Do I Really Need to Congratulate That Politician?: Building Working Relationships with Lawmakers Who Make You Cringe

8 minute read

Lisa Hazirjian, Ph.D., Win Together Consulting

Back in November, I published this blog encouraging nonprofit leaders to begin building relationships with elected officials by sending an email congratulating them on their victory. I was surprised and delighted by how much traffic and praise the blog generated. Yet the response I found myself thinking about the most was this question left on LinkedIn by my colleague Veronica LaFemina:

“I'm curious – how would you advise organizations to build this relationship if the legislator has run on a particularly contentious platform or hasn't seemed like a natural supporter of the organization's cause – the kind of situation where it may feel strange or un-aligned with values to offer congratulations?”

I gave Veronica a quick answer (you can read that here) but as the NC General Assembly gears up to start the 2023 legislative session, now feels like the right time to provide a fuller one. After all, I have found myself in this very situation more times than I can count and it’s likely many of you will as well. But before I offer any advice about how to build those relationships, I want to talk about why we should even bother, since many of us would rather not engage with legislators who aren’t natural allies, especially not the ones whose campaign rhetoric was divisive and hostile. 

Why Even Bother? 

The simple truth is that nonprofit staff and the people we serve have expertise – including lived experience – that lawmakers need to hear in order to make the best possible policy decisions. In some instances, nonprofits sharing our specialized knowledge with policy makers has helped to prevent a potentially harmful proposal from moving forward. In others, decent policy proposals have been dramatically improved as a result of nonprofits helping the people they serve speak directly with elected officials about their needs.

Even if your organization doesn't have a specific public policy agenda, lawmakers will have to make choices on matters that directly affect the people you serve – and often, directly affect your organization. If you do have a specific public policy agenda, you’re going to need a critical mass of policymakers – and a few in critical positions of power – on your side to secure a legislative win (or prevent a grave policy loss). At the end of the day, it’s their votes that decide policy.

All that said, you don’t need my permission to decide to have nothing to do with a lawmaker you find particularly odious. If you think you’re not the right person to talk to a lawmaker, don’t. And if you think a particular elected official isn’t worth your organization’s time, that’s a decision you get to make for yourselves.

Still, I want to encourage everyone to consider whether there’s anyone involved with your nonprofit who might be in a position to build a relationship with that lawmaker if for no other reason than to limit the harm they might cause the people you serve. Maybe there’s a board member with the intestinal fortitude and other qualities that make them a better person to make that connection. Or maybe there’s a long-time volunteer who has some kind of tie to them.

It’s always good to be thinking about who’s the best messenger to deliver your organization’s message to any given audience. So why not include an item in your next email newsletter listing the newly elected members of the NC General Assembly who represent the region you serve and asking readers to let you know if they have existing relationships with them (feel free to borrow heavily from the Center’s own survey once you’ve replied!). Tapping your supporters to leverage their relationships with lawmakers can be a highly effective and meaningful way to deepen their involvement in advocating for your mission, too.

How to Build a Working Relationship with an Elected Official Who Makes You Cringe

The short answer: Create common ground to serve as the foundation for a collegial relationship.

Easier said than done? I will grant you that – but more than half the battle is internal work, making the choice to stop focusing on the things that trouble you about a given legislator, and instead start looking for the things you have in common (even ones that have little to do with policymaking, like rooting for the same basketball team) and identifying ways to frame your issues that might resonate with their own concerns.

Let me provide an example. Rather than dredge up any of the real experiences I had while lobbying on behalf of the statewide advocacy organization I led before becoming a consultant (and out of respect to the organization), I want instead to use a fictional scenario to help you envision how one might start a relationship with a person who makes you cringe:

Jem the Cat at home on the author's lap
Jem the Cat at home on the author's lap.

I am a cat person. I understand that there are people in this world who are dog people; I like dogs, too. I also recognize that there are some people who are desperately allergic to cats, or who keep their distance for other reasons; to each their own. But I cannot abide people who actively promote abusing cats, and if there were a legislator who joked about taking pleasure in shooting at the strays who wander through their yard, I would not want to have anything to do with that person.

