Advocacy How-To

16th May
written by Kate Seif

When our blog readers think of Washington, DC, they often think of politics (and politicians, of course), soaring monuments, and hopefully, the Alliance’s advocacy efforts.  But in all seriousness, coming to our nation’s capital is a great opportunity to learn what’s happening with federal policy and to make an impact on it.  We talked last week about how to participate in Capitol Hill Day, but our National Conference on Ending Homelessness also offers a great opportunity to learn more about federal policy and advocacy, including messaging and how-tos.

This year, we’ve got a great track of workshops for anyone who wants to better hone their advocacy skills, for seasoned advocates, for Capitol Hill Day participants, or for folks who are just curious.  Here’s a basic overview of some of the great advocacy workshops we’re planning:

  1. Building a Systems Change Movement: Engaging Local Leaders – This workshop will provide attendees with concrete examples and how tips for getting your local community leaders (elected officials or otherwise) to work together to support and affect positive systems change.
  2. Impacting Policy: Making the Most of your Advocacy Meetings – Ideal for Capitol Hill Day participants, this workshop will cover the nitty-gritty of conducting a meeting with your Member of Congress or their staff.  The lessons imparted will also translate to local and state policymakers or other key stakeholder meetings.
  3. The Federal Budget: Update and Impact on Ending Homelessness – There have been many changes to federal funding and the funding process this year, and these changes may have a big impact on key programs working to end homelessness.  This workshop will give you an update and provide an outlook on what’s next for Congress, and what it means for our nation’s efforts to prevent and end homelessness.
  4. Impacting Policy: Developing Effective Advocacy Messaging – Getting the right message for the right audience is a key aspect to effective advocacy. This workshop will offer participants successful strategies for developing a policy agenda and what messages work best for key policymakers.
  5. Election 2012: Engaging Consumers, Candidates, and Your Community – the election season will be in full swing following our conference. Elections offer a great opportunity to get involved in the political process and ensure that candidates are aware of the issue of homelessness in their communities.  This workshop will provide ways in which nonprofits can get involved in the election cycle, the importance of doing so, and legal limitations.

These workshops are all scheduled during different slots so you can attend all of them (and we of course encourage you to do so!) For more information on our conference and what you can expect there, check out some of the other recent and upcoming blog posts.

If you have any questions about how to get involved in advocacy at our conference or elsewhere, please don’t hesitate to contact me!

25th April
written by Kate Seif

We often write about the appropriations process on this blog, and we try to avoid using too much jargon. But when discussing the federal funding process, it’s hard to avoid using at least a few  terms that don’t come up in normal everyday conversation (unless, of course, you work with us).  They include “appropriations” – a formal word for “funding” – and “mark up” – the process whereby a committee  amends and votes on legislation.  And finally, there are “allocations,” which, to add further confusion, come in both 302(a) and 302(b) varieties.  This blog will hopefully clarify both of those terms and provide a little insight into why these references to an obscure part of the federal budget code matter to your efforts to prevent and end homelessness.

The 302(a) allocation is pretty easy – it’s the amount the House and Senate  say the Appropriations Committees have to spend on all federal “discretionary” programs (see this old blog for more info on discretionary spending), which includes pretty much every single homeless and affordable housing program. The 302(a) can vary between the House and Senate, as it does this year, depending on each chamber’s priorities for federal spending.

Each Appropriations Committee (one in the House and one in the Senate) then divides the single, large 302(a) allocation (to give you a sense of the size, it was $1.043 trillion last year) into twelve pots – one for each of the appropriations subcommittees. The amount that each subcommittee gets …drumroll, please…is called the 302(b) allocation (Whew! We finally got there).

Not every subcommittee gets the same 302(b) allocation. For example, the Defense Subcommittee tends to get the biggest 302(b) allocation, while the Legislative Branch Subcommittee’s allocation is comparatively tiny.

These allocations matter because they are then split up again, into specific programs. The 302(b) ultimately determines how much each federal department can spend on the various programs under its control. For HUD, this means programs like McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Grants and Housing Choice Vouchers; for VA, it includes SSVF and GPD; for HHS, this includes programs like SAMHSA Homeless Services, RHYA, and so on.

This year, the Senate and House released the following allocations:

Subcommittee House Senate
Transportation, Housing and Urban Development and Related Agencies (T-HUD) $51.606 billion $53.438 billion
Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies (Milcon-VA) $71.747 billion $72.241 billion
Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies (L-HHS) $150.002 billion $157.722 billion

Lower allocations in the House compared to the Senate likely indicate that many programs will receive less funding under the House’s proposal than the Senate’s. The higher the allocation is for each subcommittee compared to the previous year, the more likely individual programs like HUD McKinney-Vento are to receive increases, which is why we made a big push last month to increase the T-HUD 302(b) allocation. It’s worth noting that the levels vary so much between each subcommittee due to the varying size of the departments and agencies each subcommittee oversees.

