How to Volunteer for a Legislator?
March 10, 2020 11:44 AM   Subscribe

I am a politically and civically active accountant in my thirties, and I would like to volunteer for one of my legislators (at any level -- city/state/fed) starting in a month or two. Ideally, I would be shadowing them, because I am fascinated by their work. But how close can I get to that, given my time constraints and their likely desires/needs? What sorts of work should I offer to do, and how do I convince them to let me do it?

Currently, I am volunteering weekly for VITA as a tax preparer, am active within the local Democratic party, and do quite a bit of work with a nonpartisan voting rights group. I am also working full time as a staff accountant while I earn my CPA. VITA ends after tax season (mid-April), and I am hoping to volunteer or even intern with a legislator once it does.

Due to work and domestic commitments, I can only volunteer on weekends, ideally on Saturdays, and possibly in the evenings. However, I can do research and use email at other times, it's just that I need to be at my desk during office hours and at home during the dinner hour.

Originally, I thought I should volunteer for a legal organization, like a legal aid clinic, because I am planning to apply to law school this fall. But politics and government are fascinating to me, and I thought it would be really fun and a great learning experience to volunteer for one of my own legislators instead.

Except...I'm just not sure what work they could use from me? Or how to broach the topic with them?

Anybody who has been a legislator (at any level) or worked for one -- what kinds of tasks or work would they like to hand off to a volunteer like me? In my ideal world, I would be shadowing them, because I am fascinated by their work. But in the actual world...how close can I get to that, given my constraints and their likely desires/needs?
posted by nowadays to Law & Government (14 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
Where do you live?
posted by NotLost at 11:53 AM on March 10


Northern Virginia, USA
posted by nowadays at 11:54 AM on March 10


You could be a campaign treasurer. But it might be late in the season for that this year.
posted by NotLost at 11:55 AM on March 10


I think you are going to have much better luck looking for something on a campaign than in a legislative office - both because of ethics rules about using volunteers (definitely at the federal level, maybe state and local too?) and your schedule. It also probably doesn't help that the Virginia legislative session is so short. County/school board races and the 10th congressional district are probably your best bets.
posted by naoko at 12:49 PM on March 10


I already volunteer for campaigns, so I would prefer for this to be something separate and ongoing, related to a different aspect of the official's work.
posted by nowadays at 12:53 PM on March 10


Virginia's legislative session is during tax season, so this might not be realistic. That said, you might check out The Commonwealth Institute, which works on progressive taxation issues in Richmond. They also have sister orgs across the US, including in DC and Maryland, if those states are closer to you.
posted by postel's law at 12:55 PM on March 10


In the interest of full disclosure, I run one of those sister organizations.
posted by postel's law at 12:57 PM on March 10


Is there an issue/interest group you can help legislators connect with?

Maybe you could volunteer to work in that area with the "deliverable" being some policy or reforms the legislator could introduce, or even setting up a meet & greet/District 46 (or other applicable geographic area) Progressive Accountants Legislative Day.

For the first you'd need to call and ask. There may even be model language that you could help localize. For the latter you'd need to assemble the group and send out invitations to relevant politicians/candidates.
posted by the christopher hundreds at 1:08 PM on March 10


If you already volunteer for campaigns, you might be in a network you can use. For instance, do you know the field director or volunteer coordinator of a current legislator? Tell that person of your interest.
posted by NotLost at 1:44 PM on March 10


I've interned for a legislator, and there's plenty of work that gets handed off to interns (and volunteers - we definitely had 'em) with little training.

A lot of the time, it was constituent services stuff - e.g. "this person is having trouble getting answers from this government agency, can we look into that for them?" which basically entailed using existing contacts and the .gov email address to harass people until we got answers. There was also some envelope-stuffing/data-entry/other clerical work. Sometimes, specific research projects to support existing or potential legislation.

I know that different offices for different representatives operate differently, but it certainly isn't outside the realm of possibility - especially at a more local level. You could probably get the best answers by just reaching out to their office and seeing.
posted by mosst at 1:56 PM on March 10 [1 favorite]


I will also say that I've worked for both elected officials and campaigns, and they're wildly different types of work, so I don't really agree with folks above that are suggesting working on campaigns instead. Both are important, but if you want to volunteer for a legislator, you should.
posted by mosst at 1:59 PM on March 10 [1 favorite]


Final comment, sorry for the triple post - I wouldn't go into this expecting to work closely with the legislator, unless they're local enough that they have next-to-no staff. The office I worked in had something like 4 full-time staff members, and those were the people that volunteers mostly worked with. The representative herself tended to be off at events/hearings/whatever, and when she was in the office, it was usually for meetings & work with her staff.
posted by mosst at 2:03 PM on March 10 [2 favorites]


Reliable, good treasurers are worth their weight in gold. I would study up on campaign finance requirements -- once you are established as a treasurer on one campaign, many might come knocking faster than you think.
posted by Hollywood Upstairs Medical College at 12:13 AM on March 11


I would email their legislative office’s chief of staff with your resume and interests. I think you need to go state house/assembly or lower (county supervisor/city council could be great). At higher levels they won’t have the bandwidth to get to know you the way you want.

In the office it will be three basic categories of work: constituent services, press/relationships (with labor, political orgs, other electeds), and legislative work (research, memos, etc.). Obviously the three can overlap. I would go straight to the Chief of Staff and not through the intern/volunteer coordinator.

I would also start by asking for an informational interview/coffee and then offering to volunteer after building rapport.

Also, explain your goals to them: are you thinking about running for office? Thinking about working in a legislative office? Just want to help?
posted by amaire at 9:40 AM on March 11


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