There were three of us Gen X’ers in the room. I picked us out of the crowd of thirty immediately. We were all on the older side of Gen X. I could tell by the wrinkles and the gray hair, but there was still something young about us – a slouch, a wicked smile, or the lack of a tie. We were grayer than some of the Boomers who just can’t seem to not color their hair.
This was a typical meeting in this town. Most of the people there were Baby Boomers, and there were just two people older than that. There were three Gen Y/Millenial support staff in the room, silent and bright eyed. I live in world in which I almost watch myself work from afar when I am bored. I was thinking I might Tweet : “The unbearable whiteness of meeting…” I think that about summed it up. There were going to be few divergent opinions in this meeting with its momentum barreling towards a certain conclusion. Still, almost every meeting these days has me wrestling with an alter ego who is stumbling towards the Gong Show bell like a gooned up Chuck Barris to sound the internal alarm of Bullshit. Bullshit. Bullshit! Paul Revere on a horse, “The Bullshit is coming! The Bullshit is coming!”
The meeting facilitator asked by show of hands how many of us were from 501 c 3’s. Most of us were. He singled out a few folks to ask, “What are the main things you do if you had to just give me three words?” Advocacy was the one that came up first in most cases. A few mentioned networking. One or two mentioned services. Two mentioned education. This didn’t surprise me since it was a meeting of associations, and if the room had been full of museums, I would likely have heard something like education, interpretation, exhibition, and preservation or something along these lines. I am not sure I would have heard advocacy at all.
Mitch Swain from the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council led a session I attended over the winter that got me stoked about the advocacy work that I do. Most of the folks in Mitch’s session were from arts organizations or museums. He said, “Is Advocacy in your Executive Director’s job description? It should be.” As it so happened, there was one arts organization director, and by all accounts a capable hard working guy, who said out loud, after raising his hand, that he could not participate in advocacy because his organization was a 501 c 3. I wrestled free of my own self and called Bullshit on this. The “NO” came out of me like an exploding hand grenade. There were plenty of other people muttering, “No, you can advocate,” too.
This is killing us. We need to be advocates, all of us, directors, trustees, professional staff, and everyone who works in whatever 501 c 3 is our passion. This idea that we cannot advocate is bullshit. It is a cop out so you can keep doing the more passionate, comfortable things on your to do list until the public and various levels of government decide you must not need anything since they haven’t heard from you. This idea that you will have your 501 c 3 revoked for advocating is bullshit. Do you know anyone that has ever had that happen to them? I don’t. Do you? Name one. It is bullshit.
Advocacy is educating the public and government entities about issues related to your industry including why you may need funding, where you intersect with other public institutions like schools, libraries, or tourism offices, and how many people your industry impacts as a quality of life concern or a job creation machine. Museums have great stories to tell about this. They say you can lose your 501 c 3 if you “influence specific legislation.” I have worked my ass off in advocacy, and I never once, not a single damned time, influenced specific legislation. If you think lawmakers or the public are going to immediately do something for you the minute you speak up, you are dreaming. You have to keep at it year after year after year. This is a complex world. Your organization is great, but if you aren’t heard when it’s budget time, does anyone die? Do you think you are that important? Bullshit.