Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Advocacy Policy, Part Two - And Why Now is an Especially Good Time to Create One

A few months ago, the MAH board and staff started discussing whether and how to create a formal policy for advocacy activities. I blogged about it, and you offered several good pointers on what should be considered in constructing it. Now, we've created one (unanimously approved by the board), and I wanted to share it with you and the process behind it.

Want to go straight to the policy?

Here it is.

Why create an advocacy policy?

In our case, it started when we were asked to sign onto a local petition to save a community garden under threat. We realized that we needed a systematic way to evaluate these kinds of requests--a tool that would help us evaluate when to say yes and why to say no.

Regardless of your institutional mission, nonprofits are all in the advocacy business. We champion causes through the partnerships we build, the programs we offer, and the stories we tell. While most nonprofits regularly advocate for our own institutions and/or sector, I think it's just as important to advocate for the interests of the communities in which we serve.

If you've been considering this for awhile, now is the time to act. Everyone is going to the ballot this year in the United States. Our museum has already had several requests to lend our support to bond measures that will be on the ballot in 2016. While 501c3 nonprofits cannot endorse candidates, it is completely kosher to endorse bond measures, propositions, and other ballot measures. If you want to be engaged in 2016 ballot measures relevant to your institution or community, now is a great time to develop a policy for how and when to do so.

How did we create it?

A small team of trustees and staff members worked together on our advocacy policy. We reviewed a handful of existing policies from other institutions (local and national, museums and not), discussed their attributes, and started drafting/stealing/reworking with a Google doc. We only met once in person. It was especially valuable to have activists, retired government employees, and social service leaders on the team; they brought helpful perspectives on what advocacy means beyond a cultural context.

The policy our board approved is intentionally broad. We wanted enough of a foundation to ground our advocacy without prescribing it. We wanted enough of a process to provide clarity and structure without too many hoops. We wanted it to make "yes" possible but "no" completely reasonable as well.

Any surprises?

One of the biggest "aha" moments I had in the development of the policy is that our museum was already doing advocacy in a variety of ways before we had a policy. We educate the public on local issues. We invite people from community organizations and campaigns to use the museum as a platform to share their message. We partner with thousands of artists and organizations, providing staff support and engagement in their work. We incubate a youth art and social change program. We host community festivals like the recent Artivism event that showcase local changemakers. We've made changes to our museum--bilingual signage, all-gender restrooms--to be better advocates for the diverse visitors who walk through our doors.

Though we started working on the policy specifically to address situations when we are asked by an outside group for formal endorsement, we realized as we dove in that we should also use this opportunity to contextualize endorsements as just one of many advocacy tools at our disposal. Advocacy is not just for executives and boards of trustees. The result is a broad policy that empowers our whole team to think about our roles as advocates for our community in the work we do.

I know our policy is not perfect. We're just starting to use it to evaluate endorsement requests coming our way, and I imagine we'll find some ways we want to clarify or change what we've written. But I wanted to share it with you: in appreciation of your role in its development, in curiosity as to your response, and in hopes it might inspire you to draft your own.

Because no matter the content, I heartily advocate for such policies to exist.

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