Citizen-based advocacy is a linchpin in American democracy and the most effective tool to drive lasting change.
Individual citizens, standing up for issues they believe in and encouraging others to do the same, have changed the course of history. It was this kind of public outcry that ignited the fight for civil rights, advanced women’s rights, and lit the path for the present-day environmental movement. Mass mobilization of constituents applying pressure on elected officials can (and does!) create positive change – and fighting for America’s endangered species and public lands is no different.
As a constituent with the power to vote for or against your elected officials, you play a critical role in ensuring the voice of the people is heard on Capitol Hill and rises above those of industry and corporate interests. Our Activist Hub is the one stop shop to learn how to effectively communicate with your elected official and make a difference for wildlife. Questions? Email email@example.com.
Are you ready to use your voice as a vehicle for change?
Toolkit (Jump to:)
- General Tips
- Communicate on Social Media
- Attend a Town Hall
- Write or Call Congress
- Submit a Letter to the Editor
- Face-to-Face Meetings with Elected Officials
1. General Tips
Here are a number of tools to ensure your voice is heard
- Positive feedback goes a long way. If your elected official casts a pro-conservation vote, express your thanks. Your gratitude shows them that their constituents are paying attention to what they’re doing on Capitol Hill and that they have the support of people in their district or state on environmental issues.
- Your story will make an impact. Make sure to share your personal connection to the issue and why it matters to you. Your power comes not from being a policy expert, but from your passion and personal connection to the issue. Storytelling can often be the most effective way for you to make a lasting impact.
- Even if you disagree, be respectful. It’s important to always be civil and professional in your comments and actions towards elected officials. Comments that are overly emotional or threatening can be disregarded by members of Congress or their staff and can undermine efforts to protect wildlife.
Find a downloadable version here.
2. Communicate On Social Media
As the popularity of social media grows on Capitol Hill, it is quickly becoming an effective way to stay connected with your elected officials. Not only do members of Congress use social media to communicate directly with their constituents, but it also provides you an opportunity to express your concerns about a particular piece of legislation, ask your elected officials to vote the right way, or generate public praise when a member of Congress casts a pro-conservation vote. Tagging an elected official in a post or Tweeting directly at them gets your point across quickly and in a concise manner, and can easily be shared by others to amplify your message. Including hashtags used by others on the same issue helps amplify the message and get topics to "trend" online.
Our Facebook groups are a central place on social media to gather, take action, and discuss the challenges facing wildlife near you. You can join these groups in states and areas like New Mexico, Colorado, and Eastern PA/NJ. Check them all out here!
.@SenatorXXX Anti-wildlife members of Congress continue to attach harmful riders to bills that favor industry & strip #EndangeredSpeciesAct protections for wolves & pollinators. Please oppose attacks to the ESA & vote to #StopExtinction before it’s too late!
Pictures & Videos Go a Long Way
Post photos or videos to Facebook, Twitter or Instagram of you and a member at a meeting or of your elected official responding to your question at a town hall. Always tag the member and Defenders of Wildlife so we can help amplify your message!
How many similar comments on a social media post is enough for your office to pay attention to?
3. Attend A Town Hall
Research shows that one of the best ways to influence your elected officials is to speak to them or ask questions at a public event. When your elected officials are back in your state or district, find out if they are hosting any public events, like a town hall or a meet-and-greet, and show up with some friends. Members of Congress take the questions and comments they receive from their constituents at public events seriously and are appreciative of the people who make the efforts to attend one of their events. Additionally, if the turnout is small, you may have greater access to your elected official than most people.
To find your members' schedule, follow them on social media, sign-up for their email newsletter, or visit their website.
Tips to Have Your Message Heard
- Prepare your question(s) in advance. Make sure each question only focuses on one issue.
- Make it personal. When you speak with your elected official, it is best to weave together your personal message with your question or comment. This way, you are able to provide some facts and background information as context. Bring a letter with you (or other materials or factsheets) outlining why you care about a specific issue, how it affects your city or state, and what action you’d like your member of Congress to take. If you can’t ask your question, you can give your letter to a staffer after the event and ask that it get shared with your member.
- Bring a friend! Attend a town hall with friends or colleagues to show that your community cares about a specific issue. Wear buttons or stickers to identify that you all represent the same issue.
Sample Questions to Ask
- Upholding the Endangered Species Act: The Endangered Species Act is our nation’s most effective law for protecting wildlife in danger of extinction. Ninety-nine percent of species listed under the Act have survived, and many are on the path to recovery. How will you work to protect the ESA from legislative attacks?
- Defending public lands: Our country’s public lands, including our national forests, wildlife refuges, and national parks, provide critical habitat for our imperiled and common species. In fact, national wildlife refuges alone are home to more than 8,000 species, including over 380 species listed under the Endangered Species Act. How will you work to protect our public lands from special interest threats?
