Meeting with Members of Congress and/or their staff is a terrific way for individuals with Spina Bifida, and their loved ones, to communicate with policymakers on important issues. Through these visits, you can educate Congress about your concerns, make yourself available as a resource and establish a relationship that can prove mutually beneficial over time. It is best to build a relationship before you need it. Such meetings can be conducted at congressional offices in Washington, D.C., or "at home" in district offices, and can result in support for SBA's public policy priorities.
Prepare and be on time. Members of Congress and their staff are very busy. Be respectful of their time. Give yourself plenty of time to go through security, find your way to the office, and announce yourself to the receptionist. If you will be in a group, discuss with your colleagues in advance what you will be covering in the meeting. Be sure to select a primary spokesperson and determine who in the group will raise which points and requests.
Open the meeting by thanking the Member/staffer for his or her time. Be sure that everyone in your group identifies him/herself—first and last name and connection to Spina Bifida—and remember to mention where you live/work in the district/state so they are clear you are a constituent. If the policymaker/staffer has been helpful in the past or has taken action that you appreciate, be sure to say thank you and acknowledge this up front.
- Be brief and clear, as you typically will have only 10–25 minutes for the entire meeting. Cover only a few (one to three) topics. You will have talking points in advance to ensure that you and your colleagues "stay on message." If asked a question to which you do not know the answer, acknowledge that the question is a good one and indicate you will follow up later with the answer. Do not assume that the Member/staffer is knowledgeable about the issue you are discussing; be sure to provide some background information. Be sure not to use any "lingo" or "slang" unless you have first explained what it means.
- Be sure to provide a personal story or real-life illustration, since personal stories are more easily remembered than statistics. As necessary, briefly cite evidence or statistics to support your position, particularly any local, regional, or state data. You will have this information in your packet and a copy will be in the packet you will leave behind with the office as well. However, be careful not to overwhelm the policymaker/staffer with too many statistics or references to studies (this kind of information will be in the materials you leave behind or can be sent with your thank-you note). Also, keep your personal story brief. Discuss how the policy change (e.g., increased funding for the National Spina Bifida Program) will have an impact on your community. Be concise and honest about the issue(s) and the solution(s) and make clear the relevance of the issue(s) to their constituents.
- Be polite and listen carefully to the policymaker's/staffer's views and comments. Even if you disagree, it is very important to be courteous. Much of advocacy is about building and maintaining relationships over time. Some of the best friends of the Spina Bifida community have been recruited by individuals with Spina Bifida who just took a few minutes to reach out to their elected officials and ask for support.
- Be sure to get a response—respectfully. Ask directly, and politely, for the policymaker's views and position on the issue and what he/she plans to do about it. It is your constitutional right to meet with your congressional representatives, so take this opportunity to do what you can to get a commitment from the Member of Congress to take action on your request(s). However, if the Member truly is undecided, or the staffer is not familiar with the Member's position on the issue, do not force the issue.
- Bring a short set of materials with you to leave behind. However, do not give the materials to the Member/staffer until the close of the meeting, or he/she may be distracted by the material and only partially listen to you. Early in the meeting indicate that you have materials to leave behind. Be sure to follow up and follow through on any promises of additional information.
- Leave your contact information. If you leave a business card, make it clear that you are visiting on your own time and not representing your employer, unless you have received such clearance. If you do not have a business card to leave, make sure you give your home/personal contact information so the office can follow-up. Be sure to get a business card from the Member of Congress/staffer so that you know how to reach them.
- Summarize your requests of the Member of Congress and any responses the Member or staffer has provided to ensure you are clear on where they stand on the issues. Summarize the Member's/staffer's requests and indicate how you plan to respond. Express thanks and appreciation for their time, interest, and courtesy.
- Report back to the Spina Bifida Association on any meeting with your Members of Congress. This information is essential for SBA to have so that others can follow up with the office to provide additional information if needed and reinforce the message you delivered.
- Follow up with a thank you email. Your follow-up email should express appreciation for the time and consideration extended to you during your meeting. Reiterate your request(s) and ask for a written response from the office. Be sure to call or email with answers or information the Member/staffer requested.
When visiting Capitol Hill, you could encounter long lines to get through security (bags and all contents from your pockets must be put through x-ray machines, and you must step through a metal detector). Please allow plenty of time to get through security.
The congressional schedule is very fluid and Members of Congress and staffers are often pulled away for last-minute, unplanned activities that are not known in advance and, as such, your meeting could be delayed or bumped. Or, you may meet with a different person than expected. Also, space on Capitol Hill is at a premium, so your meeting could take place in the office reception area, in the hallway or downstairs in the coffee shop. Do not take any last minute meeting changes personally and make sure you always are gracious and flexible.
If you are not contacting your Member of Congress through SBA Action Alerts, there are other ways you can reach them: