Commentary: Do the arts need advocacy groups?

Emerging Arts Leaders Symposium website

[In August], The New York Times stated "advocacy groups find themselves competing for financing against the very cultural organizations they were created to support, which in turn can no longer afford the dues required by some of the groups that advocate for them." The question now becomes... do the arts need advocates? Executive director Michael L. Royce of The New York Foundation for the Arts points out the obvious: "It's very important for [arts organizations] to be part of the political process and not rely on advocacy groups to advocate for them." [Some people] assume arts organizations are too busy creating art to show the community their value and fight for funds. Unfortunately their argument is based in truth. However Royce's argument can be interpreted in a multitude of ways. Not only do arts organizations have the opportunity to participate in Arts Advocacy Days, write their congressperson, and check off extensive lists of relationship cultivation and political engagement techniques... they can advocate for the arts by simply existing. If an organization maintains a steady existence in a community, they are a success story and, therefore, automatically an arts advocate. Did your donors carry you through a rough couple of years? Did you have to tap into your carefully-built reserve funds? Were you forced to think and behave creatively in order to find new solutions to unprecedented problems? Did you break even last year? If your organizations can answer YES to one of more of these questions, then maybe it's time for a mental shift. Each arts organization that remains open another year is a successful advocate. I believe advocacy organizations do provide an important function and many arts organizations wishing to serve a public should focus more on their creative process than defending their right to existence. But it is important to realize that all arts organizations simply by being arts organizations are advocates. The individuals behind the organizations must re-cast themselves. While some may be more talented and have more advocacy resources/success, every arts manager, from the underpaid development associate to the overworked executive director, has untapped potential as an advocate.


Related: Advocacy groups are more effective because we're a "neutral party"

CompassPoint interview with Danielle Brazell, Executive Director of Arts for LA, 9/27/12

At Arts for LA, we know that a healthy democracy requires engaged voters, so we have partnered with others to get people registered to vote, and we have signed onto the Vote with Your Mission campaign to encourage nonprofit staff [to vote]. As a 501c3 organization, Arts for LA doesn't endorse candidates but we do endorse legislation that aligns with our policy framework. As we grow, we are continually learning and developing our best practices. We know that working in the public sector is hard work. If we want to really help our public officials make strong policy that supports the arts and nonprofit work, we have got to get them informed and on board early on. How are they going to know the nuances of the nonprofit sector without having that conversation? Many candidates aren't coming from the nonprofit sector so how are they going to understand our value? What Arts for LA works to do is to talk about the value for actual providers of arts and culture programs. It creates a buffer so it's not like the providers are motivated by self-interest. We are more of a neutral party. It's so easy to point out what's bad or wrong with policies and budgets, but what do we actually want? Being proactive with the candidates takes people off of the defensive -- and we'd all much rather work in partnership than in opposition. I learned recently that there is going to be 80% turnover in state legislature in next two years, so if you want change at the state level we need people to talk to these new representatives. If new legislators are coming in because they truly care, they need help, and nonprofits are uniquely poised to help them in a way they may not have thought of.


Commentary: How nonprofits can address the "Advocacy Gap"

Shayna Englin, Frogloop nonprofit marketing blog, 10/10/12

In 2005, the Congressional Management Foundation reported that communications to Congress had increased fourfold over the previous decade, and had doubled between 1999 and 2004.  Given the proliferation of channels and tech since 2005, one can only assume those communications have continued to increase exponentially. A 2008 report provided more insight: nearly half of US adults had contacted Congress, more than 80% of them at the urging of a third party organization. That is a ton of advocacy. To what end? We partnered up with eight non-profit organizations to survey their advocates and interviewed 25 current and former senior Hill staffers. The elevator summary: there is a significant "Advocacy Gap," a disconnect between how activists mobilize and how Hill staff say they should mobilize to move policy. Moreover, there is a gap between what activists do and what they know to be effective. [The report is here.] Now comes the interesting bit: how do we bridge the Advocacy Gap? Some ideas:

1) Abandon list building through messages to Congress. When activists contact their member of Congress, it should be for real, with a legislative ask, a possible path for the Member to act, and clarity about what the potential outcomes might be. This will make every constituent contact more effective. Note that we are not suggesting that organizations stop building big lists. We are merely suggesting that list building activities be distinguished from advocacy.

2) Invest in making higher impact activities easier for advocates. Activists do what's easiest for them to do, even when they know they're not doing the most effective thing they could be doing. Technology has evolved, making "a click and a few keystrokes" a low bar for a contact to Congress. It's time for the next evolution in software and providers working with advocacy organizations to bake in processes that drive more effective advocacy. 

3) Get deep into districts, shifting away from Washington, DC. Activists don't have to come all the way to DC to meet with their representatives to make a big difference on issues they care about. Impact is as close as the district office, an event in their hometown, and even a personalized email telling their story to their representative.

4) Abandon the notion of "Congress." Embrace Members of Congress. "Congress" has a single-digit approval rating, but Members with ratings significantly below 50% are few. Advocacy programs that embrace this reality will be a big step closer to building capacity and mobilizing that capacity in ways that engage activists effectively.


Commentary: School Board candidate surveys help advocates for arts education

Victoria Plettner-Saunders, Americans for the Arts blog, 9/21/12

In presidential election years we often forget that there are really important races going on in our own communities. Here in San Diego, we also have school board elections getting underway and the California Alliance for Arts Education (CAAE) has geared up for its election year Candidate Survey Project. I've participated in previous years by soliciting responses to survey questions from the school board candidates which are then posted on the CAAE website. The results are promoted through press releases and pushed out through social media so that voters can find out how their candidates stack up with their support of arts education. What I love about these surveys is that I always find out things about the candidate that I didn't know -- who played instruments in high school, who makes contributions to which arts organizations, etc. They all seem to want to look good to the voters about the arts. Of course there are those who also talk about budget needs and core subject priorities, but I rarely see a candidate respond completely negatively when asked about their commitment to arts education. This in itself is important because the survey response means they are on the record. It gives advocates a connection and an opportunity to turn them into allies when they become school board decision makers. So now that I've told you all the great things about the surveys, let me share a resource with you that will help you create your own candidate survey. The CAAE website has all the tips, timelines, and templates to help you develop your own. While the web resources are designed for use in California races, you can tailor their "Five Easy Steps" to meet your needs wherever you are.

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