- Addressing climate change: We are already seeing the devastating effects climate change has on communities, wildlife, and ecosystems. Nowhere are the effects more apparent than in the Arctic where temperatures are rising twice the rate of the rest of the country. Despite this reality, some members of Congress and administrative officials want to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to new oil and gas programs. What will you do to stop this short-sided plan?
- The ESA Works
- Stop Extinction
- Protect our Public Lands
Click each for a printable version.
4. Write Or Call Congress
Writing Your Members of Congress
While writing a letter to your elected official can be one of the most effective choices for communicating with Congress, it could take up to six weeks for the letter to reach the Washington, DC office due to intensive security screenings. Especially if the letter pertains to an upcoming vote, it can be necessary to have your message reach the office much quicker.
Instead, you can mail your letter to one of their local offices (check their website for a list of addresses). Or even better, hand-deliver the letter to a local office. You may even have the opportunity to meet with one of the staff members while you’re there!
However you decide to write your elected officials--hand-write and mail a letter, send an email, or send a signed postcard--remember that the most important part of your message is the personalization. A personalized communication that expresses your connection to an issue makes a much greater impact than a form email generated by an advocacy group.
Calling Your Members of Congress
Making a phone call to your elected official is another effective option to share your message. The U.S. Capitol switchboard at 202-225-3121 can connect you to your senator or representative's office. When a staff member answers the phone, ask to leave message for your member of Congress.
Here’s a sample script you can use:
"Hello, my name is [NAME] and I'm from [CITY, STATE]. I'm calling to urge Senator/Representative [NAME] to oppose [BILL #/NAME OF BILL] that would gut the Endangered Species Act. I'm an avid birder who is thrilled to see bald eagles but also remembers the days when there were no eagles here. Thanks to the ESA – the only law that can save at-risk species from extinction – bald eagles are back and a major draw for the wildlife viewers key to economic prosperity in my state. Thank you for your consideration."
Tips for Getting Your Message Across
- Identify yourself as a constituent. State your city and zip code when you call or include your full name and return address on the letter or email.
- Stick to one issue. Address only one issue per letter or call--clarity and brevity are key to getting your message across, especially over the phone when you have limited time.
- Personalize your message. Briefly share your personal story and state why you care about this issue and why your elected official should care, too.
- Make the ask. Be clear about the action you want taken. Mention a bill number if applicable . You can find bill information at www.congress.gov or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
5. Submit A Letter To The Editor
Letters to the Editor (LTE) are one of the most effective ways to highlight an issue that matters to you. Why? Because the editorial or opinion section of your local newspaper is the most read section on Capitol Hill. Additionally, it’s an important vehicle for reaching thousands of people, including agency staff, members of Congress, and other policy makers. In many ways, LTEs can act as your community’s temperature gauge on local issues. They are great tools for holding elected officials accountable and raising awareness about issues that matter to you.
LTEs are short and generally between 200 and 250 words, so the main focus of the letter should be how you feel about a specific issue and how that issue affects you locally. Be sure to check out the guidelines of your local paper before submitting.
Tips for Writing a Compelling Letter to the Editor
- Use your own words. Don't simply cut and paste from the sample talking points given to you. Many papers won’t print letters if they suspect they are part of a letter campaign.
- Keep your letter short and as concise as possible. Focus on one or two main points, but make sure to include your personal story and local connection to the issue.
- Use elected officials’ names. If appropriate, include a message to your elected officials urging them to support or oppose a specific issue. Make sure to use your elected officials’ names in the letter to increase accountability and ensure the elected official will see the letter.
- Be timely. Your piece will have a greater impact (and greater chance of getting published) if it’s in response to a current issue or responding to an article within a few days of publication.
- Don't include an attachment. If you are emailing your LTE, it is best to include the text of your letter in the body of your email to the newspaper. Do not attach a word document with the letter to your email.
- Follow the submission guidelines. Letters must include full name, home address, day and evening phone numbers, and may be edited for length, grammar and accuracy. Your phone number and address are used for verifications purposes and will not be published.
- We're here to help! Defenders of Wildlife is happy to review your letter before you submit it. You can email your LTE to email@example.com for feedback.
If you don’t get your letter published in one newspaper, try a different one. Sometimes, papers will only publish a couple letters on a given issue, even if dozens are submitted. If your letter isn’t published, know that you helped a fellow citizen get their letter in the paper by showing the editors which issues matter to you and the community.
If your LTE is published, send the link to and text of your letter to your elected officials so they can read about the issues that are important to their constituents. Don’t forget to send a copy to Defenders of Wildlife, too. It’s your voice that helps us succeed in our work and we want to hear it!