So, the more we can increase the allocation for each subcommittee, the more likely we can achieve increased funding levels for key affordable housing and homelessness programs – and the more people you can serve in order to make further progress ending homelessness.

12th April
written by Kate Seif

Inviting your Member of Congress or other elected official to visit and tour your homeless assistance program can be one of the most impactful ways to interact with them and engage them in the movement to end homelessness.  Site visits involve letting your representatives or senators see first-hand how your program operates and help them meet with staff and consumers, so that they can make the connection between your program working to end homelessness in their district, and the legislation they work on every day in Washington, DC.

So how and when can you conduct a site visit?  This blog will give you a little more background, and your opportunity is coming soon! The House and Senate will be in recess, working back in the districts, from April 30 to May 4! With several federal funding bills expected to be released in the coming weeks, the May recess offers a perfect opportunity to explain the importance of increasing federal homelessness funding to better service people at risk of or experiencing homelessness in their districts.

Site visits can be quick tours, or more involved events including speakers and the media.  Both are effective, and which type you plan depends on your Member’s availability and your goals for the site visit. Most importantly, you should pick one to two policy issues on which to focus.  This will depend largely on your specific program and the types of federal funds you use.  For example, do you serve homeless people with McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Grants? Do you serve youth? Veterans? You should choose a policy issue to discuss with your Member of Congress based on what matters most to your program.

The congressional office you’re working with may want to include press coverage, which is a great opportunity to raise awareness on the issue for both you and the Member of Congress. You should also consider getting your local partners involved in the planning process and actual site visit.  Consider inviting other key stakeholders in your community who may be able to help encourage the Member of Congress to attend.

Throughout the site visit, make sure that whatever the Member is seeing or hearing, including program outcomes, personal stories from consumers, and the unmet need in your community, is being connecting to the policy issue and “ask” you’re making of your Member.

The early May recess is truly an ideal time to connect with your Member on federal funding issues or other policy priorities.  If you’d like to conduct a site visit, we can help! You can use our advocacy toolkit for a step-by-step guide, or you can reach out to me at for help deciding who to invite and on which policy issues to focus.  We’re here to help in any way you need and can’t wait to hear about all the visits Members of Congress will be doing to homeless assistance programs in May!

30th June
written by naehblog

The National Conference on Ending Homelessness is just around the corner and with it comes our annual Capitol Hill Day.

Capitol Hill Day gives conference attendees the opportunity to sit down with their congressional offices and tell them about all the fantastic work their organization and community has been doing to end homelessness. The goal is to convince policymakers to make ending homelessness a federal priority.

Now that you have all the tools from the rest of the Advocacy How-To series that you need to contact your congressional offices, you have absolutely no reason not to meet with them during Capitol Hill Day 2011!

This year’s Capitol Hill Day will officially be Friday, July 15 from 1:30 to 5:00 pm. However, many states are scheduling meetings for earlier in the week to accommodate their congressional offices’ schedules.

Getting face time with Members of Congress and their staff is a rare opportunity, so you should definitely take advantage of these meetings.

When you sit down with your congressional office you:

  • Build necessary relationships with policymakers;
  • Educate your Members of Congress on successes and progress at home; and,
  • Encourage them to support policies to eliminate homelessness.

How do I get involved?

To participate in Capitol Hill Day, you should get in touch with your State Captain.

State Captains take the lead on scheduling all of the Capitol Hill meetings for conference attendees from their state. You can contact the Alliance to get information about your state’s plans for Capitol Hill Day or contact your State Captain(s) directly using this list.

You can also connect with us during the conference at the advocacy information table next to registration. We will be there to answer all of your questions and provide any further information you may need.

If your state does not have a State Captain, and you would like to volunteer as one, or simply to get more information on Capitol Hill Day, please contact Amanda Krusemark at

Photo courtesy of citron_smurf.

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23rd June
written by naehblog

As our Advocacy How-To series continues, we want to spend one more week talking about how to contact congressional offices. This is the most important building block of building congressional relationships. Last week, we talked about emailing them; this week we will look at calling.

Speaking directly to someone in a congressional office might seem intimidating, so it is important to have a solid game plan before calling. Make sure you:

  • If possible, know the name of the staff person responsible for the issue you are calling about (see last week’s Advocacy  How-To blog post for more on this),
  • Be able to state your specific “ask” in a few clear and convincing sentences (we can help you develop talking points), and
  • Be prepared for questions.

