who writes the memo recommending what the member should do, Duckworth says.
“Members rely heavily on their input,” says Babb. “They hire their staff for a reason. They are people the member trusts.”
After the meeting, make sure your advocates send a thank you note. Beyond that, the lobby day should be seen as the beginning of a relationship. Advocates should stay in touch through social media, email or whatever channel is most effective.
Scheduling other lobby day activities
In addition to meetings with legislators, staff and other bigwigs, advocacy groups should organize events that help members celebrate the fact that for once, they’re all working toward their shared goal in the same place.
Remember, coming to Washington, D.C. to meet their member of Congress might be a huge deal for your attendees, or, at the very least one they’ve put time, effort and possibly money into, so celebrate that fact.
Consider using an app like the Engage Advocacy App so everyone has briefings, city and metro maps, meetings, party times and locations in one place, and can get instant push notifications if something changes.
Parties, receptions and trainings are just some of the other lobby day activities to consider, said Duckworth.
“Depending on where your organization is based, you might only get an opportunity like this once a year,” he said.
Reporting after the event
What are the metrics to track when reporting the success of a lobby day? Surprisingly, it’s not just the number of meetings you schedule.
Instead, think long term. Did your bill pick up any cosponsors between your meeting and the following month? How successful were your group’s follow-ups after the meeting?
DePutter says she uses her advocate’s feedback to measure the effectiveness of the group’s messaging and outreach strategy. This analysis helps the group develop ideas on how to improve attendance for future Hill days.
A good app will allow your attendees to make notes on how the meetings went that you can instantly see, and a really good one will sync those back to your attendees profile in your CRM.
“I’m not the biggest fan of metrics,” she said. “You don’t want to make appointments for the sake of making appointments.”
Staffing the actual event
If you don’t hire an outside group to help with the logistics, you’ll want to make sure you’ve divvied up the lobby day responsibilities appropriately.
Someone from the team needs to make sure the meeting rooms are set up correctly, the catering staff knows where to go, and that everyone has access to WiFi, to name but a few.
Like any event so many things could go wrong, and you want to ensure someone from your team is available to handle everything from transportation to audiovisual and printer problems, as well as staying in touch about last-minute changes and no-shows.
“Everyone is going to be very busy and you’re going to have a lot going on,” Babb said. “You have to make sure someone is assigned to every specific high-level task.”
A Hill Day App
With so many moving parts, and so much on the line, it’s important to stay organized. CQ Roll Call’s new Engage Advocacy App allows you to create a custom branded app that will help you stay organized and keep in touch with advocates. The app offers a calendar to track meetings and other events. You can also use it to distribute talking points, send maps and share information on elected officials.