Sample Letter to the Editor:
I am dismayed by [ELECTED OFFICIAL'S NAME]'s attempt to undermine the Endangered Species Act, the landmark conservation law established to protect our imperiled species. The ESA is our nation’s most effective law for protecting wildlife in danger of extinction. Ninety-nine percent of species listed under the Act have survived, and many are on the path to recovery.
As a [PARENT, OUTDOORS PERSON, TEACHER, VETERAN, BUSINESS OWNER, SCIENCTIST, RELIGOIUS LEADER, ETC.], I care about protecting endangered species because [REASONS X,Y,Z]. I am proud to live in a state where I can see the once-endangered bald eagle when I’m out hiking with my family.
Led by extremists with backing from corporate special interests, some members of Congress are attempting to take decisions about which species are protected away from scientists and give that power to themselves. That is disgraceful! A 2015 poll found 90% of American voters support upholding the ESA. I urge [ELECTED OFFICIAL'S NAME] to respect their constituents’ values and do their part to protect our wildlife and the laws that make those protections possible.
6. Face-To-Face Meetings With Elected Officials
As a constituent, elected officials are eager to meet with you regarding your opinions on specific issues. It’s perfectly fine that you may not be an expert on the topic you plan to discuss with your elected official. What makes your voice and message impactful is that you are a concerned, voting constituent.
Since members of Congress have busy schedules, you may end up meeting with a staff member instead – but don’t be discouraged! Staff are the eyes and ears of the member. It is important to develop a strong relationship with this person to ensure that your message is being delivered to their boss.
When you’re meeting with your elected official or their staff, your role is to be the “face” of the issue and to provide a local perspective on the positive or negative impacts of a bill on your community or state. Remember, what is most important is your personal story and passion for the issue, not your expertise on all the details.
BELOW ARE A HANDFUL OF STEPS FOR MEETING WITH YOUR ELECTED OFFICIAL OR THEIR STAFF.
- Step 1. Greet and thank your elected official (or their staff), explain your relevance, and make a connection:
- "Hello, my name is ___________ and I’m from _______________. I work/volunteer/serve_________."
- "Hello, my name is ___________ and I’m from _______________. I work/volunteer/serve_________."
- Step 2. Make a connection:
- "I know you (or your boss) has voted to uphold the ESA in the past."
- "I know you (or your boss) cares about protecting wildlife and wildlife habitat."
- Step 3. Make the ask early:
- "Please oppose BILL NUMBER/BILL NAME which undermines the Endangered Species Act."
- "Please support BILL NUMBER/BILL NAME which strengthens protections for endangered species and public lands."
- Step 4. Elaborate and reiterate using a few talking points:
- "The Endangered Species Act is our nation’s most effective law for protecting wildlife in danger of extinction. Ninety-nine percent of species listed under the Act have survived, and many are on the path to recovery."
- "The American people broadly support the ESA. A 2015 poll found 90% of American voters support upholding the ESA."
- "Scientists – not Congress – should be making decisions about which species need protection. The ESA is so successful because it entrusts biologists and wildlife experts with making science-based decisions about protecting species."
- Step 5 (the most important part of the meeting!) Tell your story. Questions to consider to help you develop your story:
- Why does this issue matter to you?
- How does this issue impact you personally?
- How does this issue impact your district or state?
- Step 6. Reiterate the ask.
Tips for Successful Advocacy in Face-to-Face Meetings
- Be Prepared. Check out Defenders of Wildlife's website to learn more about your issue so you can comfortably speak about the main points. If you need, Defenders can provide you with resources, factsheets, and other information to help you better understand the specifics of your issue. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more.
- Know your elected official. It’s important to learn more about your member of Congress before the meeting such as legislative priorities, committee memberships, and/or legislation sponsored or opposed. It’s also important to learn a bit more about your elected officials’ personal side – does he/she have personal connection with wildlife or the outdoors?
- Your story matters. Members of Congress and their staffers are focused on dozens of issues every week so it is critical that you tell a compelling story. Don’t get lost in the statistics, data, or background; it’s not necessary to delve into an in-depth analysis of the issue in this meeting. Make sure you explain why this issue matters to you and your city or state.
- Be truthful. Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.” You want to be viewed as a credible source of information so it’s always better to get back to someone with the correct answer than to be inaccurate. Plus, reaching back out to your elected official provides you with another communication opportunity.
- Listen. A successful activist not only talks, but also takes time to listen and ask questions. Listening allows you to gauge the level of interest and knowledge of the member of Congress or staffer on your issue and provides an opportunity for you to engage in open discussion.
- Close with a specific ask. This ask is the most critical part of the meeting. Make sure to ask the member or staffer for their commitment on an issue by asking them to support or oppose a bill, join their colleagues on a letter, speak out on the floor, etc.
- Follow up. Write a note or send an email to express your thanks for the meeting and repeat your request for a commitment. Also include any additional requested information.