During ancient Greek and Roman times, the arts were commonly sponsored by the government, and the regions' artistic cultures flourished so greatly under this patronage that many centuries later they still draw countless visitors from around the world. New York City has also long sustained a celebrated artistic culture, but today that culture will certainly face serious struggles due to the shrinking supply of government funds. If you work in the arts in New York, what can you do to help your field continue to thrive during such tough times? One potential solution is to try your hand at lobbying.
On January 21, the Foundation Center hosted a panel, in collaboration with the Arts & Business Council of New York, titled Working with Government: How Nonprofit Organizations Get Their Voices Heard. The seminar featured three local elected officials who are passionate supporters of New York arts organizations: Assembly Member Deborah J. Glick of Assembly District 66, State Senator Liz Krueger of the 26th Senate District, and New York City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer of District 26. Our speakers asserted that lobbying is a welcome and useful strategy for arts nonprofits, and they shared some of their tips for successful advocacy:
Come prepared with a solid argument. When lobbying for arts funding in the New York City area, this one piece of information is crucial: in the current economic climate, the number-one element keeping the city's economy afloat is tourism, which reached a record high in 2010. This means that the factors that encourage tourism need plenty of support. Cultural institutions are and have always been among the leading tourist attractions for New York City, including theatrical productions, art museums, musical performances, and more. After visiting a museum and watching a play, tourists then shop in the city's stores, eat at the city's restaurants, and sleep in the city's hotels. This fact should be the backbone of your advocacy argument: legislators in Albany can help keep New York City's economy strong by providing financial support to those artistic institutions that bring in millions of tourists per year.
Furthermore, you can extend your case for support by discussing jobs. No matter what their political views, all legislators see the creation and preservation of jobs as a top priority, and the for-profit sector is not the only source of employment out there. According to the Fiscal Policy Institute, the nonprofit sector employs nearly 500,000 people in New York City, and the number of nonprofit jobs has grown over the past decade as for-profit jobs have declined in number. Clearly then, an argument for nonprofit arts funding is an argument for steady employment.
Develop political power through people power. Not only should you engage your staff in advocacy, but you should engage friends, family, and others to advocate on your behalf. What legislators want is to make decisions that satisfy the greatest number of their constituents as possible, so it will help your case if you allow them to hear from those constituents. Hearing from community members who support your group's work will encourage legislators to recognize your organization as the vital pillar of your community that it is. Building upon this strategy, it would also be beneficial to form strong relationships with local community groups such as the Chamber of Commerce, local service organizations, or even a local church. Any large group that is seen as a major hub of your community is likely to wield a sizable amount of influence when communicating with a legislator, so if you haven't gotten to know the people in these organizations yet, it's definitely worth considering.
Make your case through letters and phone calls. While you should try to make a personal visit to your legislators or their representatives, you can also supplement these efforts by other, more immediate, means. In a phone call, you'll need to articulate your point quickly and clearly, and it helps to ask questions about the legislator's views on the issue so that you'll have a better understanding of whether the official is likely to support you. Also, when calling (or even while arriving for a personal meeting), don't feel too deflated if you end up talking to a staff member other than the actual elected official. Legislators work very closely with their staffs, and if you have the full attention of this staff member, you can generally trust that this person will discuss your points with the legislator with sufficient gravity.
Meanwhile, if you or one of your supporters is writing a letter, the most important thing is that you keep it personal. Government offices receive large numbers of canned, impersonal form letters on various issues every day, and an impersonal form letter is unlikely to receive very much attention. What would work, however, would a be a neatly handwritten letter from one of your supporters, stating that he/she greatly appreciates your organization's contribution to the community and that your work deserves funding.
Advocacy can be a complex area to explore, and you will want to do your research first to make sure that your organization can comply with the various laws regulating nonprofits that engage in lobbying activities. To learn more about these issues, search the Foundation Center's Catalog of Nonprofit Literature using the subject/descriptors "nonprofit organizations—advocacy" and "arts—government policy". You can find many helpful advocacy resources at the Alliance for Justice as well, and you may want to visit Americans for the Arts for even more information on arts advocacy.
For more information about the impact of cultural activity on the economic vitality of communities, read Economic Development Is an Art, Not a Science, a blog posting about a related program we held during our last Funding for Arts Month.
-- Tracy Kaufman, Library Assistant