When people think of advocacy, they tend to think of efforts “inside the Beltway.” But if you want to get things done, you shouldn’t forget to include some action on the state level. If you want proof, In the 2023 legislative sessions, the combined statehouses across the United States introduced more than 132,600 bills and enacted over 30,800 of them. The United States Congress has introduced just over 10,300 bills in 2023, of which a mere 77 were enacted. This means Congress had a 0.75 percent effectivity rate (even lower than in past years), compared with 23 percent at the state level.
We spoke to pros and experts to bring you their reasons why you can and should have a state advocacy strategy to get action going beyond D.C.
Why Should You Pursue a State Advocacy Strategy?
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1. Local lawmakers tend to be more accessible
State and local lawmakers usually don’t have the same time constraints and pressures on them as those in Washington, so it’s easier to get them on the phone or meet with them in person. “Being present goes a long way over time” in developing relationships with staffers and lawmakers at the local level, says Jeff Shaw, director of public policy at the Connecticut Association of Nonprofits.
This can come in handy for state advocacy professionals who strive to build relationships with these lawmakers over time.
2. There is a lot to be learned from people at the state level
“People really chew on issues deeply from a variety of angles” at the state level, says Susie Brown, president at the Minnesota Council of Foundations. Because of this, the states are like “little think tanks,” she says.
Many times, if the federal government is looking at an issue, you can be sure that a number of states have already tried to tackle that same issue. Leveraging a state advocacy strategy can help you get ahead and fine-tune your strategy at the national level.
3. Ideas catch fire in the states
What gets legislative attention in one state can quickly spread to other states. Many times federal laws began as a multitude of state laws. For this reason, it’s always good to keep your eye on what’s trending in the states, Shaw says.
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4. You can get ahead of the curve by working in the states
Federal work is reactive, while work at the state level is often proactive, says David Thompson, vice president of public policy at the National Council of Nonprofits.
You don’t have to do advocacy in all the states to reap a positive effect, but you do have to be aware of what’s happening in some of them. “Broaden beyond yourself,” he says.
A good example of this is consumer data privacy. With no centralized federal regulations, state legislatures have taken it upon themselves to approach this topic. A state advocacy approach can really help organizations get ahead of the big issues and position themselves as leaders in the conversation.
5. States are less hindered
It goes without saying that the federal government has more pressures and mandates than states do, so it’s no surprise that Congress has trouble getting things done, Brown says. For this reason, “states are really where the action is,” she says.
How are Federal and State Advocacy Different?
According to Katina Mortensen, director of public policy at the Minnesota Council of Foundations, it’s all about access.
“At the state level you're able to get closer to the work,” she says. “You could, on a regular basis, meet in person with legislators or with their staff … and I think that creates more opportunity for deeper relationships and partnerships at the state level.”
Additionally, Mortensen mentions political dynamics are very different at the state and federal levels, which gives MCF more room to be a leader in the state advocacy field, versus taking a more supportive role together with other organizations at the federal level.
Tips for Advocating at the State Level
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1. Find the right partners
Even if you have a really great idea, don’t go at it alone, Mortensen recommends. Build partnerships and find strength together with other stakeholders to the issue you’re working on. “It may take longer but it's going to be more successful,” she says.
2. Connect your state advocacy strategy to personal stories
The most powerful advocacy comes from people and their stories. As much as you can, inject personal stories into your state advocacy strategy to make it more meaningful and effective for the legislators you’re trying to sway.
“Building that base of people that are most directly impacted to be front and center and making the case for what you're working on,” Mortensen says. “Make sure that you're really connecting those stories and those people with legislators so they can see the real need and the reason why you're bringing forward this issue or this topic.”
3. Start early
“It’s extremely important for individuals who are advocating for something to begin early,” says Mick Bullock, director of public affairs at the National Conference of State Legislatures, and former communications director for Mississippi Governor, Phil Bryant. “Many state legislatures are 60- or 90-day sessions, so they’re cramming a lot of information very quickly. The more you can do out of session is key.”
Add to that the fact that several states allow for pre-filing, so you can already see the importance of getting ahead of the curve.
4. Do your stakeholder research
You know who the key legislators in a state are — but do you really? Look beyond past voting history when you’re doing your research and look at legislators’ occupations, previous employment, family composition, religious affiliation, volunteer work, what they’re passionate about… Any personal connection you can create between your state advocacy strategy and a state legislator can bring you closer to a win.
“Try to be strategic and find early champions for your issue is super helpful because then they're potentially able to bring others on board and be really excited and hopefully prioritize the issue,” Mortensen says. “Just doing a little bit of background consideration of who you're asking is pretty important.”
5. Build a year-round state advocacy schedule
While fly-ins or lobby days at the state capitol are a great strategy, think about state advocacy as a year-round activity to keep your issues, your organization, and your members top of mind for legislators.
“We had advocacy organizations and individuals that met with us both in and out of session. I know as a staffer it was extremely important and helpful when they came in and met with us,” says Bryant. “Like a lot of states, we really did not have a research staff, so basically they were helping us out because they had all this research we could tap into.”
Doing small meetings throughout the year is also easier from a logistics and capacity perspective.
6. Leverage technology to stay on top of your state issues
Beyond building and maintaining relationships, keeping up with developments in the fast-paced state legislatures can be a gargantuan task.
“Especially in the heat of the session, it can definitely be a lot and many of the bills aren't necessarily relevant to our priority so sifting through and finding out which ones are the ones that we should really pay attention to is important,” Mortensen says.
High-performing state advocacy teams of all sizes leverage legislative tracking technology to save time and automate this process. These tools can help you cut through the noise and never miss an important update.
7. Don’t Forget About the Press
Engaging and informing your supporters and lawmakers about your issues is advocacy’s number-one goal of course. However, getting attention from a broader audience can be very beneficial, especially at the state level, where issues feel more personal for constituents.
“Generate some additional interest in the topic,” Mortensen recommends. “Sometimes people are so focused on legislators but the media is right there as well.”
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Plus, with FiscalNote State, you won’t have to search through multiple online state registers to stay on top of developments that impact your organization. Be proactively alerted to the legislation and regulation that matters most to you from all 50 states, D.C., and Puerto Rico including bills, regulations, research reports, committees, hearings, voting records, and state executive orders. You can also identify champions and new advocates by leveraging legislator data (including social media profiles) and analytics such as effectiveness, scores, ideologies, and voting similarity.
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