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Volunteers Vote Blog #2: 8 Ways to Engage Volunteers in Local Advocacy

Posted By Volunteer Toronto, October 10, 2019
 Volunteers Vote

Estimated reading time: 20 minutes

 

Public involvement is an essential part of democracy. Volunteers and non-profits are powerful examples of the good that dedicated members of the public can accomplish, and when they get directly involved through advocacy they are a powerful force. Everything from small, personal conversations to direct action can have profound effects, setting in motion ripples that result in system-level change.

 

Choose a specific policy issue

The very first thing you should do is to carefully consider how you will focus your efforts. You’ll need to work with your organization’s board, staff, and program participants to identify existing needs and how they can be addressed—choosing a focus isn’t as easy as it sounds. In the context of Toronto municipal government, this may mean tracking committee and subcommittee agendas (more on this below) and flagging items that may affect your organization’s mission. Volunteers can play an important role in this brainstorming and information gathering phase.

 

Join an issue-based coalition (or two)

Effective advocacy will always include direct political action and participating in coalition-building has a strength-in-numbers effect. Coalitions can provide opportunities for volunteers to expand your reach and bring more knowledge to your team.

For example, Social Planning Toronto has a number of coalitions; the Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care does exceptional work. Research potential coalitions that your organization can join and make a strong case to your senior leadership by connecting membership with your strategic priorities. Participate in 'call to actions' and make sure your volunteers are informed of upcoming activities.

 

Tell powerful stories

The lived experience and personal expertise that your volunteers can bring to bear is the most powerful tool available to you—more than any amount of statistics or evidence. These powerful stories should frame your advocacy but you also shouldn’t allow them to stand alone. Being clear in what change you are asking for and supporting, not overshadowing, your stories with informed data is vital to representing yourself as well as possible.

 

Create great content

The importance of your message means very little if others aren’t drawn to it. Every great campaign has to have some creative element that grabs attention captivates your audience. Spending time mapping out your capacity and strategy for creative design will be well worth the investment in the long run. You don’t need a fully branded promotional suite—a few simple graphics, slogans, or flyers can go a long way—but strong design will set you apart from the crowd and attract interest from decision makers. Creative direction and content support can be popular opportunities for volunteers looking to flex their leadership skills and imaginations.

 

Find your political champions

Being strategic when you reach out to your local representatives will help you make closer connections and create champions for your cause. By doing your research ahead of time you’ll have a better about what issues are most important to them and how to best connect them to your issue.

When meeting with a representative be prepared by knowing, specifically, what you will be asking of them, and how you can be of help to them in return—the more specific you are able to be, the easier it will be for them to carry out your request. 

 

Provide opportunities for volunteers to depute to committee

Making a deputation is when a resident exercises their right to be heard in front of committee or subcommittee, either by speaking in person or submitting a written statement to Toronto City Council members. Deputation allows you and your volunteers to go on record stressing the importance of your issue to elected officials.

There are some steps to take before deputing to committee however. First off, you need to identify the right committee for your deputation and get on the speakers list. Then, it’s usually a good idea to notify your councillor that you’ll be speaking and send them a copy of your deputation. Lastly, Speaking to committee is empowering but it can also be scary, the more speaking practice you can fit in the more comfortable your volunteers will feel.

 

Email, call, repeat

Every advocacy campaign needs some form of digital infrastructure that allows residents to share content with their own networks while also engaging with elected officials. Many non-profits don’t have the capacity to set up elaborate digital tools but that isn’t necessary. You can accomplish a lot with a basic package that includes a draft letter with specific requests and a list of elected officials along with their contact information.

The more you can empower folks to engage with their local representatives and demand meaningful policy change, the better. Emailing is convenient and can be very effective but if you really want to grab their attention, never underestimate the power of a phone call. 

To get you started, here are some lists of Toronto City Counsellors, Members of Provincial Parliament, and Members of Parliament.

 

Show up for the vote

Nothing speaks louder than a Council Chambers packed with residents. While the public don’t give deputations at City Council, your presence in the stand can be felt by elected decision makers. You won’t be able to bring in signs or banners, but you can encourage your volunteers and advocates to wear t-shirts, scarves, or other clothing of a certain colour to make you easily visible to elected representatives and the media. Invite newer volunteers to join you as a way of getting to getting to know you organization better and the issues close to you.

 

This was a guest blog by Lisa Brody Hoffman, Director of Community and Public Relations at Councillor Wong-Tam's office.

   

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