Here are three scenarios you may come across when you call the office:

1. Speaking with the Staff Person

The best case scenario is when you are connected to the people who handle your issue (like housing). Tell them exactly what you want them to do. Be very clear. If they can’t answer right then and there, ask when you can follow up. Be concise. If you don’t know the answer to a question, don’t make something up! Just say you will find the answer and let them know in follow-up. It’s a perfect excuse to keep the conversation going.

2. Getting an Automated Message

If you call the main number and receive an automated message, leave a message.

Be as clear and brief as possible. Say you are leaving a message for the staff person in charge of your issue and mention what you want the office to do. Be sure to leave a call back number and email address for the office to get in touch with you.

Here is an example:

“My name is Jane Doe from Districtville and I’m leaving a message for the staff member responsible for housing. I’d like to urge Rep. Joe Schmoe to support $2.4 billion funding level for McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Grants. I’d love to talk further with the appropriate staff person on how this program is making an impact in my community and why this funding level is so important for our district’s efforts to end homelessness. I can be reached at 202-555-1234 or”

3. Speaking with the Front Desk

If the front desk is unable to transfer your call to the appropriate staff member, try to find out when would be a good time to call back. You may also want to leave a message like the one above, so the office has a record of your call and concerns.

In these situations or others, the Alliance can help! If you have any questions or concerns about contacting your Members’ offices, let us know! We are here to answer your questions and help you every step of the way! And make sure to check out our Advocacy Toolkit for more great information and resources.

Image courtesy of nikitab.

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16th June
written by naehblog

Our “Advocacy How-To” series provides tips, tools, and strategies to conduct your own advocacy and get involved in Alliance advocacy campaigns. Today’s post is from Federal Policy Intern, Swaroop Vitta.

Last week, we saw how easy it is to find your Members of Congress, the committees they sit on, and the appropriate staff members to contact. This week and next, we’ll talk about how to go about contacting your Members’ offices. There are a few ways to do this, but we recommend either calling or emailing their offices – “snail mail” can take weeks to get through Capitol Hill security.

Today, we will talk about emailing the office.

Because it makes the most sense to contact the staff person who handles your issue (like housing) directly, the most effective way to reach them is usually to get their direct email address, rather than the general email address listed on the Member’s website.

Many congressional offices will not give out email addresses for their staff members, but the Alliance can help you figure out the email address if you know the staff person’s name. To get this information, either:

  • Call the congressional office directly, or
  • Call the Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121 and ask to be connected with your Member’s office.

Once you reach the office, ask who handles your issue area. For example, if you will be emailing your Member about housing issues, ask for the staff member in charge of housing.

Now it’s time to write the email. This is nothing to be intimidated by, but here are a few key tips.

Get to the point. These staff members receive many emails everyday, so it is important that you make it clear early on in the email what exactly you are asking of them.

Now that you have their attention, add lots of relevant information. You can include local data, like the number of people in permanent housing in your area, and even short anecdotes, like stories about a successful re-housing intervention. Feel free to attach local news reports and other media, or simply link to reports or other publications and give a brief summary of the highlights.

Be relevant. Make sure that everything you write is relevant to the specific issue you are raising. Each point should back up your main request.

Proofread. Remember to proofread for grammar and for content. It is very easy to make mistakes while typing, but these mistakes may be distracting and indicate a lack of credibility. Once you think you are done, read over the email one more time to make sure it’s perfect.

Now just click send!

Want more? There are lots of great resources in our Advocacy Toolkit, including example emails and other useful information.

9th June
written by naehblog

Our “Advocacy How-To” series provides tips, tools, and strategies to conduct your own advocacy and get involved in Alliance advocacy campaigns. Today’s post is from our Director of Policy Outreach, Amanda Krusemark.

So, you want to get involved in federal advocacy. But who, exactly, should you contact? Which Members of Congress are most important? Who should you talk to in their offices? Today, we’re going to answer these questions.

Members of Congress are most interested in hearing from their own constituents, so you should generally only contact Members who represent your community.

  • If you’re not sure who your representatives are, visit and type your zip code into the box labeled “FIND YOUR REPRESENTATIVE.”
  • You can find your senators at Just choose your state from the box labeled “Find Your Senators.”

Once you know who represents you in Congress, you might wonder which Member (or Members) is most important for your cause.

Congress does most of its legislative work through committees so you should find out on which committees your Members of Congress sit. (Members’ websites usually have this information, or we can help.) Depending on the issue, there are several committees that could be important. For example, the most important committee for funding HUD’s McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Grants is the Appropriations Committee.

