Letters and emails

Written communication is the simplest way to convey your message to elected officials and it’s also one of the most effective ways. Letters from constituents that clearly state the issue, the specific request, and connect the topic to the elected official’s community will be noticed and remembered in congressional and state offices.

It doesn’t matter if your letter arrives via snail mail or email; as long as you’re making it personal and telling your story, your letter will resonate.

Addressing your letter

Address the letter properly, using appropriate titles. Senators are addressed as “Senator,” Members of the House of Representatives are referred to as Representative, Congressman, or Congresswoman. Occasionally a legislator prefers another title, such as Doctor – their website will likely let you know which title they prefer.

U.S. Senators
The Honorable (full name)
United States Senate
Washington, DC 20510

U.S. Representatives
The Honorable (full name)
United States House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515

Sample letter structure:
Dear Senator/Representative (last name),

Opening paragraph:

  • State the subject of your letter
  • Refer to the bill number or name, if you know it
  • Describe yourself briefly (and note that you’re a constituent), but thoroughly, emphasizing your role in the community. Example: “I am a 37 year-old mother whose son is paralyzed,” or “I am a part time nurse.”

Body of letter:

  • Clearly state your position on the bill or policy. Do you support or oppose it? “Making the ask” is the most important part of any communication to your legislators – be sure to tell them what you want!
  • Explain how the legislation affects you. Are you paralyzed or do you have a family member who is? Let the reader know why you care about the issue.
  • Give a local example of the impact of the issue to make the legislator care.
  • Thank the senator or representative for taking the time to read your letter.
  • Let the senator or representative know you are a resource for more information.
  • Ask for a reply and let them know you will be following up.

Tips for letter writing:

  • Limit the length of your letter to three or four paragraphs, and around 500 words.
  • Never be rude or threatening.
  • Make the letter personal. If using a template, modify it so that it’s less obvious. A personalized letter or email is more likely to influence a legislator’s decision than an avalanche of templates.
  • For maximum impact, address your letter to an individual. You can call your legislators office and ask to speak with the Member’s Health Legislative Assistant.
  • Make sure to express appreciation for past or future support.
  • Ask the legislator to send you a response stating his or her position on the issue.
  • Describe yourself briefly, but emphasize aspects that make you an important part of the constituency.
  • Follow up your letter with a phone call to make sure it was received.

Phone calls to your elected officials

Making a phone call to your legislators is certainly the quickest way to be heard. It’s particularly effective just before an important vote is scheduled, when your legislators’ staff is trying to tally their constituents’ opinion on an issue. In this case, ask the person answering the phone to connect you with the person handling the specific issue, which, for spinal cord injury issues, is usually the health legislative assistant.

If you are successful in getting connected to the appropriate staffer, identify yourself as a constituent and ask them how the legislator plans to vote on your particular issue. Clearly communicate your position, thank them politely and ask that they thank the legislator as well.

If you are transferred to voicemail leave a concise message, and request that they call you back. Remember, legislative offices often count the number of calls they receive either for or against an issue.

To find your legislators’ phone number, simply visit their website. If you don’t know who your legislators are (don’t worry, you’re not alone!) visit congress.gov and enter your zip code.

Tips for making phone calls

  • Provide your name and address so you are recognized as a constituent.
  • Identify the bill (by number, if you have it) or issue you are calling about.
  • Keep your call brief and focused. Be sure to focus on a single issue, making two or three key points (prepared talking points or notes can be useful to help structure your call).
  • Clearly state what you are asking the senator or representative to do (vote for/against, introduce and amendment, delete a provision, etc.)
  • Record the name and contact information of the staff member with whom you spoke. This way you can ask for him or her by name the next time you call. This will help you to begin building a relationship.
  • Make sure to thank the staff member and the legislator for their time, and try to follow up with a thank you note.

Meeting with elected officials

A face-to-face meeting with your legislators is a powerful advocacy tactic, and most congressional staff will tell you it’s the most effective means of advocacy.

A 2011 survey by the Congressional Management Foundation noted that “Staff surveyed said constituent visits to the Washington office (97%) and to the district/state office (94%) have some or a lot of influence on an undecided Member.” The reason why is simple –- if you’re taking time out of your schedule to meet with a legislator, you must really care about the issue. And when you take the time to meet with your elected officials, you put a face on paralysis.

It is important to remember that you don’t have to travel to Washington to meet directly with your legislators. In fact, it is often best to meet with legislators when they are home in their district offices during a legislative recess.

When elected officials are on recess, they have fewer distractions from legislative business. You can see when Congress is in recess and when your legislators will be home by visiting the House and Senate websites, or you can call your legislators’ office directly. Never be offended if your legislators are unable to meet with you in person. Lawmakers often rely on their staff to meet with constituents, draft legislation, and make policy recommendations.

Staff members, such as health legislative assistants, will have more time to get to know you and your issues, and are often eager to learn from their constituents. Use this time to get to know the staff, develop meaningful relationships, and become a source of reliable information on paralysis in your community.

Tips for your meeting

Before the meeting

  • Each Federal legislator has an office scheduler; call them to schedule well in advance of your trip. And let the Reeve Foundation know you’ll be meeting with legislators by calling us at 202-715-1496. We can even set up the meeting for you and supply you with materials for your visit.
  • Some offices will request an emailed or faxed appointment request. Comply with all the requirements of that particular office.
  • When you request a meeting, explain who you represent and the reason you want a meeting with the senator or representative. Simply tell them what issues you’d like to discuss.
  • Be prepared -- know how the legislator has voted on the issues that are important to you or if he/she has cosponsored the bill you want to discuss (the Reeve Foundation can supply this information). If the topic is one of the Foundation’s priorities, you can find information on the Foundation’s website in the advocacy section.
  • If possible, bring statistics that are specific to the legislator’s district.

During the meeting

  • Arrive prepared and early.
  • Keep your visit brief, focused, and straightforward.
  • Introduce yourself as a constituent, and explain why the issue of paralysis is important to you.
  • Be flexible. Meetings usually run about twenty minutes but are often cut short.
  • Be positive and firm, but not confrontational.
  • Emphasize that paralysis is not a partisan issue.
  • If you are requesting action (and you should be – remember, make the ask!) communicate that up front.
  • Establish yourself as a paralysis/spinal cord injury resource in the community.
  • Don’t be upset if you meet with a legislative assistant instead of the legislator. These assistants help keep elected officials informed about issues and help them make decisions on how to vote. They are important allies!
  • Be respectful at all times, even if you disagree with the legislator’s position.
  • Leave a packet of information for your legislator to review after the meeting is over.

After the meeting

  • Be sure to thank your legislators and their staff for taking the time to meet with you. Like anybody else, they are grateful when they are shown appreciation for action they may have taken.
  • Send a thank-you letter or email to summarize your discussion and action you discussed during the meeting. Remind him or her that you are available as a future resource.
  • Stay in touch via phone calls and emails. Don’t fall off their radar!

Tell the truth and follow through

  • Honesty is critical to a successful relationship.
  • If asked a question about the other side of your argument, answer the question as completely as you can, giving your particular perspective.
  • If you don’t know the answer to a question, say you don’t know, but offer to find the answer and report back as soon as possible. And let Reeve staff help you find the answer!
  • If you say you are going to follow up with the office with additional information, do it as quickly as possible. If the request is going to take a while to respond to in full, let the office know that.

Download the Reeve Foundation Advocacy Toolkit in its entirety as a PDF.