Best Practices for an Effective Congressional Fly-in

Advocates from hundreds of organizations descend on Washington every year for annual congressional fly-in events. These events provide a chance to expose lawmakers and staff to everyday practitioners from industry in the hopes of winning hearts and minds.

But whether your organization is doing it for the first time or the 40th, there’s always room for better planning. Fly-ins are complicated, with challenging logistics and limited time. Missteps can erode effective communication, or even have an adverse impact.

That’s why Phone2Action convened four veteran advocacy professionals on a webinar this month to discuss tips for an effective fly-in, including case studies to show how it’s done. Here are the highlights, and you can watch the Phone2Action webinar to hear the entire session.

Make a Plan for the Fly-in

The prospect of bringing large numbers of people to Washington, educating them and sending them to Capitol Hill as advocates can be daunting. It requires year-round planning to determine policy focus, goals, and agendas.

While the process will be different at every organization, getting the right people involved in the planning is critical.

Kristen Prather, director of state grassroots programs at the Credit Union National Association, said her organization starts by talking to its members. This ensures that the right issues are addressed and that the right advocates are involved from the start.

“The first thing we always do is work with our members to figure out what they want to experience when they come to the fly-in, what they want to learn and, most importantly, what issues they want to present to legislators when they go up on the hill,” she said.

Defining goals is also important, whether that’s the number of meetings or improving relations with a particular lawmaker.

“Being able to, year after year, keep going back in and seeing improvement in relationships is definitely a good metric of success for us,” said Zoe Aldrich, advocacy specialist for policy at the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

Prepare Your Advocates

Of course, it isn’t enough to simply bring people to Washington. They have to be ready to have an intelligent policy discussion with well-informed staffers and lawmakers. Successful organizations conduct conference calls, webinars and distribute briefing books and other materials well in advance. They are constantly in touch with their advocates.

The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation conducts an in-depth training session the day before advocates head to the hill. “We model a bunch of different things, like how the meetings generally go,” Aldrich said, adding that, “we do a much deeper dive on our policy asks and we offer a lot of time for folks to sit with their groups and practice their meeting flow.”

For first-time advocates, that practice can matter a great deal, the experts said. “One of the things I have paid attention to is leaving space for that, so that people can feel really confident,” said Carleen Pickard, ethical campaigns specialist at Lush Fresh Handmade Cosmetics.

Maximize Impact and Momentum

Because fly-ins are labor intensive, maximizing the impact from all that work makes sense. The experts said that begins as soon as advocates arrive in Washington and doesn’t stop when they leave. Continuing the momentum is vital.  

For example, the Credit Union National Association often includes a big-name speaker such as former Secretary of State John Kerry or author Malcolm Gladwell to motivate advocates when they arrive. The boost helps many get through the briefing sessions and have successful meetings. “It’s a lot of continuing education and being a cheerleader,” Prather said.

Some organizations also augment their fly-in with external events, such as a rally or a social media campaign to drive calls, letters, and tweets to lawmakers. For example, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation had 150 people participate in a fly-in and 1,500 people take part in a digital campaign at the same time.

The experts all agreed that capitalizing on the excitement of Washington after advocates head home is also crucial,

“Make sure you plan out your follow-up ahead of time,” Aldrich said. “Talk about it very early on in your planning phase for the overall event so that its well thought out and impactful.”

Hear additional fly-in tips from the Ethical Campaigns Specialist at Lush Fresh Handmade Cosmetics and the Senior Associate Director of Public Policy The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research in the webinar When Digital Meets Physical: Effective Congress Fly-ins.


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