Are you interested in getting more involved in advocacy work around the issues that matter to you, your chorus, or the choral field at large? Here’s where to start.
(See also: Advocacy Resources)
Advocating for choruses and the important work they do in our communities has always been key to Chorus America’s mission. In the past few years, we’ve noticed an increased interest in advocacy news from our members as well.
We’re excited by this interest, because taking the time to think about building support for choruses on local and national levels is a smart investment in the future of your chorus. Public policy, including areas of legislation like federal funding for the arts, arts education issues, and tax policy, affects the work that you do every day—from programming to raising money.
It’s up to choral music supporters and organizations to advocate for our field—but we don’t have to do it alone. Here are some resources and information that can help.
Choruses can—and should—advocate for the issues that affect their field and their communities.
We sometimes get questions from our members about the relationship between nonprofits and advocacy. Aren’t there restrictions that discourage nonprofits from doing this kind of work? And what is the difference between advocacy and lobbying, anyway? So let’s take a minute to set the record straight.
The Performing Arts Alliance defines advocacy as “general efforts to advance a point of view.” You can advocate for your chorus or cause in front of just about any audience—from potential donors to city council members. Lobbying, or “activities aimed at influencing members of a lawmaking body on
legislation,” is a more focused aspect of advocacy work, usually directed at elected public officials. Taking a moment before your chorus’s performance to talk about how your education programs support young people in your town is advocacy—encouraging your audience to reach out to legislators in support of the funding that supports your education programs is lobbying.
Nonprofits are prohibited from electioneering, or being part of any activity that supports or opposes a political party or candidate for public office—but the law states that 501(c)(3)s can spend up to 20 percent of their time on lobbying without jeopardizing their status (see the Advocacy Resources companion piece for more information on these guidelines). That’s roughly one day of every work week. Beyond that, if you’re not referencing specific legislation, you can advocate as much as you would like.
Educate yourself on the issues that matter to your chorus.
On a federal level, the Issue Center on the Performing Arts Alliance website is a great primer on the issues that are of particular interest to performing arts nonprofits. Follow Chorus America’s High Notes website posts, Update e-newsletters, and social media feeds to stay on top of these issues from a chorus-specific perspective. Many of the organizations listed in our Advocacy Resources companion piece also have email lists you can sign up for that send out news and action alerts.
On a more local level, your state arts agency and your state or local associations of nonprofit organizations are important resources. Stay in touch with other arts organizations in your area about the policy issues that are affecting your community.
You don’t have to become a policy “expert”—in fact, your status as a constituent rather than a paid lobbyist makes your voice more valuable. But you should prepare yourself to articulate how the issues at hand affect your chorus’s ability to serve your community. The Performing Arts Alliance suggests answering these questions to help you prepare your case.
- What is your concern about this policy?
- What is your organization’s history with this issue?
- What outcome do you prefer? What outcome is acceptable?
- What is your legislator’s record on this issue?
- What likely reasons will he/she use to oppose, avoid, or support your position?
- What do you need your legislator to do?
- Are there facts or statistics that show how your organization is helped/harmed by this issue?
- If a government program is involved, what alternatives exist?
Start building your relationships with policymakers before you need to make a specific ask.
As in so many other areas, successful advocacy starts with relationships. You shouldn’t wait until the budget for your state’s arts agency is threatened or the National Endowment for the Arts is in danger to get to know key decision-makers.
Whether on a local or federal level, elected officials pay attention to voters in their districts—if you can’t vote for or against them the next time they run, your advocacy efforts won’t make much of an impact. You can enter zip codes on the Performing Arts Alliance website to find your members of Congress. Their personal websites, email lists, and social media channels can help you learn more about the issues they are working on and opportunities to connect with them at town halls or other community meetings.
You’ll want to do some research on the issues that are most important to them, their committee assignments, and their arts voting record (Americans for the Arts Congressional Arts Report Card can be a helpful resource on the federal level; your state or local arts agency should have this information for state legislators). You’ll also want to find out if they have any connections to your organization—maybe they have attended performances in the past or know one of your board members personally.
