Advocacy in Action

’Tis surely the season for advocacy… Just this week, the American Alliance of Museums just hosted the 10th(!) Museums Advocacy Day on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Judging by my Twitter feed, the event was once again a success. (Here’s a search of just the #MuseumsAdvocacy2018 hashtag, I’m sure there were lots of others used but you’ll get the gist.)

The U.S. Capitol Building

As I see it, the most salient issues of our time are Advocacy and Diversity & Inclusion (something I plan to write about soon). They both are part of the Sustainability equation.

Sustainability is probably the most important issue we address on an ongoing basis. How do we — as a field and as individual institutions — ensure we have the resources needed to continue the crucially important work that we do?

Why is Advocacy is so important now? Quite simply it’s because part of the reason we’re in the position we’re in — with arts & humanities continually operating from a defensive position of, “But, but…we really *do* matter! — is because we have not been as strong advocates for our own cause as we should have been.

Speaking on behalf of the history discipline, I’ve observed that history organizations long ago ceded the discussion to our academic colleagues and/or simply lamented the winnowing of history in the school curriculum, leaving it to teacher groups to wage the battles.

Yes, those groups are important allies in the advocacy discussions, but we have to play a role too. It’s we who are doing some of the coolest things anyway — reaching people outside of the classroom.WE MUST begin to more effectively and regularly advocate for ourselves. Advocacy MUST be a major, ongoing part of our activities. Inaction is simply not an option.

I’ve found many of us recoil at the very idea of advocacy and I understand to some degree the reluctance. There are lots of reasons why this is. First, some people equate advocacy with lobbying and (falsely) believe that we cannot lobby. The truth of the matter is, unlesss your institutional policies forbid it (typically only for government employees), we are restricted from lobbying only in very specific circumstances. See this from Nonprofit Quarterly:

While it is true that a public charity under the Internal Revenue Code Section 501c 3 is not allowed to take part in a political campaign on behalf of any candidate for public office, there are no such restrictions on cause-related advocacy. In fact, even lobbying can be undertaken by a public charity without any risk to its tax-exemption so long as these efforts are not a substantial part of its activities.

Second, I’ve observed that some are uncomfortable engaging in advocacy. We’re so much more comfortable putting on programs and administering our organizations in day-to-day activities; the very idea of having to “sell” what we do to policymakers and influencers feels out of our comfort zone.

The time factor is a third excuse, though it’s one I have a hard time acknowleding. This is too important to our present and future to make the lack of time a reason not to engage.

I teach in the Johns Hopkins Museum Studies Program and in working with my students I like to have them look at advocacy, fundraising, and community engagement as the same “art” — the equation is just slightly different:

Community engagement is the easiest for us and probably the way most of us first engaged with the world outside of our institutions. The equation looks like this:

Fundraising is a similar equation, though the currency is slightly different:

  • You, {Funder}, have expressed you would like your funds to be used to address this {issue/concern/initiative}. We {history organization/museum} have these activities/resources we would like to put into action to address that same {issue/concern/initiative}. Please give us money to do that.

Advocacy is also analogous:

  • You, {Policy Maker or Influencer}, are most interested in this {key issue/concern/initiative}. We {history organization/museum} need your support for this {project/policy/activity}. Please join us and add your support.

Community Engagement, Fundraising, and Advocacy are each transactional relationships, only the currency changes. I have observed that we as a field are most comfortable with Community Engagement. Fundraising and Advocacy both can be intimidating because there is either money involved or some other sort of major transactional support (and in the case of Advocacy, that can also involve money).

When approaching Advocacy, however, what I hope we’ll all remember is how little Advocacy differs in theory from what we tend to do naturally and without thinking: Community Engagement.

As in partnerships, just remember the “win/win.” Do your homework with policymakers (and funders) and appeal to that which they’ve already stated they either support or want to see happen.

AAM has just released two reports that I believe will be Advocacy game-changers for us as a field. You should download them and use them in your efforts.

  1. Museums as Economic Engines reports museums support 726,000 jobs in the US: directly employing more than 372,000 people (double that of the professional sports industry!). It also shows that museums contribute approximately $50 billion to the U.S. economy annually. That’s billion, with a “B.” (Yet the federal government only gives about $31 million — with an “m” — to museums annually.)
  2. Museums & Public Opinion, conducted jointly by AAM and Wilkening Consulting, demonstrates the tremendous support museums have — regardless of political affiliation, geographic location, and whether they visit museums or not: 97% believe museums provide valuable educational experiences; 89% recognize museums’ economic contributions; and a whopping 96% approve of elected officials who act to support museums (including acting to maintain or increase federal funding).

On the history front, the American Association for State and Local History completed a broader population sampling (also with Wilkening Consulting — Susie’s all over this stuff) asked 1,000 people about the trustworthiness of history sources. 81% ranked history museums/sites as “absolutely” or “somewhat” trustworthy — making us more trustworthy than nonfiction books and textbooks, high school history teachers, and the Internet.

Add all this to the valuable work you’re already doing (and documenting…you ARE documenting all this, right?), and I’d say we have a very easy case to make. BUT YOU HAVE TO MAKE IT THE CASE.

Is it really that simple? No. You have to do your homework ahead of time, you have to plan. You have to be somewhat relentless. Wins won’t come immediately nor all the time.

Will you have failures along the way? Sure you will. But, to use a baseball analogy, if you’re going to hit homeruns (or even singles), you have to get the bat off your shoulder and swing!

With a career batting average of .344 and 521 home runs, Boston Red Sox Hall of Famer Ted Williams certainly got the bat off his shoulder, quite a bit.

And remember that advocacy isn’t just about going to Capitol Hill each year for Museums Advocacy Day (though you should do this at least once in your life). It also includes participating in Invite Congress to Your Museum Week during the congressional recess in August — this is one of the best, and most under-utilized tools in the Advocacy toolkit.

It also means being a relentless advocate to policymakers and those that influence them for the work that you and your organization does on behalf of your community. Do you participate in and/or host advocacy activities with state legislatures? Do you regularly invite local politicians to your institution’s events and activities? Most importantly, do you even know who these folks are? Who are the influencers in your community, how can you reach them? As one of my mentors John Durel used to say, “Today’s school board members are tomorrow’s congressional representatives.” Establish those relationships today.

Advocacy work is as important, I believe, as just about anything you can be doing right now. Don’t wait for an emergency to activate your advocacy network.

As a sidenote, I’m teaching a webinar on Advocacy for the Wisconsin Historical Society on March 7 at 10:30am Central. You can register here. I also did two webinars for the Texas Historical Commission last fall. If you scroll to Museum Metamorphosis: Building the Case for Change and Advocacy In Action on this page, you can access both.

Do you advocate? If not, why not? And if you do, how important is it to your institutional routine?

A twenty-year veteran of the nonprofit world, Bob Beatty is founder of The Lyndhurst Group, a history, museum, and nonprofit consulting firm providing community-focused engagement strategies for institutional planning, organizational assessments, and interpretive direction.