The more integrated the arts become in the life of a community, the more important advocacy becomes to the work of arts organizations. Many public finance and public policy issues such as arts funding, education, and freedom of expression, zoning, community revitalization, and nonprofit laws affect artists and arts organizations.

Advocacy efforts are a major application of marketing strategy. The tools of marketing, public relations, publicity, promotion, and advertising are the tools of effective advocacy. Like marketing, advocacy tends to be cumulative in its effect. It’s hard to point to individual turning points. It is more like an ongoing campaign.

Building a Local Advocacy Base
Advocacy is an ongoing process. In a marketing framework, it becomes clear that a strong public relations base is required to be effective. Getting to know local decision makers and being sure they are familiar with your activities is key. Then you will need to be prepared to monitor the policies and decisions that could affect you and to communicate your interests.

Understanding Advocacy
Our political system is based on the assumption that laws and policies will change and develop over the years and that citizens will participate in the process. Elected and appointed officials make different decisions when they feel concerned citizens are watching them. Our government system relies on decision makers becoming informed on issues. Getting to the right people with facts and information about who will be affected, how they will be affected, and who cares can influence opinions, attitudes, decisions, and votes.

The concept of advocacy embraces education efforts to provide information and promote understanding and lobbying action to support or oppose policies and legislation. Advocacy efforts geared at public education are fully appropriate for any organization, being careful not to exceed the limits of time and money dedicated to advocacy and lobbying outlined by the Internal Revenue Service.

The advocacy activities of an organization should be distinguished from the personal political action of any individual member. Individual political involvement should be encouraged, since the contacts made through such involvement are likely to benefit the organization. While organizations cannot get involved in political campaigns, individuals can. Such activity should be separated from the activities of the organization so as not to jeopardize the legal status of a nonprofit organization. It would, of course, be desirable to have arts advocates as policy makers in positions of community and political leadership.

Five Steps to Mastering Advocacy

  1. Know the system(s). Find out which organizations, government units, and agencies set policies that could affect cultural development. Besides the city council and mayor or city manager, this might include the parks department and commission, the school board and department, the department of public works, and the planning department. Learn how each works, how policies and decisions are made, and who or what influences decision makers. In some communities elected officials have more power than the city manager or other staff, while in other communities the professional staff might have a great deal of clout.
  2. Develop allies. Develop personal contacts with key staff and officials. Be sure you put their names on your mailing list and schedule informal visits annually or semiannually so that they come to know you not only when you are asking or complaining about something. Ideally they will come to rely on you as a friend, trustworthy contact, or resource person on whom they can count.It is a good practice to publicly recognize officials and other decision makers for their support. Don’t overlook key support staff. They can be allies or detractors depending on how they’re handled, and they may have the ear of their boss.

    Establish communication with other organizations and coalitions that are working on related issues or toward compatible goals.

  3. Establish a network. The ability to generate calls, letters and/or email to decision makers or the press is the backbone of most advocacy campaigns. An organization’s political clout is often measured in relation to the number of constituents it can activate in a short amount of time. Everyone has heard stories of how officials count letters and calls to gauge constituent interest and opinion. The objective is to be sure that, within eight to twenty-four hours, you can mobilize supporters to make contact with decision makers. Email list serves and a phone tree are key elements of any good advocacy effort.You should be organized to mobilize your board, members, and audiences. Keeping in regular communication with your advocates will make them feel connected with your cause and ready to act on your behalf.

    A local organization’s advocacy network can be an asset when used to assist allies and elected officials in their own fundraising and advocacy efforts.

  4. Track issues. It is a good idea to designate board members as liaisons to key commissions and agencies. Monitoring such things as the budget development process or the availability of an underutilized funding may prepare you to act early and informally on your own behalf.It is important to be strategic about how and when you make the public aware of issues. Consider the general climate of the community when planning the launch of any kind of campaign. Be aware of events and activities happening on the local, state and national front, and put this knowledge into play when making public announcements. For example, extreme care should be exercised if launching a capital campaign for an arts center while several other building projects are occurring in the community.
  5. Be Prepared to Tell Your Story. When you have something to say, you will need to deliver the message clearly and concisely as possible. Telling the right stories and substantiating with statistics can increase the impact of your case. Facts, not hype, are key to establishing your credibility.In arts advocacy it is particularly critical to connect with the relevant issues and concerns of the community. The arts stimulate economic growth by generating tourism revenue, creating jobs, and through expenditures of arts organizations toward the creation, promotion and showcasing of their craft. The arts are the primary way in which communities preserve and celebrate their culture and heritage.

    Try to always stay on a positive note. Keep your message focused on positive results and mutual benefits. For instance, use local statistics to show that the arts successfully educate children, attract tourists, stimulate business and generate local and regional partnerships – all of which benefit the entire community.

Supporting State and National Advocacy Efforts
Since all politics are local, it makes sense that local advocacy is often needed to support state and national advocacy efforts. Following are some additional ways to advocate on state and national issues:

  • Join and support Texans for the Arts and other discipline-specific arts advocacy networks.
  • Stay informed about state and national issues.
  • Visit your state and national legislative representatives and be sure they regularly receive information from your group.
  • Participate personally in specific arts advocacy campaigns.
  • Activate your organization’s network to support state and national groups.
  • Regularly trumpet and define the role of local, state, and federal dollars in relation to local arts activities.

Adapted from
the article “Preparing For Local Advocacy” by Barbara Schaffer Bacon
Arts Extension Service Fundamentals of Local Arts Management