This guest post coincides with AAM’s Museums Advocacy Day in Washington, DC. It is a perfect time to highlight the importance of year-round advocacy for individual museums and the museum field.
Developing Museum Champions Through Advocacy
By Karen A. Witter
Do you have museum champions in your community, city council, school board, state legislature, and Congressional delegation? Would people speak out immediately if something were proposed that would adversely impact your museum? Do you have relationships with elected officials at all levels of government? Is advocacy part of your institutional culture?
Advocacy involves communicating what your museum does and why it is important. Ongoing advocacy helps build a stronger institution. Now more than ever, elected officials at all levels of government need to understand the value of museums to their constituents. All kinds of issues are at play in Congress and State Houses across the country that could impact museums. A myriad of organizations are advocating for their interests; museums also need to be heard.
Advocacy is often compared to donor cultivation…get to know elected officials, just as you get to know donors, before you ask for anything. However, I am convinced that advocacy is also similar to disaster planning – being prepared in case proposed actions would adversely affect your organization. In a time of crisis, you need champions who already understand the value of your organization.
If we want people to support museums as essential assets in large and small communities across our country, we need an ongoing and concerted effort to convey the value of museums. We need national, regional, and state associations to advocate on behalf of the museum field, and we also need individual museums and museum professionals at the grass-roots level to support that effort. The people museums serve can be highly effective as advocates. Just as museums ask individuals to become donors, we need to ask constituents to be advocates.
Creating a culture of advocacy starts at the top, but staff at all levels, board members, volunteers, constituents, and the many people who value museums all play a role. Embrace advocacy as another tool in your toolbox to build a stronger organization. Do simple things, but do them often to create a culture of advocacy.
• First, don’t ever think, “that will never happen”. No one expected the governor of Illinois to shutter the 138-year old Illinois State Museum for 9 months and terminate the entire senior management team. It will take years for the museum to recover.
• Cultivate relationships before you need anything. Maintain long-term relationships, and cultivate new ones. Don’t take anyone for granted. Don’t write anyone off. Communicate regularly. Say thank you when appropriate. Send a letter to newly elected officials who represent people you serve. Congratulate them on their election and invite them to visit. Offer to be a resource as they navigate their new role.
• Be a part of your community not apart from your community. Are your staff, board members, leadership team, and director well known among your business community, education sector, arts community, and with elected officials? Encourage staff to get involved in the community where they can apply their expertise.
• Compile and tell your stories continuously. Engage people’s hearts with stories of how your museum makes a difference. Museum educators can collect stories about your museum’s impact on student learning. Museum registrars and curators can provide stories that reveal the significance of your collections and what compels people to donate objects to your museum. Board members and volunteers can describe what motivates them to support your organization.
• Share these stories with elected officials and community leaders. Send pictures of elected officials’ constituents visiting your museum. Ask others to share their experiences with elected officials. Ask visitors to write letters to the editor and post comments on social media. Find simple ways to let elected officials know how you serve their constituents.
• Document the impact of your museum with facts and figures. Develop an economic impact statement and educational impact statement for your museum. Collaborate with other museums in your community to demonstrate your collective impact. See the American Alliance of Museums’ web site for a template and sample statements .
• Develop an annual advocacy plan. Create a simple plan by outlining a few things that can be done each month, and involve staff, board members, and volunteers.
• Learn more about how to engage in advocacy. If you think advocacy is someone else’s job or are not comfortable with advocacy, step out of your comfort zone and attend advocacy sessions at conferences and sign up for advocacy webinars. If you are in a leadership role but don’t think there is the time or resources to support advocacy, learn more about how to participate in advocacy efforts with a modest investment. There are ways to support AAM’s Museums Advocacy Day without going to Washington, D.C. The AAM web site provides easy ways to lend your voice.
• Make advocacy a strategic priority. There’s far too much at stake for museums to sit on the sidelines. Ask what your organization is doing to advocate for your museum and the museum field, and volunteer to participate. Be an advocate for advocacy.
Karen A. Witter is a part-time museum consultant who worked in Illinois state government for 35 years. She is a former natural resources policy adviser to the Governor, cabinet-level state agency director, and associate director of the IL State Museum. She is a past president of the Association of Midwest Museums and frequent presenter about advocacy at state, regional, and national museum association conferences.
She will be presenting a free AASLH webinar, Everyday Museum Advocacy, on March 6.
Last week I spent two days in St. Louis. Culturally rich and bisected by parks full of fountains and families, it would have been enough on its own, but I actually joined 30 or so other museum folk from around the country for 48 hours as a member of AAM’s Annual Meeting program committee. Having said that, I should add that no one at AAM asked me (or anyone else) to blather on about the experience. This is my idea.
Perhaps you’ve been to an AAM meeting? Perhaps as you stood in line in some vast convention center, knowing just how much of your organizational travel budget went towards bringing you there, you were a teensy bit overwhelmed by how much there is to do? Because there are a lot of sessions on everything from collections to governance, from buildings to leadership, not to mention affinity cocktails, special tours, lectures, and, of course, the keynote. Since AAM attracts a huge number of people, not only from the Americas, but increasingly from around the globe, it’s an event that warrants multiple everything. So next time you’re standing there, overwhelmed, overjoyed or over tired, know that actual humans, not an algorithm, went into planning the meeting.
We were, in fact, divided into teams, each tasked with a different group of topics. This year there were over 400 session proposals, a number we had to whittle away at, while keeping in mind museum size–meaning is a given program a one-size fits all or specifically geared to small, medium or vast institutions. We also had be conscious of tired ideas versus tried and true ideas; what was innovative as opposed to ill-defined; all while keeping geography and the conference theme of diversity, equity and accessibility in mind. Needless to say it was a stimulating experience. When was the last time you sat in a room with your colleagues and just talked about issues, projects and possibilities in the field we know and love? So two final thoughts: If you ever have the chance to take part in program planning, say yes; and if you want programs on a particular subject–say, innovation in historic house museums or social justice programs at art museums, contact AAM. It’s too late for 2017, but not for 2018 in Phoenix. So take it from me, participate. It’s worth it.