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Why Should I Advocate for My Museum?

Museum, January/February 2011

When you make advocacy a habit, you create a win-win situation for your museum and the field. Engaging in regular advocacy—building relationships with community leaders and promoting all the ways in which your museum is essential in the community—means you will be in a better position to have a favorable impact on local, state or federal policies that affect your museum. Your efforts lay the groundwork for AAM to articulate the value of all museums every day in Washington, D.C. Take a moment to think about how aggressively, regularly and visibly other causes, such as the environmental, education or social services communities, lobby Congress and the public. We don’t want to be missing out by not making our voices heard on behalf of museums and the services they provide! Every legislator in Congress represents many museums within his or her congressional district. Museums serve schools and communities nationwide as centers of lifelong learning, economic engines of the community, promoters of civic engagement, and protectors of our artistic, historic, scientific and cultural heritages. Unfortunately, elected officials are not always aware of all that museums do. And they need to hear it from you!

How do I find my legislators?

Taking the time to learn about your legislators is an invaluable asset to advocacy efforts at any level of government. Legislators’ background and personal interests will inform their public policy decisions, and you can use this information to make connections with them. Visit speakupformuseums.org to learn personal and professional biographical information about your elected officials at the state and federal level.

I know nothing about advocacy. What’s it all about?

All elected officials are interested in serving the people who vote for them back home. They want to champion the interests of their constituents. They need to know (and you need to tell them) that support for museums is important to the voters and people back home.

Those who speak up for their issues get attention. If you do not communicate with your members of Congress, how do you expect them to know what issues are important to your museum and the communities it serves? Silence can be a powerful message.

By their very nature, Congress and the Federal government work through incremental change, and substantial policy shifts take time. It took nearly 10 years for the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids to get a law passed through Congress to prohibit the advertising of tobacco products to children. Remember that politicians are people, too. They have hobbies and families. They have causes that they champion. Even amongst your political opponents, you might find common ground you can build a relationship on. And someday, you might even be able to build on that relationship to change their mind. Don’t rely on one visit a year to make your case for your institution. Keep in touch with your elected officials and their staffs. Invite them to visit your museum. Make sure they are on your mailing list and/or your media list. Find creative ways to send the message that your museum is an essential part of your community. Share your successes and new initiatives with them. If your elected officials support your museum, tell everyone. Put it in your newsletter, share it with your supporters, give them an award, and don’t forget to let the media know.

What tips do you have for me when and after I meet with my legislators?

A great way to engage your elected officials is to invite them to your museum. This will help them to understand how the museum serves the community. It’s helpful to have an elevator speech that captures all that your museum has to offer. If you visit with an elected official in his or her office, you may only have a few minutes. Use that time to discuss how you partner with local schools, how much tourism you bring to the community, or how you offer special outreach to community groups: veterans, seniors or children     with special needs, for example. No matter how a meeting goes, never publicly (via the Internet, for example) distribute a report with personally negative comments about an elected official or staff member or make direct contact information for a staff member widely available. These practices could jeopardize your relationship with an office and future opportunities to make your case and educate the member and staff. You are busy and so are your elected officials. Follow-up is always good, but once you have communicated with an office, give them time (a week rather than just a business day, for example) to develop a thoughtful response.

How do I make the case for my institution?

Be informed and do your homework. Read newsletters and legislative/ advocacy alerts about an issue carefully. Understand both sides of the issues. Know when the bill is in committee, when the hearings will be held and who the co-sponsors are. Pay attention to details like spelling the elected official’s name correctly and making sure you have his or her correct title. The more simply and clearly your position can be explained, the better chance you have of getting people to listen and respond. Further, don’t exaggerate to make a point or answer a question if you are not sure of the facts. Know exactly what you want your legislator to do. Do you want him/her to draft legislation, propose an amendment, vote for a specific bill? Be sure to share personal examples: This puts the issues in memorable, human terms. Share testimonials from visitors or volunteers or letters from schoolchildren. And don’t give up! The legislative process takes time. As they say, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again!