Working with the California Association of Museums, a fundraiser with the San Diego Natural History Museum gained valuable advocacy experience.
This article originally appeared in Museum magazine’s September/October 2023 issue, a benefit of AAM membership.
Prior to the 2017–18 legislative session, my professional involvement with state and federal government was limited to writing grant proposals for the San Diego Natural History Museum (The Nat) as the Senior Director of Philanthropy. While my position would remain the same, my advocacy experience was about to grow by leaps and bounds.
At that time, The Nat, where I have worked since 2015, had just completed a strategic planning process with our new President and CEO, Judy Gradwohl. We were looking forward to our 150th anniversary in 2024, and we created a road map that would best equip the museum to serve future generations in our region.
The Nat is a collections-based institution that focuses on the natural history and unique biodiversity of our binational region. We welcome nearly 400,000 people to the museum annually, host environmental education programs in the community, and are engaged in scientific research throughout Southern California and the Baja California Peninsula of Mexico.
One of the strategic priorities we identified during that 2017 planning process was to expand our leadership role as the authority on the natural sciences in this region. This included actively engaging with policy makers, including elected officials, and serving as a trusted go-to resource for credible science information.
The Nat did not have a position dedicated to government relations, but with the support of museum leadership, I volunteered to explore what it could mean for us and create a plan to build stronger relationships with our delegation of elected officials and their staffs. The California Association of Museums (CAM) would be my conduit for learning more and taking action.
Statewide Advocacy and Legislation
The Nat is a member of CAM, which works to unify and strengthen California’s museums to expand their collective impact. In 2019 I joined CAM’s government relations committee as a volunteer with no prior experience with advocacy or lobbying at the state level.
At that time CAM contracted with Fearless Advocacy, a Sacramento-based firm specializing in advancing the policy agendas of mission-based and cause-oriented organizations. The group helped us monitor legislation and determine the impact of taking a position to support, oppose, or remain neutral on key state Senate and Assembly bills. Through volunteering I learned the rhythm of state legislation and gained perspective on how our locally elected officials operate at that level.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, CAM’s advocacy in 2020–2021 focused on securing funding for the over 1,500 museums in the state and ensuring that it was distributed in a way that was equitable to all institution types and sizes. For example, we advocated for and received $50 million specifically for nonprofit cultural institutions, and CAM helped eligible institutions apply to the program. Through this advocacy and outreach to the museum community, many institutions received direct state grants at a critical time.
Building on this advocacy energy, CAM decided to garner statewide support for a bill to benefit museums. Introduced by Senator John Laird (D-Santa Cruz) in March 2022, California Senate Bill 963—the California Culture and History Investments Act—updates the statutory language governing the Museum Grant Program within the California Cultural and Historical Endowment Act. In short, our goal was to modernize the language and funding priorities of a 20-year-old program to better reflect the need for capital improvement and program funding in California’s museums.
The specific updates to the funding priorities included a focus on projects and programs that:
- serve underserved communities
- fight misinformation
- promote understanding of critical issues
- improve access, safety, and resilience of important cultural and natural collections and historic buildings
- broaden exposure to the state’s diverse history
- support the ethical stewardship of sensitive art and artifacts, including, but not limited to, consulting with Indigenous Californians or repatriation
In addition to updating the priorities of the grant program, CAM requested $125 million in one-time funding for awards from the updated program and administration of the state agency that houses it. CAM’s board and membership were committed to advocating for these joint initiatives.
Direct Advocacy Efforts
With the guidance of Fearless Advocacy and Arianna Z. Smith Public Affairs, another consulting firm, CAM’s staff, volunteers, members, and subscribers undertook the following advocacy activities to gain public support for the bill and funding request.
Sign-on letter. After drafting the bill with Senator Laird’s staff, we drafted a sign-on letter of support for the bill and solicited museums and industry associations to add their institution’s signature. Ninety-five institutions joined by name, including the American Alliance of Museums, the Western Museums Association, and scores of California museums, zoos, aquaria, and cultural centers.
Letters of support. In addition to participating in the sign-on letter, several institutions, including the California Association of Nonprofits, the Oakland Zoo, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, sent letters to Senator Laird supporting his leadership on the bill, and later to Governor Gavin Newsom requesting his signature on the Senate-approved bill. A bipartisan group of 19 legislators also joined Senator Laird’s letter to the Senate budget committee requesting the $125 million in funding support.
