Advocacy Tips And Resources That Will Come In Handy In The Coming Weeks

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If your newsfeed wasn’t already full of politics, I bet on January 19, it got real full, real fast. On the 19th, The Hill, then others, published an article detailing the Trump administration’s proposed plan for the federal budget. According to the proposal:

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting would be privatized, while the National Endowment for the Arts [NEA] and National Endowment for the Humanities [NEH] would be eliminated entirely.

I know, right? I literally couldn’t see straight for a second after I read that the first time.

Advocacy Tips And Resources That Will Come In Handy In The Coming Weeks

First off, you should know that this is only the very beginning of the process. A budget proposal is expected in late February and a full, detailed budget expected in May. After that, there are multiple procedural hoops to push through from the committee room to the Capital floor.

According to an FAQ section on the Americans for the Arts website, “The NEA is an independent federal agency and the executive orders you see him signing right now don’t affect it. While he can call for Chairman Chu’s resignation, it takes an act of Congress to make permanent changes to the NEA.”

Elimination of the NEA and NEH is not imminent. However, this threat from a administration already proposing and enacting nontraditional policies in other fields, is one to be taken very seriously. Even if your organization does not receive federal funding from these agencies, their elimination would be disastrous to the cultural sector.

Apart from the millions of dollars in funding, these agencies serve as resources for the field as a whole, commissioning studies and surveys that allow all organizations to compare data and track trends. They also serve as advocates for the arts from within the government itself.

Eliminating that voice makes it that much more difficult for artists, individual organizations, and the entire field to communicate the value and absolute necessity of the arts to legislators and appropriators; effectively, the seat at the table for the artistic field gets taken away.

  • If you have not already done so, make sure that your staff and board members are aware of this proposal and how it could affect your organization. Update them on any advocacy efforts you are planning.
  • Sign up for alerts from national arts organizations like League of American Orchestras, Dance America, or others relevant to your organization. Americans for the Arts is great for all mediums as is Performing Arts Alliance.
  • See what your state or local arts agency is doing. The Clyde Fitch Report had a very interesting post about state agencies and their (non)reaction to this. These agencies serve multiple organizations and can spearhead local or regional efforts so you are not in it alone.
  • Discuss with your staff and board opportunities to engage your patrons on this topic. People coming to your concert or your museum would be affected by this cut whether they realize it or not. What do you need to do to communicate this to them and get them to act on your behalf?
  • Discuss with your staff and board opportunities to engage your legislators on this topic. While this is a federal issue, all levels of government could benefit from a constant reminder of how the arts and arts organizations are impacting their constituents and communities. Here’s an Artshacker article I wrote in 2015 with 10 suggestions.
  • There are a variety of petitions circulating the web, but be cautious about sharing these on your organization’s page. Not only is this easy advocacy that may not reach the actual decision makers, the “We The People” site and 100,000 signature rule was created by the Obama Administration and the Trump Administration has made no comments on if or how they will use the site.
  • As an individual or on behalf of your organization (after clearing any relevant organizational procedures), write, email or call your Congresspeople. Facebook and Twitter are great places to share your organization’s message and rally people, but many legislators do not read or track comments. I have a feeling you’ll be needing those addresses and phone numbers more frequently in the coming years, so maybe just bookmark the Arts Action Fund’s Find Your Legislator page or add the information to your contacts.

You may be asking, “If this is not imminent, then why do we need to do anything right now? Let’s just wait and see.”

Because movements take planning.

An organization (and an entire field) with a systematic, thought out way of communicating with the variety of groups you need to communicate with is going to be much more effective if there is thought behind it and if the physical materials are not slapped together. Not only that, but it takes a foundation of sustained effort to carry forth a groundswell of support.

