The ability to build relationships is at the core of effective advocacy.
First, to have an impact on matters we care about, it is essential to identify the established leaders on those issues. Strive to get to know them and support their work if it is in line with your values and priorities.
Once trust is built and we get past any existing skepticism, we are more likely to be viewed as credible contributors.
Connecting with established leaders is not enough though. In many cases, there are people who have an interest in an issue, but who have not yet participated in the public dialogue on the issue, and so are not shaping decisions. How do we make sure that, as we are organizing and advocating, we are taking into account a variety of perspectives, experiences and needs? In order to create a process and achieve results that resonate with various demographics in our community, we need to strive to be welcoming and open.
If we genuinely want to get to know people and explore opportunities for collaboration, we must not expect them to always come to us. We need to offer to go to them. Typically, the further away the person is, the more the effort is appreciated! Instead of a meeting in someone’s office, how about suggesting a tour of the area or a visit to their favorite local coffee shop? They will value the opportunity to show off their community, and the interaction could help break down barriers and reveal commonalities.
If you have the opportunity to meet friends or colleagues of the host while you are there, that can be an effective way to get to know your host and their community better. This type of casual, authentic visit instills a sense of bonding.
Sometimes, when we are trying to advocate for a cause we care about, we think it is best to educate people with data. We might dive right into the substance of the policy proposal, and start hurling numbers at our audience. However, when we take this course, we often skip important relationship-building opportunities and end up with impersonal meetings that fail to leave a lasting, positive impression.
Instead, start by getting to know each other by having a conversation that addresses questions like, “What brought you to the work you are doing? What kinds of things are you working on? Is there an area in which you’d like to become more involved?” This sort of interaction supports an exchange of information, ideas and contacts. You might bring up a particular issue you are involved in, answer questions about it, pitch a way to lend support and ask for input on who might be interested.
What to avoid
As people who care deeply about creating a more just, sustainable world, it is easy to get frustrated when progress seems too slow. However, frustration can get in the way and cause us to lose sight of the steps we need to take to achieve progress. Frustration may even cause us to act in a way that is counterproductive to the cause.
How do we avoid this common pitfall? Focus on building relationships—and not just with elected officials whom we are trying to influence, but also with fellow community members and other potential allies, such as those with funding capability.
Whenever possible, we should work to build relationships with our opponents, too. Just because we do not agree on one issue does not mean we could not be allies on another. It is also important to know when to step back. If our frustration reaches a certain level, it can be best to encourage someone else to take over who might have a fresh perspective and higher level of positive energy.
Nurture your relationships
Positive relationships involve mutual respect and support. Like plants that need sun and water, relationships require nourishment. So, once you plant the seeds, be sure to tend to the garden.
Join us at Greenbuild next year in Chicago from November 14 to 16, 2018, for more opportunities to learn about green building and advocacy strategies.