Representatives and senators in charge of these key committees (the Chair and Ranking Member) are the most important, followed by committee members. However, any Member of Congress can ask their colleagues on these committees to take action.

Once you’ve figured out which congressional office to contact, the next step is finding the appropriate staff person in your congressperson’s office. Each staff member is usually assigned a portfolio of subjects like housing, health care, immigration, national security, etc. Find out who handles your issue on behalf of the Member of Congress. For most issues related to homelessness, that is the person who handles housing issues. Sometimes, though, you might want the person who handles (for example) health or youth issues.

It’s that staffer who will be able to advise your Member of Congress on key legislation, appropriations, and other legislative action on your topic of interest.

Next week, we’ll explore how to get in touch with these individuals and what to say. For now, though, just remember that it’s easy to find out who your Members of Congress are and their committee assignments. That information will go a long way toward making you an effective advocate.

Photo courtesy of Senator Mark Warner.

2nd June
written by naehblog

This fourth post in a series of “Advocacy How-To” blogs was written by Amanda, Director of Policy Outreach for the Alliance. In this series, you’ll find tips, tools, and strategies to conduct your own advocacy and get involved in Alliance advocacy campaigns.

Last week, we discussed how a bill becomes a law. This week, we want to explore that process for a specific type of legislation: appropriations bills.

While it may seem complicated and removed from your work in the field, the appropriations process plays a huge role in determining how much is available in federal resources for ending homelessness in your community.

The appropriations process focuses on “discretionary spending” that Congress can set each year – as opposed to mandatory spending, like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Medicaid, or Social Security. Discretionary spending includes a huge range of federal programs, like HUD’s McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Grants.

The appropriations process is very similar to the process for passing authorizing bills, with a few key differences: funding must be approved each year to run the functions of government, and the sitting President always submits formal recommendations for appropriations.

  • The release of these recommendations – called the President’s Budget Proposal – kicks off the federal budget process each year, usually in early February.

  • Congress uses the President’s recommendations as a guide as it makes decisions about the budget and funding levels for programs like McKinney-Vento.

  • After the President’s Budget Proposal is released, each chamber of Congress (the Senate and the House) usually passes a Budget Resolution, which is a document that provides an overall framework for spending (including discretionary spending) in the upcoming fiscal year. This year, the House has already passed a Budget Resolution but the Senate has yet to act.

  • After passing the Budget Resolution, which sets out the overall amount of discretionary money available to spend (called a 302(a) allocation), the total amount is then divided up among the twelve different Appropriations Subcommittees. All federal discretionary programs are divided into these twelve subcommittees by department and topic.

  • Using this smaller allocation (called a 302(b) allocation), each subcommittee then drafts, releases, and passes its own funding bill. For example, the Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development Appropriations Subcommittee writes a bill providing specific funding levels for programs within the departments of Transportation and HUD.

  • After each bill passes its subcommittee, it must then be passed by the full Appropriations Committee and then by the full House or Senate.

  • Then, just as with authorizing bills, the process will be repeated in the other chamber.

  • Lastly, the House and Senate will have to work out the differences between their two versions of each funding bill. Once they do, they will pass the final version and send it to the President for his signature.

So, when does all of this happen? The federal fiscal year starts on October 1. Theoretically, each of the twelve funding bills should be signed into law before then. In reality, Congress often grants itself an extension or two and may package two or more of the individual funding bills together to save time. That’s exactly what happened with the final fiscal year 2011 budget, which wasn’t passed until April and included all twelve funding bills in one piece of legislation.

Although the appropriations process can be complicated, advocates just like you work every day to impact it so they can better end homelessness. If you’re interested in learning more or getting involved in the coming months in efforts to affect this process in fiscal year 2012, contact Amanda Krusemark.

Image courtesy of doctorwonder.

26th May
written by Anna Blasco

Now that you know you can and should use advocacy to end homelessness, we are going to focus the next few Advocacy How-To posts on how to get involved. We will start with the basics so you can have a good foundation for understanding when things get a little wonky later on in this series. (A lot of this information and much, much more can be found in our Advocacy Toolkit so check it out!)

There are two main types of legislation (bills) in Congress: appropriations bills and authorizing bills

The main difference between these bills is that appropriations bills fund federal programs for the fiscal year, and authorizing bills create new programs or modify existing ones. Basically, the authorizing bill creates a program and the appropriations bill funds that program!

Today, we are going to discuss how an authorizing bill becomes a law. This is important because there are certain points in this process where your work can have a greater impact. As a rule, the best time to influence legislation is when it is being considered by the appropriate legislative committee. After a bill leaves committee, advocates and even Members of Congress themselves may not be able to change it very easily.

