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Successful Advocacy through Relationship Building

Around the country, people are trying to successfully raise awareness of the need to provide treatment and supports for persons living with mental illness. One of the most effective ways to do so is to form strong relationships with federal policymakers. This isn't easy, but NAMI has some tips to help you build a relationship that can help accomplish your advocacy goals.

Why is building effective relationships with federal policymakers important?

Relationships, at the most fundamental level, provide access to decision makers. If federal policymakers know you, know whom and what you represent and respect you, they'll listen to what you have to say. The legislator's staff should recognize your name and affiliation. You should be one of the first persons the legislator's office thinks of to call when he or she needs information about mental health issues.

What exactly do we mean by "developing a relationship"?

The concept of a relationship is very broad and complex. For the purposes of becoming an advocate for change, developing a relationship refers to creating a close connection between you and your legislator through personal—yet professional—bonds and interactions with the intention that these bonds will grow and be strengthened by mutual experiences.

Ten Tips for Successful Relationships

To contact your legislators and start building a relationship, click here. But before you do, here are 10 tips to help make those relationships strong:

  • Be confident. Operate from a position of strength.You are a valuable resource for elected officials. You have experience, expertise, data, and stories that are essential to a well-informed, mental health policy dialogue.
  • Be prepared. Do your research.Identify and learn about your representatives at the federal level. The more you know about those who are elected to represent your district, the easier it will be to communicate with them.
  • Seize opportunities to connect. Follow-up immediately after your initial meeting with your legislator. Attend events honoring the legislator, candidate forums, or town hall meetings.  Over time - as your legislator becomes more familiar with you, he or she will be more open to being approached by you for help.
  • Provide positive encouragement. Demonstrate how important the legislator is to your work. Invite your legislator to an event you host in support of your services and programs. Your legislator is likely to embrace your hospitality and outreach, and appreciate how important he or she is to your community efforts aimed at constituents in his or her district.
  • Keep your legislator informed. Inform your legislator how a change in legislation impacts the communities you serve. Legislators typically appreciate knowing the consequences of their actions and policies, and your outreach is likely to generate a positive response.
  • Be authentic. Be yourself when communicating with your legislator. Engage in open, honest and transparent communications.
  • Be a reliable source of information. Establish yourself as expert. Be accurate, be quick, and never exaggerate or misstate anything to make your argument stronger.
  • Stand ready to serve. Be willing to help the legislator and follow-up as appropriate, in a timely manner.
  • Be respectful. Be mindful of your legislator’s priorities, as well as any time limitations he or she may have to work on your issue. If you are given advice on how to strategically advance your issue, act on it. Make sure that your contact with your legislator is appropriate and does not infringe upon his or her personal or family life.
  • Be thankful. Let your legislator know that you appreciate his or her support, at every opportunity. Write thank you letters, send emails, make calls and make public expressions of appreciation, as appropriate.

Do you want to join NAMI and speak with members of Congress to advocate for individuals living with mental illness? Learn more by watching NAMI's introductory webinar to NAMI Hill Day 2014, which takes place on Sept. 4, 2014 at the NAMI National Convention.

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