Working with Lawmakers: Lessons from the Grassroots
The Art of Advocacy:
Winning Public Support
By Tom Krakauer
When I came to Durham, North Carolina's Museum of Life and Science
(MLS) in 1985, state support for science centers and museums was
idiosyncratic and sporadic, consisting primarily of funds "earmarked"
for special projects by local legislators. Over the next few years,
my institution worked with eight others in the state to win annual
funding for all science museums. The evolution of that lobbying
group, known as the Grassroots Science Museums Collaborative (GSMC),
was described by Todd Boyette and Mark Sinclair in "From the Grassroots
Up," an article in the May/June 2001 issue of ASTC Dimensions.
Today, GSMC includes 22 museums, with annual state funding of more than $3 million. The group has a $1 million endowment for program support and employs an executive director, Fran Nolan, to attend General Assembly sessions and relevant committee meetings in the state capital, Raleigh; build relationships with legislative staff; and apprise GSMC members of actions taken and local efforts needed. Because GSMC institutions are located all over North Carolina, the collaborative now has legislative allies throughout the state. That is real strength.
What lessons did GSMC teach us about government advocacy? I can think of two that apply to legislative action at all levels: "Build your friendships before you need them" and "Bad things happen when you are not in the room." Both recognize that legislative action has to begin long before politicians go into session, and that success is as much about relationships as it is about substance.
|At a GSMC Legislative Day in Raleigh, North Carolina, naturalist Rick Bolling, right, of the Natural Science Center of Greensboro, introduces a scaly friend to Greensboro County representative Maggie Jeffers, far left.
Photo courtesy Fran Nolan/GSMC
Often we are so busy with the immediate that we ignore what is really important. Efforts to cultivate public funding should be just as intense as efforts to cultivate private donors—the potential return is not only greater but annual.
Developing strong relationships with legislators is not rocket science, but it does take year-round attention. Here are some suggestions:
- Build bridges to all. The morning after election day, send congratulatory
notes to the winners and notes of appreciation to the losers,
thanking them for their service to the community. Why the losers?
Because the pendulum may swing, and they'll be back in the legislature.
- Get involved locally. Your participation in your local chamber of
commerce and public schools can help ensure that museum funding
is a priority when those groups draw up their legislative agendas.
- Make your efforts visible. The members of GSMC cooperate in an annual
Legislative Day. On that day, different museums set up displays
at the General Assembly to demonstrate their programs and capacity
for statewide service, including projects that involve underserved
- Cultivate a champion. Because everyone in the legislature votes,
you need many friends there. But to be truly successful, you
need to have a "champion," a legislative leader from your district
who will support your funding from beginning to end and who
will fight for you when last-minute deals are struck. Identify
that individual and ask for his or her commitment to your cause.
As a collaborative, GSMC has two champions—one in the
state Senate, and one in the House of Representatives.
State legislators look
after their own constituents. Unless you are in their district,
your appeal may fall on deaf ears. Even then, being a field trip
destination is not enough to justify funding; you have to show that
what you do is directly related to legislative goals. Education
priorities change from year to year. In some years, the focus may
be on teacher professional development; in others, it's aligning
programs to state performance standards.
Here are some pointers for ensuring that your institution is "in the room" when legislators
You know that your institution is doing good work. Let officials and legislators know how that work can support their priorities, and you will be able to increase your governmental funding as a part of your development efforts.
- Pay attention to committee structures. When a school
group from a key legislator's district visits your museum, take
a photograph and send a "love note."
- Be generous. Give your business card to a key legislator's
administrative assistant, and invite that person to bring his
or her family to the museum for free. More than once, this friendly
gesture has got me in to see a senator whose door was closed.
- Work through professionals. Consider hiring a lobbyist
to tell your story, or, if a member of your board represents
a major employer in your region, make use of his or her corporate
- Shade your language appropriately. Be familiar with
legislative priorities, and provide coherent messages on what
you are qualified to offer—be it early childhood education,
teacher professional development, or statewide programming in
some key area. The fact that MLS had sponsored Pi Day
math programming, developed with National Science Foundation
funding, in science centers statewide gained us credibility.
Museum consultant Tom Krakauer is president emeritus of the Museum of Life and Science, Durham, North Carolina; he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about the Grassroots Science Museums Collaborative, visit www.grassroots-science.org/, or contact executive director Fran Nolan, email@example.com.