Don’t Discount the Back-Up Singers
This week, hundreds of advocates are gathering in and around Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, to communicate to our national elected officials the value and impact of the arts on local communities, on families, on individual lives.
This is an important day, not just for the arts community, not just for our Senators and Representatives, but for the people served by us, those who cannot be in Washington having these conversations.
I’ve worked within and outside of advocacy over the course of my career in the arts, so I understand why arts administrators are willing to make the commitment to travel to Washington, or even to their own state legislature, to promote the value of the arts. I know there is confusion about what roles arts nonprofit staff can take in the name of “advocacy” without jeopardizing their 501(c)(3) status with the IRS.
And I know our arts leadership, those most likely to speak with legislators, are also our busiest, most called-upon experts, and often feel that devoting several days to the work of advocacy is the best they can do under their current circumstances.
But, friends, it’s not all. The work happening in Washington this week is the chorus of the song we sing all year long: the arts build communities. The arts turn around lives. The arts stimulate the economy.
Over the last several years, it’s been an urgent chorus, one we can’t let ourselves stop singing. While it’s true that responding to threats to arts and culture funding, unfavorable legislation, or moves to otherwise impede our ability to serve our communities is a true emergency, it is about 5% of work we need done. Let me say it again: it’s a critical 5%. But it’s 5%.
The real work of advocacy—to extend the metaphor, the verses of our song—is already happening, every day, in each of our organizations. It’s happening on Facebook and Twitter, when your staff answer phones, when the curtains go up or the lights come down or the performers take their places or the doors open or the first words are sung or spoken. It’s happening when your patron or audience member has a positive interaction with a member of your staff.
We cannot discount the enduring value of positive, consistent, and targeted messages about the effectiveness of our organizations. When your staff members sit down to write grants to funders and have to quantify the impact you have in terms of attendance or people served or lives changed—that’s an advocacy message.
When marketing departments send a press release to celebrate an award their dance company just received—that’s an advocacy message.
When, at my job at Arts for LA, I interview the largest classical radio station in California about their new mobile applications that widen the audience for classical music, that’s an advocacy message.
The real work of advocacy—and, from my perspective, the most important—involves the choices we make every day to contribute to that ambient messaging about the arts. Ambient messaging happens whether we like it or not—consider how your staff reacts when an audience member posts a negative review of your show on Facebook—but it is not outside our influence.
We cannot control ambient messaging, but we can contribute to it and, with a growing chorus of voices, establish the dominant melody.
To take that metaphor another step further, as advocates, we want our messages to ring true for the audiences that hear them. One way we can do this is by making them familiar. One of the most positive outcomes of an advocacy message, when delivered to a decision maker, is “I think I’ve heard something about that before.” It means they’re listening. And it means they remember.
One method arts organizations can use to strengthen their message is to “de-silo” their information. A lot of quantitative data ends up with the fundraisers and grantwriters, while a lot of qualitative expressions end up with the marketers and communication staff. Let these groups exchange information and use it to craft stronger messages about the impact your organization has in the community.
If every organization works to push out messages about their own impact, these voices will gather locally and create that ambient effect. And as the voices rise up, to the county and state levels, and then nationally, what a chorus we’ll be, then. Articulate, passionate, and effective.
And when our advocates appear in the doorways of our elected officials, their words, they’ll ring true—familiar, a melody those decision makers have heard before.