Your Secret Weapon: Your Board

By Gail Ravnitzky Silberglied
Museum, May/June 2011

Advocacy directed at elected officials is very much like the work you do to cultivate donors and engage the public. It’s all about pairing the most effective spokesperson with the most effective message. Board members are in the perfect position to help carry your message to elected officials. Here’s why:

1. They know people.

They have established networks and connections, and may already have an existing relationship with your elected officials. You probably already call upon board members to help with fundraising. Advocacy in this context is about taking similar messages to another audience: elected officials.

2. They have a different kind of authority.

Museum professionals are perfectly capable of being effective advocates, but board members have something even more powerful. Because they often come from a different industry and may be employed elsewhere, they are seen as more independent and can act as “third-party validators.”

3. They bring a different perspective.

Chances are your board is made up of people with varied backgrounds, philosophies and approaches (which may make for some really interesting meetings!). You may have educators, business leaders, veterans, philanthropists, community leaders and parents on your board. All of these perspectives may help make the case for your museum in a new, more influential way. This approach may be more appealing to an elected official.

4. They bring diversity.

It’s likely that your board already reflects the diversity of the communities you serve. This is already important in your public outreach efforts. It can also be valuable for advocating to elected officials, especially when your museum is serving more isolated or underserved communities.

5. They represent different regions.

Depending on where you live, you may have board members living in several different states or several different counties. Therefore, they have the ability to reach out to many more elected officials—as constituents—than you could by yourself.

6. They are considered experts.

It is assumed that everyone associated with your museum is fairly well versed in all that the museum does. But there is an expectation that board members will also have access to different kinds of information: structural, financial and organizational. This doesn’t mean that they must memorize your tax return. Rather, they can simply carry the message with extra authority. They may have institutional knowledge about a particular topic, or simply have a breadth of experience from years of work in museums or in another field. Just as your museum staff holds its board members in high esteem, so will your community.

7. They put their money where their mouths are.

There is an assumption that your trustees have weighed the many competing priorities in their lives and decided to invest in your museum. By contributing their time, energy and money to your museum’s cause, they are making a subtle yet powerful statement that your museum deserves public support.

8. They (may) have more time.

Some of your board members may be retired. Some may have a lot of flexibility in their schedules. And some may view their board responsibilities as a welcome distraction from their other work.

9. They may be aligned politically.

The good news for museums is that there is no niche constituency: The fact is, everyone loves museums! However, there may be some elected officials who are more or less inclined to support your museum based on political considerations. If the elected official is a fiscal conservative, for example, he or she may not support your public funding. Finding the right messenger—perhaps a board member who has a financial or corporate background—can help overcome these concerns. In this case, this board member can discuss the museum as a wise economic investment for the community.

I think we’ve made our point. But now what? How do we go about getting board members to advocate for museums? The first thing is to realize that you already rely on board members to serve as “ambassadors” for your museum: to donors, to community groups, to the media. Extending this ambassador role to advocacy is not really such a stretch.

One strategy is to involve your board in an advocacy exercise. Your board could conduct an “advocacy inventory” to enhance and centralize your arsenal of information that you use to advocate. An advocacy inventory helps you target your advocacy efforts by collecting key pieces of information about your museum, key decision-makers at all levels, state and local government entities and your museum’s success stories. The goal is to use this information to identify natural connections between your museum and your elected officials. 

It also helps you to make the most of certain advocacy opportunities. Knowing that your elected official is interested in health care might lead you to invite him or her to observe a health-related program you offer.  Learning about the funding cycle of your state legislature helps you know when there might be an opportunity to testify in support of funding for museums. Knowing that your elected official is interested in issues concerning the military and veterans might lead you to involve him or her in your targeted outreach to the military community. We explain how to do this in detail in chapter 3 of the book.

Another strategy is to keep your board up to date on what’s happening on the advocacy front. You know the saying, “Out of sight, out of mind.” So keep them aware of what’s going on. One way to do this is to always include an advocacy update on your board meeting agenda. A board member can even be assigned to report on this topic. Does your board have an advocacy committee? Maybe it should.

If you, yourself, are a board member reading this and want to get more involved (first of all, thank you!), think about the small steps you can take right away. Will you volunteer to provide an advocacy report at board meetings? Will you encourage your board to complete an advocacy inventory during an upcoming board meeting? Will you attend AAM’s Museums Advocacy Day?

To further engage your board, we recommend making sure they all receive AAM’s Advocacy Alerts (you can sign up to receive them right away by visiting our advocacy website, speakupformuseums.org). That way, during board meetings, you can discuss the latest alerts and be sure your museum is getting involved at all the right times. AAM works hard to provide clear and concise messages to advocates and to provide a specific “ask” in these alerts. We know that this makes advocacy so much easier! There’s nothing worse than contacting elected officials with an unclear message causing them to say (or think), “Now what do these people want me to do?” AAM’s advocacy website also makes advocacy very easy, with contact information for legislators and template letters that can be personalized and sent electronically.

One last strategy is to involve the board in all of your advocacy activities. This is particularly helpful for board members who may be intimidated by advocacy, or for the smaller museum with a lower profile. Invite board members to join you if you attend a public hearing. If you invite elected officials to visit your museum, invite a few board members to be present. As they get more involved in advocacy activities, they will feel more comfortable and you will have new advocacy surrogates that you can turn to.

To further build their confidence in advocacy, be sure that all board members are equipped with information, statistics and success stories about your museum so that they are always ready to advocate for your institution.

Building relationships is key to everything your museum does. The same principle holds true for elected officials. The more you learn about them, the better position you are in to be an effective advocate. You can follow elected officials on Twitter or become a fan on Facebook. And if they leave office, don’t count them out. Maintain these relationships, too, since you never know when someone will re-emerge on the political scene in a new capacity.

