Volunteer Advocacy Leadership: Guarding the Backside

Posted by Mr. Robert Bettmann, Apr 15, 2016 0 comments

My wife was a corporate litigator at a major firm and she’s got some fun stories from that experience. Her direct supervisor, an esteemed senior partner, regularly advised her to “guard the backside” in litigation they brought on behalf of clients. 

For anyone unfamiliar with the game of basketball, guarding the backside refers to a situation where Team A is dribbling the ball down the court near to one sideline in an effort to reach the basket and score on Team B. Team B may be entirely focused on where the ball is coming from but Team A may suddenly pass the ball to the other sideline and then attack the backside, or weak side, of the defense. This experienced litigator recognized that part of competently preparing for litigation was: don’t forget to guard the backside.

The all-volunteer DC Advocates for the Arts serves our community in several ways and one important but consistently challenging role is trying to protect our advocacy for the arts budget from political landmines. Our role as an organization isn’t only to facilitate what our community naturally does well for itself but to do for the community what we otherwise have a hard time doing: guarding the backside.

I took over as volunteer Chair of the DC Advocates for the Arts in 2009. In 2010 the economy tanked and the whole DC budget spiraled down. Over three years, the DC budget declined from $13 billion to under $10 billion per year. Within that, local arts funding went from $8 million down to $3 million a year in competitively awarded grant funds. (Also cut the first year were more than $5 million in earmarks.) 

Arts funding rebounded relatively quickly in part because of an effective series of advocacy programs co-organized by the DC Advocates for the Arts. In 2013, with a group of 25 partners, I led our organization in a campaign that resulted in arts funding being restored to pre-downturn levels. Since 2013, we’ve worked hard to keep the arts budget growing, and it has. The budget has grown from $11 million to $14 million to $16 million, to now $17 million per year. By any reasonable definition we’ve been doing well for our community. DC is now #1 in per capita government arts funding.  

When I talk about protecting the backside in our advocacy positioning, I’m talking about three strategies: efficiency, transparency, and reality. In implementing those strategies we’ve gotten some robust criticism.

The efficiency of arts funding in general, or by an individual arts organization, isn’t as important to our advocacy as the efficiency of the agency’s disbursements as a whole. We are advocating for increases in the arts budget, not for any one organization. When the budget for arts funding was being cut during the downturn we heard from policymakers: “You’re telling me that arts funding is a great investment, and that your organization with an annual budget of $500k needs the $50k a year you get from the local government. We’re telling you that with this budget downturn you’re going to have to make do with a budget of $450k or 460k.” There's really no direct counter to that, but one way we guard the backside is by sharing our evaluation of the efficiency of the agency’s programs with policymakers. That sometimes means that we criticize the agency we exist to support. Our willingness to criticize has directly contributed to DC becoming #1 in per capita arts funding. Legislative leaders know we’re not just blowing hot air because we capably critique the mayor’s proposals year after year, and executive leaders know we’re for real because we equally critique (and/or support) legislative initiatives.

Making a case for the efficiency of agency arts spending requires transparency. If we can’t share detailed numbers about arts spending, we can’t make the case for efficiency. Former DC Mayor Fenty helped pass an “open data” law that supplies us with basic information, and we work with administration, legislative, and non-profit allies for additional detailed information. We help our members and policymakers make the best case for the impact of arts investment through our research, and through our participation in shared efforts for efficiency and transparency.

The third tool necessary for guarding the backside is: "reality." When a state budget is expanding, it’s relatively easy to find “friends” for the arts, but it’s only when the budget declines that we see who our real friends are. We work to build our champions in the legislature and to line up public allies so that our community’s priorities don’t get hung up in politics around those champions. No one policymaker – even in the executive – can get much done alone.

While we focus year after year on a strategy that includes efficiency, transparency, and reality, any time that we tacitly or directly criticize, or correct, a policymaker we put ourselves in the crosshairs of individuals thinking on a shorter timeline.

I’ve been Board Chair for nearly seven years and in that time we’ve wrestled with board members who didn’t support our member program and policymakers who have actively undermined our organization. But the biggest challenge I see every year is the challenge for our organization to keep strategic focus on an ever-receding future horizon while serving some members and policymakers who are sometimes only interested in what’s right in front of them. There’s no silver bullet for the development or maintenance of an effective coalition or leadership team but volunteer leaders need to name their pains and embrace the challenges service brings. 

Robert is a member of Americans for the Arts. Learn more about membership.

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