Getting Started: Grassroots for Beginners

In this Section:

3. eyeContact Job Description

What Have You Gotten Yourself Into? In short, as an ASCRS eyeContact you agree to develop a relationship with your elected officials, keep them informed of issues pertaining to ophthalmology, and communicate ASCRS’ position on key policy issues. As a means of achieving those goals, eyeContacts are expected to respond to Grassroots Alerts in a timely manner and keep abreast of current issues. In addition, they may be asked to attend town hall meetings, meet-and-greets, make personal visits with legislators or their staff, or deliver eyePAC checks.


4. The Five-Minute Advocate: How to Be an Effective Advocate in Five Minutes a Week

Really, Five Minutes is All it Takes! Work and family schedules are packed. It is hard to justify taking on a new challenge, especially something outside your “wheel house” like grassroots advocacy. Sure, ASCRS would like all of its members to be champion eyeContacts who put in a lot of time and effort, but most effective grassroots advocates find they do not need to spend much time to have a big impact.

Here are a few little things you can do to get started:

  • If you do not already know who your federal legislators are, go to ASCRS’ eyeContact Action Center website to look them up. Click on your representative’s and two senators’ websites. Spend five minutes to read their biographies and the issues they support.
  • On your legislators’ webpages you should be able to sign up for their e-newsletters. These are often short but informative messages that keep you up to date on what your legislators are doing.
  • “Friend” or “Follow” your congressman and senators. Many politicians rely on social media as a quick and easy way to get the word out to constituents. And it is a two-way medium—you can let them know what you think by responding to their posts.
  • Set aside five minutes each Friday to read ASCRS’ government relations newsletter, Washington Watch Weekly. After a few weeks, you will be surprised how much you know about what is happening in healthcare policy and issues affecting ophthalmology.
  • Respond to ASCRS Grassroots Alerts. The government relations staff tracks legislation on Capitol Hill and lets you know when your action is needed via email. Our software system instantly matches you with your state and district and provides you with a sample email to send to your representative or senator. All it takes is about 30 seconds!
  • Keep your ears open—you might learn something. What are your patients, friends, and family saying? What is on the local news? Knowing what is important to those around you helps put your issues in perspective.
  • Vote: simple, classic, and the best way to let your elected officials know you are listening!


5. Getting to Know Your Legislators and the District

Not all Legislators are Created Equal. Public opinion polling frequently shows that voters have a very low opinion of Congress in general, but tend to have a high opinion of their particular representatives because “my local guy is different.” That sentiment tends to be true because politicians are all different. They come from different areas of the country, walks of life, backgrounds, and perspectives—usually reflecting their district or constituents in some way. In Congress, there are 535 unique people trying to do the same job. Doing a little bit of research about your legislators will help you be a more effective advocate in the future.

Get to know your legislators first by going to their websites. ASCRS’ eyeContact Action Center website helps you look up your legislators and links to their individual websites. Generally, members of Congress’ websites feature a biographical section, a “latest news” section, and an issues section.

A few questions to ask yourself as you proceed:

  •  How am I similar or different to my representative or senators? Do we have similar backgrounds? Professions? Families? Did we go to the same school? Find ways where you relate; that’s a great way to start a relationship.
  • Also try to get an idea about the legislator’s role in Congress. What committees does he or she serve on? Does your legislator spend a great deal of time on healthcare issues?
  • For the most part, issues of importance to ASCRS originate in the House Energy and Commerce or Ways and Means Committee or in the Senate Finance Committee. If your legislator is on one of those committees, it is important to make sure he or she is familiar with ASCRS’ priorities.
  • Determine your legislator’s seniority in Congress and on his or her committees. The higher the seniority, the more powerful the legislator.
  • Take a few minutes to research your district and state. What are the main industries represented? Who are the big employers? What do your fellow voters in the district care about? Having an idea about your surroundings will give you an idea of where you fit in.

Many inexperienced advocates complain that their legislators do not prioritize their issues. Generally, that means the advocates are not telling their legislator why he or she should care or how the issue affects patients. Frame your issue in the context of your legislator’s viewpoint.

eyeContacts in Action Case Study: Farmers Need Eyecare, Too. A couple of months ago, Dr. I. Contact researched her Congressional district and found that she lives in a suburban area of a mostly rural district. Her representative serves on the Agriculture Committee, and his website is covered in pictures of him with farmers in the district. ASCRS sends Dr. Contact a Grassroots Alert on a bill that improves access to specialty care. She remembers her representative’s interest in rural issues, so she edits the sample email ASCRS has provided her and adds a sentence reminding the congressman that oftentimes rural patients have to travel long distances to get the care they need. By appealing to a known interest, she increased the likelihood of influencing her legislator.


6. Communicating with Your Legislators

Get Ready to Act! The most frequent way ASCRS government relations staff will ask eyeContacts to take action is through a Grassroots Alert sent to your email.

  • The email will provide you with a link that takes you to our advocacy website. 
  • After entering your email address and zip code, your complete demographic information will appear, along with a pre-set email.
  • Depending on who the alert is targeted to—just House or Senate, both, or a particular committee membership—your legislator will appear at the bottom with a button to click and send the email.
  • ASCRS asks that you respond to those alerts as soon as you are able since they are generally time-sensitive.

Despite Congress’ reputation for inaction, things can occasionally move very quickly and unexpectedly on the Hill. When this happens, ASCRS will send a Grassroots Alert asking you to make a phone call.

  • We will provide the number, instructions, and a brief script.
  • Be prepared to spend about three minutes on the call and to speak to someone on the congressman’s staff.
  • Clearly state at the beginning of the call why you are calling (usually state a bill number) and have a short 1-2 sentence explanation of what the measure would do and why it is important the legislator vote one way or another.

The Personal Touch. As mentioned in the previous chapter’s case study, taking a few seconds to add your own experiences to the pre-set email can go a long way toward influencing your legislator. Be sure to keep pertinent information in the message including ASCRS’ position, bill numbers, or amendment information, but beyond that, feel free to make the message uniquely yours. Suggestions for what to add include a real-life example of how this particular legislation will help or hurt you or your patients or reminding a legislator that he or she has always been supportive of this issue in the past and should continue.

The Big “Ask.” Whether you are calling or emailing, or even during a face-to-face meeting, it is vital that you always be clear with your legislator about what you want to them to do—what is known as “having an ask.” This reinforces the importance of your communication and holds the legislator accountable. Asks range from sponsoring and supporting a bill, to simply asking your legislator to keep in touch and remember you are a constituent who cares about healthcare issues. Asking politicians for something always provides you with a reason to follow-up; either to remind them they promised something or to thank them when they did it. Many times a legislator will not agree to what you ask, but he or she should always listen and will respect you for interest in the issue. Be sure to follow-up with a thank you, even if the legislator opposes your position.

ASCRS’ Inquiring Minds Want to Know! When you have an interaction with a legislator, it is important to let ASCRS government relations staff know.

  • What was the outcome?
  • Did the legislator promise to do something?
  • Did the legislator ask for more information that we can provide?

Knowing about the legislator’s communications with constituents helps government relations staff formulate our strategy on Capitol Hill. The easiest way to report back to us is to fill out the Legislator Interaction Report Form.