To give you a real example, we have outlined how the HEARTH Act became law under each step in italics. The HEARTH Act is the bill that updated HUD’s McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Grants program.

So, how does an authorizing bill become federal policy?


A bill is introduced by a Member of Congress in either the House or Senate, where it receives a reference number and is referred to the relevant congressional committee.

In 2007, Senators Jack Reed (D-RI) and Kit Bond (R-MO) introduced the HEARTH Act in the Senate. It was then sent to the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Development Committee.


The committee and subcommittee hold hearings (called mark-ups) where they make revisions, additions, and debate the bill.

The Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Development Committee passed the HEARTH Act in the fall of 2007.


Once a committee has approved a bill, it is sent to the floor for debate and a vote by all Members of that chamber.


If the bill manages to pass one chamber, it is sent to the other chamber, and the process starts over. If the original bill was introduced in the House, for example, the bill now has to undergo the same process in the Senate. The bill would then receive a reference number specific to the Senate and is referred to a Senate committee and subcommittee. If the bill passes out of committee, it is sent to the Senate floor for debate and a vote by all Members.


If the bill passes the second chamber, versions from both chambers go to a conference committee and the differences between the two bills are reconciled.

The House and Senate worked out the differences between the respective versions of the HEARTH Act.


This final version goes to both chambers for one last vote.

Both chambers of Congress finally passed a compromise version of the HEARTH Act in May 2009.


If it passes both chambers, it is sent to the President, who can either sign it into law or veto it.

President Obama signed the HEARTH Act into law in May 2009.


The final law goes to the relevant federal department or agency, which is responsible for enforcing it and developing regulations to fill in missing details not specifically spelled out in the law.

This step is still in flux. The Department of Housing and Urban Development is expected to release in the coming months additional details about how precisely the HEARTH Act will be implemented.

This is just a general overview. Because of the complex rules governing this process, there are many exceptions, bypasses, and differences in the passage of each piece of legislation. But as you can see this complicated process can have very real effects on efforts to end homelessness.

Your participation is the key to the effect: when you reach out to your elected officials during this deliberation process, they take into account your thoughts and ideas. Making sure that you capitalize on this process is one crucial step towards becoming an effective advocate.

19th May
written by Anna Blasco

This is the second in a series of  “Advocacy How-To” blogs. In this series, you’ll find tips, tools, and strategies to conduct your own advocacy and get involved in Alliance advocacy campaigns.

As an employee of a mission-driven organization, you can and should conduct advocacy and lobbying activities on behalf of your cause.

Unfortunately, the confusion surrounding what types of advocacy and lobbying are allowed keeps a lot of important voices silent.

What is the difference between lobbying and advocacy?

According to the IRS, which oversees lobbying activities, lobbying involves an attempt to influence specific legislation at the local, state, or federal level. Lobbying activities include contacting any legislative Member, legislative staff, or government employee to influence him or her to propose, support, or oppose specific legislation, as well as trying to persuade the public to share your views on a particular legislative proposal.

Advocacy, however, is focused on education about a specific issue on behalf of the people your organization serves. There are two main types of advocacy: non-lobbying advocacy and lobbying. There is no federal limit on how much non-lobbying advocacy your nonprofit organization can do.

Below are a few key things that nonprofit organizations should and should not do in regards to lobbying and advocacy.


  • DO advocate. As we said above, there are no limits on non-lobbying advocacy activities.
  • DO lobby. Nonprofit organizations have a unique perspective and play a valuable role in shaping federal policy.
  • DO learn how to measure your organization’s lobbying activities with the Advocacy Toolkit.
  • DO talk with all of your funders. Public and private foundations can fund lobbying projects but must follow certain rules.
  • DO work with the Alliance year-round on advocacy and lobbying campaigns, like the effort to increase funding for McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Grants in fiscal year (FY) 2012.


  • DON’T think lobbying can only be done by professional lobbyists. Your lobbying activities can result in better policy, making it easier for your organization to achieve its mission.
  • DON’T use federal funds for lobbying at the state or federal level. A local funding match cannot be used for lobbying purposes either.
  • DON’T ever participate as an organization in any political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office. As a private citizen on your own time, you are perfectly within your rights to participate in such a campaign but not while representing your organization.

Policymakers rely on nonprofit organizations’ expertise to make decisions about policy so you can and should lobby.

You should make informed decisions about how your organization is tracking its lobbying and advocacy activities and seek training about lobbying rules and regulations. Use the information in the Advocacy Toolkit to help you begin to make these decisions. As always, the Alliance can help you as you begin making these considerations and begin your advocacy efforts.

Image courtesy of mrjoro