Yet there are situations in which I would definitely muster the intestinal fortitude to have a conversation with that person who makes me cringe. If I were the director of Jem’s Place (an imaginary no-kill, not-for-profit cat shelter with a broader mission of educating the public about humane ways to manage stray cat populations while connecting homeless cats with people whose lives would be enriched by them), there are plenty of instances in which that would be the case. Perhaps there might be a proposal to allow broader recognition of cats as therapy pets, clearing the way for more adoption opportunities. Or, perhaps there might be a proposal that, if adopted, would be harmful to public shelter cats. In either instance, I’d want to use my voice and my position to help make the case for what’s best for cats and the people who love them.

Being a long-range strategist who sees the possibility of such situations arising, I would want to have laid the foundation for a productive working relationship with my legislators before the need ever arose. So, instead of sending a note of congratulations to this person who I never wanted to be elected, I might reach out as the legislative session starts simply to introduce myself in a way that signals my desire to find common ground and work together. It might go something like this:

Dear Representative Smith-Wesson,

As a constituent and a nonprofit leader in your new district, I wanted to reach out with my contact information and share my hope that we can work together during the course of your time in office. It strikes me that there’s some common ground to be found between those of us working to provide safe homes for stray animals, as we do at Jem’s Place, and those who want to keep strays off their property. I look forward to finding an opportunity to talk with you about our humane trapping program and how it helps to meet both these goals.

Please add me to your email list and, of course, feel free to reach out at any time our expertise may be of value to your office.

Lisa Hazirjian
100 Jem’s Place
Furbal, NC 23456
(919) 639-6369

Lest I make this seem effortless, let me be candid: I stared at the screen for several minutes before figuring out a way to find common ground with my fictional rifle-wielding, cat-shooting representative. But as someone who has built these kinds of bridges in real life more times than I can count, I can assure you that it can be done – and it’s worth it if the person who seems like an unlikely ally holds a position of power in which they can either hurt or help your cause.

Remember, this is a working relationship you’re building. Yes, it may require stifling an urge to tell them to their face precisely how you feel about some of the things they’ve said and done. But doing so can also remind us to look for things we can appreciate about people whose statements and actions are antithetical to our own more often than not.

On that note, let me add one last suggestion about taking every opportunity to build a positive relationship with elected officials who don’t feel like natural allies. If there comes a time when a lawmaker with whom you disagree most of the time casts a vote that you truly appreciate, make sure to thank them.

This holds especially true in moments of true political courage when their votes went against the grain of their political party and made the difference between passage and defeat of a bill. Such was the case in December when twelve Republican U.S. Senators voted in favor of the Respect for Marriage Act. This prompted my Iowa colleague Bethany Snyder to send a note of thanks to Senator Jodi Ernst, and to advise subscribers to her newsletter that “our system is built on compromise and negotiation and we MUST thank those who hear us and are open to a different perspective.” I agree – and would add that Ernst surely heard from those who vehemently opposed this bill. It’s up to those of us who’ve spent years encouraging lawmakers to go out on a limb for us to say thank you when they finally come through, in part because it increases the chances they’ll be there for us again in the future and in part because it’s just the right thing to do.

It’s easy to ride the wave of political polarization that prevents us from acknowledging the possibility that the people who make us cringe could actually do something that would make us smile. But if we’re bold enough to try to build a collegial working relationship, doing so puts us in a position to influence public policy when it really matters.

Lisa Hazirjian, PhD, founded Win Together Consulting to help nonprofits, campaigns, and social justice organizations develop strategy, build power, engage supporters, and leverage strengths to achieve their goals. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Public Policy Studies, Graduate Certificate in Women’s Studies, and Ph.D. in U.S. History from Duke University, and is working toward a Nonprofit Leadership Certificate from the Harvard Kennedy School. You can reach Lisa at

Advocacy & Civic Engagement
Strategic Communication