At the end of February, I attended the first of (what I hope will be) many Museums Advocacy Days (MAD) on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. There was something magical about the combination of something I love – museums – with something that scares me: US politics.
The two-day MAD activities started with a day full of sessions designed to unite and rally the 300+ advocates around the issues at hand. The American Alliance of Museums (AAM) puts on this annual event, and they did an amazing job with the enormous task of educating all the folks there about the key issues we’d be chatting about with members of Congress the following day. There were sessions specific to each policy issue, as well as sessions about how to frame your message. Former US Representative Jim Moran (VA-08), a 24-year veteran of Congress who has received an award for Congressional Leadership in the Arts, spoke at length about approaching both sides of the aisle and the overall climate in Washington. The undercurrent through Congressman Moran’s speech and the other sessions was a reminder of the economic impact of museums on the US economy, as well as clarity (and data!) around something I’ve suspected for a long time: everyone loves museums. In fact, that love of museums translates into an incredible batch of statistics.
That $50B in GDP figure is especially startling when you consider that number is larger than the contribution of all professional sporting events and amusement parks combined.
Armed with these impressive stats, on the second day I joined with other passionate museum advocates, board members, and students to advocate on the Hill. We met in groups and individually with members of Congress and their aides with a clear, consistent message asking for funding for the IMLS Office of Museum Services, for support of the Universal Charitable Giving Act, and for support of efforts to promote school-museum partnerships. We brought packets with additional information and lots of data. This was an area where I thought AAM really shined. The data sheets we shared with the Members were visual and applicable to his/her particular office – everyone received an outlook of the overall U.S., as well as state-specific facts and figures around the economic impact of museums. I was advocating on behalf of Louisiana (the state where I grew up, and where my family still resides), and it was amazing to see the role of museums in the overall economy of that state quantified.
The responses to our meetings were varied, of course. We got some resounding yeses, and we got some hesitancy to commit to an answer before reviewing the folder full of information we left with each office.
It was a great day, and as I reflect on it now, I feel the need to synthesize a few broader lessons I took from the experience.
- Know what you want before you go in.
Whether you’re meeting with a Senator, your boss or a prospective donor, this is the most important lesson. Having a definite, specific ask will give you clarity and a pivot point around which to frame the conversation. It also gives the person you’re meeting the opportunity to respond to something, which leaves everyone feeling like they know what the discussion is about.
- People are just people.
This may sound a little trite, but it was an “aha!” experience for me on the Hill. Members of Congress, their aides, even the fancy major donor at your next gala – they are all human beings. There is much more that connects each of us than not; focus on what brings us together, what we love. And when we must have the hard conversations, try to find the connection points deep within.
- Data, data, data.
Nothing packs a more powerful punch than having the hard numbers to back up what you’re saying. It’s hard to argue with statistics and analysis that lend credence to whatever you’re fighting for. I’m a visual person, so I am a big fan of charts, graphs, or infographics: anything that tells your story in a memorable way. I’ve even begun employing this tactic with my husband when advocating where we should take our annual vacation.
I hope you take something from my lessons you can bring with you next time you’re advocating…whether for policy reform, funding for your next capital campaign, or even just the logistics for your next fundraising event. And, if you’re as excited about advocating for museums as I am, know that you don’t have to go all the way to DC – you can advocate from anywhere!