At some point, you may even invite an elected official (or a former one) to serve on your board. If you pursue this route, consider what kinds of activities or board committees you would want them to become involved in. One way they can be extremely helpful is in creating a strategy for contacting other elected officials.

However you choose to involve your board members in advocacy, the basic case for museums must always be crystal clear: Museums are essential.

  • They are economic engines.
  • They are a critical part of the educational infrastructure.
  • They create jobs.
  • They are stewards of our national heritage.
  • They foster creativity and innovation.
  • They spur tourism.
  • They help to revitalize communities.
  • They celebrate cultural diversity.
  • They attract businesses to the community.
  • They serve as community anchors.
  • They are a source of civic and community pride.
These facts must be made clear to every elected official at every level of government.

And here’s a final thought for you: Advocacy is really a fundamental responsibility of all board members. AAM believes so strongly in this concept that it plans to add this tenet to its official “job description” of a board member. Perhaps your board should, too!

Insider Advice from an Elected Official

State Rep. Kate Segal (D-Mich.); former congressional staffer and current Michigan House Democratic floor leader

“The most effective groups take the time to build a relationship. Don’t come in during a crisis and expect immediate action, especially if we’ve never previously had a chance to discuss your issue. It’s better if you have developed a relationship with us, and we have a good understanding of your issues and the work you do, before you need our help.

“It’s important to show your impact on the community. For a museum, you might bring along residents of the community who have been impacted by your programs. And how has the program helped children in your community? That’s a really effective message.

“I had a group of low-income parents come visit me to discuss how their kids with special needs were faring in the local schools. I know it took a lot of effort for the advocates to arrange such a meeting, and I know that this group of parents had previously had very limited interaction with government officials, but it made a huge impact to hear their stories directly.

“If I represent you in Lansing, I want to know what you do, what you think, and I want to know who you are so I can seek you out on relevant issues. I really pay attention to letters when they come from my constituents. At my weekly staff meetings, I always get a report on who has been in touch with my office and on which issues. We keep track of it and we respond to every constituent, so it does make a difference when you contact us.

“Advocates should also be careful in the language they use. Don’t be threatening. If you say something like, ‘I voted for you and … ’ that’s probably not going to go over so well.

“Take the time to personally thank people after they voted or took action, especially when it was on a difficult issue. If you are going to take the time to be an advocate, you should really also take the time to say thank you. And if you can send a personal note, that makes a big impression. You know, use a stamp. You’d be surprised how few people send personal, handwritten thank-you notes, so yours will really stand out and be remembered.

“Treat staff as if they were gold. You may sometimes feel like you are being put off by staff. However, if you treat them well they could be your biggest advocates in getting your issue in front of me. They have a very hard job, and you have to remember they are juggling so many things. If you treat staff poorly, your issue could end up at the bottom of the pile. I still remember some of the people who were unkind to or impatient with me when I served as a scheduler on Capitol Hill many years ago. Then as I became a legislative assistant and then senior legislative assistant, I still remembered.

“My best advice for advocates is this: Don’t take ‘no’ for an answer. Don’t take ‘I’ll look into it’ for an answer. I find some of my colleagues never commit to anything and they are never held accountable for it. It drives me nuts! If you ask a direct question, you deserve a direct answer, and you shouldn’t let people be slippery about things. You might hear, ‘Great to see you. You know I love museums. Thanks for coming by.’ Don’t let them get away with that. Sometimes you’ll have to ask more than once, and in more than one way, but don’t let them get away with the non-committal answer.”

Advice from a Museum Colleague

Kathy Kelsey Foley, director, Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum, Wausau, Wisc.

“Say ‘thank you’ as often as possible, and mean it. Not only when you get something, but just because.… Don’t take legislators or their staff for granted.… Acknowledge their good work even if it is not related to our [museum] work.

“Build relationships. People do things for people they know. Get to know your legislators—local, state, federal—as well as their staff members. It’s important to develop these relationships at all levels because you don’t know if the alderman has his or her sights on the state legislature, or if the senator has his or her sights on the governor’s mansion, and so on. And it’s not improbable that a staff person would one day run for office.

“Ask what you can do, how you can be helpful, how your institution can be helpful—meaning you’re not always asking for something. Asking how you can be helpful is a natural outgrowth of developing relationships. Examples: Consider opportunities to put your legislators in the spotlight—your institutional spotlight—which is a win-win, especially when you can get media coverage…. One of our state legislators who is a champion of education had the opportunity to attend [an event] at the Woodson Art Museum during which elementary school children—her constituents—were in attendance, as well as their parents and chaperones, all likely voters. It was a great media opportunity, a great visual (as opposed to a ‘grin-and-grab’). Everybody wins.

“Keep legislators and elected officials and their staffs informed, up to date and in the know. This includes press releases, invitations, general mailings. Also be conscious of sharing time-sensitive breaking news if it’s appropriate or possible.… It’s better that legislators on the state, local or federal level don’t read your important news in the newspaper.… You want to be the one who provided the heads-up. An example might be the launch of a major building project, an expansion, or a major bequest, especially if it came from a constituent. Even a major acquisition would be something to share under the heading of a heads-up.

“You could become a fan [of legislators] on Facebook, or invite them to be a fan of your museum’s Facebook page.

“Say ‘thank you’ again. Remember to say ‘please,’ too. Those courtesies go a long way. Handwritten notes are still meaningful, perhaps even more so today, especially in this age of digital communication.


Gail Ravnitzky Silberglied is director, government relations, AAM. This article is an excerpt from Speak Up For Museums: The AAM Guide to Advocacy, available from The AAM Press.