Op-ed commentary. While the sponsored legislation was being drafted, CalMatters, a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization that is widely read in Sacramento, published an op-ed post we wrote focused on the importance of the updated funding priorities for California museums.
AAM Museums Advocacy Day. Like in 2021, the virtual format of the AAM Museums Advocacy Day in 2022 allowed a greater number of Californians to participate in calls with elected federal officials and their staffers. The training and tips that AAM provided through this program were also applicable to the legislative action we took in the state.
California museum month. Joined by dozens of other legislators and staffers, Senator Laird advocated on behalf of SB 963 and the proposed funding at an event hosted at Sacramento’s California Museum during California’s museum month.
Legislative testimony. CAM staff and museum leaders from across the state provided testimony both in person and virtually at Assembly, Senate, and joint committee hearings in Sacramento. CAM created sample scripts to support everyone willing to share their 60-second reasons why SB 963 should be passed.
Social media campaign. Near the close of the legislative session, we recruited individual supporters and museum social media accounts throughout the state to post messages asking Governor Newsom to sign the legislation. CAM drafted the posts to make it easier for everyone to participate. CAM also posted appreciation for individual legislators who voted for the bill and publicly supported the funding request.
Advocacy action hour. CAM hosted a series of live virtual workshops to help individuals complete three direct advocacy activities in real time. After directing participants on how to locate the email, phone number, and Twitter username for their state Senate representative, we provided scripts for sending an email, leaving a phone message, and posting on social media. We completed each activity together, and by the end, taking direct action had been demystified for all participants.
A Successful Outcome
After nine months of advocating for SB 963, Governor Newsom signed it into law in September 2022. This was a great victory for CAM and its member institutions, which will be able to apply to the Museum Grant Program for capital projects and programs that are more relevant to today’s museums, such as connecting with underserved communities, improving access to historic structures, and mitigating the effects of climate change on buildings and collections.
Unfortunately, the legislative budget proposal of $125 million in one-time funding to support the Museum Grant Program did not pass. While the program has allocated funding, the one-time funding would have maximized the number of museums able to pursue the competitive grant opportunity in a year when California had a historic $55 billion budget surplus.
The passage of SB 963 represented a full-circle moment for me as well. I had applied to the Museum Grant Program in the past, but I now have an in-depth understanding of how my future applications to the program help California achieve its goals, and I will be able to articulate that.
In addition, being involved in the legislative process has shaped how I do my fundraising work, which is personally empowering. Through my advocacy work I learned to prep for meetings with legislators by writing an internal agenda and script for the meeting that anticipates their questions and objections. I also learned to get a few “easy” yeses to requests, which creates positive energy as I build to the big request at the end. I employ these tactics in all my major donor meetings now.
When I first explored government relations in 2017, I would not have imagined myself providing testimony to the state Assembly and Senate, writing op-eds and articles, or taking any direct legislative action. In hindsight, I view all of my advocacy work with CAM as professional development that has improved my fundraising career. The skills I gained advocating with state elected officials translate to local and federal elected officials as well. We have had increased success connecting with the entire delegation of people who represent The Nat, from our city councilmember to our US House representative. Advocacy has created a new audience for engaging our community about regional biodiversity.
No Time for Advocacy?
It can be challenging to make time for advocacy when it’s not your job. Here are five low-effort steps you can take to increase your museum’s profile and influence.
- Identify the entire delegation for your museum’s physical address using a finder tool (see Resources on p. 24). Include your city council, mayor, county/district council, state legislature, governor, and federal members of Congress. Be sure to note the end of their term in office so that you know when to update your list.
- Send the entire delegation your annual report or other key messages that you share with your constituents. While the elected official may not read it, someone on their staff might, and you’ll be a familiar name when you invite them to your museum.
- Invite the entire delegation to your museum during Invite Congress to Visit Your Museum Week in August. Many will not be able to attend, but they may offer to visit another time. Schedule the visits and be ready to tell them why your organization matters.
- Stay in touch with the offices that show interest by inviting them to your major openings or events, sharing news articles about your museum, and tagging them on your key social media posts.
- Send a congratulatory letter to newly elected officials and invite them to your museum before their term is in full swing.
California Association of Museums
Full text of SB 963
AAM Museums Advocacy Day
AAM’s Elected Officials Search