About Sarah Marczynski

Sarah joined the Chattanooga Symphony & Opera in 2010 working with the Marketing and Development staffs and quickly became interested in community engagement and education. She holds a Master’s of Public Administration focusing in Nonprofit Arts Management from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga where her capstone and other work under Dr. Christopher Horne examined attendance patterns in high-art cultural institutions and network relationships between local arts agencies and cultural partners. She also holds a Bachelor’s of Vocal Music Education from UTC, where she studied under Dr. Kevin Ford and Ron Ulen.

Sarah has been active in the Chattanooga arts community, serving as the founding chair of the Chattanooga Young Artistic Network (CYAN), graduating from the Holmberg Arts Leadership Institute, and working with the Chattanooga Boys Choir, the Choral Arts Society, the Hunter Museum of American Art, the Chattanooga Bach Choir.

Outside of the arts world, Sarah pretends to be an excellent cook (but she's broken 2 ovens), reads Jane Austen novels, and watches way too much House of Cards.

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5 thoughts on “Advocacy Tips And Resources That Will Come In Handy In The Coming Weeks

  1. I am conflicted on this issue as an arts administrator/executive. On the one hand it’s obviously important for the industry as a whole, not just for the dollars granted to organizations but also as a government support mechanism for the entire arts industry. On the other hand, as 501c3 organizations, most arts institutions are restricted when it comes to actively lobbying, and I would be somewhat concerned about an organization having issue with its 501c3 designation.
    https://www.irs.gov/charities-non-profits/lobbying
    As an individual, by all means advocate as you see fit. As an organization, tread far more cautiously. Thoughts and responses appreciated.

    • I think those are worthwhile considerations and one reason you see most of the points here pointing in the direction of service organizations, which maintain different nonprofit designations. For example, the Arts Action Fund, which is affiliated with Americans for the Arts, is a 501(c)(4).

      The conversation does bring up some additionally interesting points about what is and isn’t permitted. Ultimately, each group should make the decision on whether or not to engage in activities after obtaining proper legal counsel, but 501(c)(3) nonprofits are permitted to engage in “insubstantial” legislative lobbying (i.e. the 501(h) election).

      The National Council of Nonprofits has a superb primer on the topic available at https://www.councilofnonprofits.org/taking-the-501h-election.

      In addition to that resource, you can see an example of a 501(c)(3) organization exercising the 501(h) election via the 2013 San Francisco Symphony Orchestra IRS 990 (which you can download from Guidestar or contact the organization directly to request a copy). In Part IV, the organization clearly indicates the affirmative then attaches all of the required schedules explaining those activities.

    • Thanks for your comment. Definitely agree that organizations should tread cautiously in this area. I only play a lawyer in my dreams, so seek someone who can provide official legal advice if you have questions or think something is potentially crossing the line.

      Nonprofits are not totally restricted from lobbying (directly advocating to their legislators or encouraging their stakeholders to do so on a specific piece of legislation) and they’re not at all restricted from just general advocacy about your organization, it’s activities, or impact (in fact, this kind of advocacy should be a regular part of a staff member’s to-do list).

      The IRS regs (https://www.irs.gov/charities-non-profits/measuring-lobbying-substantial-part-test) Say lobbying can’t be a “substantial part” of your activities. The (sarcasm font)*great* thing about the IRS is that they’re not clear on what “substantial” is. I would hazard a guess though that most presenting organizations continue their performances/exhibits, and that any lobbying on a specific issue (like this budget bill would be) would be a very small part of a staff person’s time and the organization’s overall activities.

      If an organization is worried about the risks of the vague “substantial” wording, they could opt to take a 501h election which then does put a more measurable “expenditure” test on it and may give a more clear boundary. https://www.councilofnonprofits.org/taking-the-501h-election

      One of the best books I’ve read on this subject is Berry’s A Voice for Nonprofits (https://www.amazon.com/Voice-Nonprofits-Jeffrey-M-Berry/dp/0815708777). It’s really clear, easy to understand. Highly suggest it for anyone interested in nonprofits and politics.

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