After elections is a great time to reach out to legislators. Consider sending a letter introducing yourself and your chorus, along with some brief background information like a season brochure. Tell your elected official that you look forward to working together and invite them to come and see your chorus in action at a performance or other event. You’ll just want to be sure to review rules for gifts to federal policymakers and staff to make sure any tickets you set aside fall within guidelines (the Performing Arts Alliance has a thorough Guide to Gift Rules on its website).
A good strategy is to position yourself as a resource. Legislators want reliable sources of information to turn to when they need information or an opinion on a relevant piece of legislation. Let your legislators know that if they have questions about your local or state arts community, you are there to help.
Make it personal—but don’t take it personally.
The more personal you make your outreach to legislators, the more likely it is to be effective. That means that a personalized email explaining how an issue affects you and your community trumps a form email. Personal phone calls are also effective. But there’s no substitute for a face-to-face meeting—and meeting with constituents is part of an elected official’s job, so you don’t need to feel shy about asking for one.
Petitions—especially email petitions—are consistently rated the least effective form of advocacy. Legislative offices don’t tend to keep track of this kind of mass communication, and elected officials disregard messages that aren’t from voters in their district. If you do sign petitions, make sure you are also communicating with your legislators in other, more personal ways.
You don't have to travel to Washington DC to meet with your members of Congress. Legislators are typically in Washington Tuesday through Thursday and are frequently home Friday through Monday. Times when Congress is in recess are especially good opportunities to set up a meeting or invite your legislator to a performance. Look up recess dates, and contact your legislator’s district office ahead of time to make an appointment.
When you do get an appointment, you can expect about 15-20 minutes of time. Come prepared to introduce yourself and your organization briefly, and to state your concern concisely. It’s usually a good idea to focus on one issue per meeting, and, if you are coming with a group, you might want to plan out who is going to say what beforehand. Be ready to back up your point of view with statistics, and to share stories that convey how this issue impacts real people—these can both be summarized in some brief materials to leave behind after your visit.
Be sure to listen as well. Your legislator may have questions for you. If you don’t know the answers, you can find out after the meeting and follow up with that information later. You may also learn some personal details that could be helpful in building a future relationship—perhaps your representative has children who sang in their school chorus or has some other connection to the arts or your organization.
If your elected official isn’t available, you may end up meeting with a staff member. This isn’t a slight or something to worry about—staffers play an important role in advising their legislators and keeping track of how constituents feel about issues.
No matter the outcome of your meeting, begin and end by thanking your legislator for their time, and express that you look forward to working together in the future. Politics are complicated, and there are often many things on which we disagree—but your opponent on one issue can be your key ally on another. In advocacy work, you never burn bridges.
Your network is your advocacy superpower.
Choruses are inherently connected organizations. Your staff, board members, volunteers, parents (in the case of a children and youth chorus), and singers are also voters and arts supporters. In addition to their connection with your organization, they may have helpful connections to lawmakers, influential people, or the media. Adding advocacy and policy updates as a regular staff and board meeting agenda item is a great way to learn more about these connections and explore which issues are particularly important to your chorus’s stakeholders.
Your audiences can also be an important part of your advocacy network. Asking your audiences for support on important issues—a state bond that would support the arts infrastructure or funding for the National Endowment for the Arts—is considered grassroots lobbying. You might include an advocacy message in short remarks from the stage or in your program materials, or share information through your chorus’s emails and social media feeds.
The broader the audience you are reaching, the more likely that some of that audience may disagree with your position. It’s a good idea to share speeches or emails with a colleague or two before sharing and sending, and, as always, make sure any messaging is entirely non-partisan. The most important thing is to explain clearly how the issue in question affects your organization and community.
No one knows better than the choral community that our voices are strongest together. Let’s use our collective power to create positive change and support the ways that the arts support us all.
Liza W. Beth is vice president of communications and membership at Chorus America.