February 17, 2018

Advocacy Comes in All Shapes and Sizes | Advocate’s Corner

Peter Pearson

Peter Pearson

We hear the word advocacy used a lot these days. And I have heard definitions of advocacy that are all over the board. Some people define advocacy as speaking up about the importance of a topic (such as libraries) to their friends, neighbors, and even strangers they may encounter. Others talk about advocacy as being a targeted public awareness effort. For purposes of this column, I will be referring to advocacy as a political process in which we speak to our elected officials about the importance of an issue and request specific action on their behalf such as increasing funding for the issue. Most people refer to this type of activity as lobbying. I prefer to use the word advocacy because I find that the word lobbying scares many people off. They view lobbying as an activity in which only high paid professional lobbyists in Washington, D.C. engage. Or they assume that 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations are not allowed to engage in lobbying activities. I’d like to dispel both of those inaccurate assumptions, and encourage citizens and library support organizations to get involved in advocating for their libraries to their local elected officials.

Who should be your local advocates?

You might think that library directors make the best advocates, since no one understands the library’s budget and needs better than they do. But the library director is going to be viewed as self serving when s/he asks the local elected officials for a larger budget. The same is true of any other department head or the staff from these publicly funded institutions. But what if that message is carried by a respected citizen or business owner in the community? Then the elected officials take notice. Do library staff have any role in supporting the institution they love? Of course they do! Citizens who advocate on behalf of the library need to be educated and organized to do effective lobbying. The library director needs to be sure that citizen advocates have the right information about the library’s services, budget, and needs for serving the community. Any library director who has concerns about stable public funding ought to be instrumental in organizing an advocacy committee within the existing Friends group or library foundation. All library staff can play a role in advocacy.

Past ALA President Camila Alire launched a program during her presidential year called Frontline Advocacy. Frontline Advocacy encourages all library staff to make opportunities to speak to patrons about the valuable library services available to them. Then these patrons have information which they can share with others in the community and potentially with elected officials. Frontline Advocacy clearly denotes the role of library staff as being spokespersons to community members and patrons rather than directly to the elected officials. Frontline Advocacy paired with political advocacy by your Friends group or library foundation makes a powerful impact.

All Friends groups or library foundations that are raising private money in support of a publicly funded institution ought to be concerned about advocacy. After all, our private donors want their contributions to be used for enhancement… not to fill the holes where government funding has been cut. The best way to insure that is to have the same group which does private fundraising, conduct advocacy activities too. Some fundraising groups even make the private funds dependent on stable or increased public funds, leveraging stable public funding through the promise of added private funding. But if the existing Friends group and library foundation aren’t interested in advocating, then a new group which focuses strictly on advocacy needs to be created. This activity is way too important to be held hostage by a short-sighted support group that won’t conduct the activity which impacts 90 percent or more of most library budgets.

Lobbying is Legal

The age old question of the legality of lobbying by a non-profit organization always comes up. Please know that lobbying by non-profits is a totally legal activity. The IRS has developed guidelines for non-profits to help them understand the limitations. Generally, the two most important guidelines are:

  1. You cannot endorse a specific candidate for an elected office; and
  2. You need to keep lobbying expenditures below 20 percent of the organization’s total budget. One of the best overviews of lobbying regulations (and easily readable by the layman) was written by a California attorney by the name of David Guy. His article entitled “Advancing our Libraries: The Legal Opportunities and Limits for Non-Profit Lobbying” was originally written for The Friends of California Libraries newsletter. It will appear in a forthcoming book written by Library Strategies (Dowd, Susan, ed., Beyond Book Sales: The Complete Guide to Raising Real Money for Your Library, Chicago: ALA Editions [forthcoming in 2013]) And, of course, the ALA Office of Advocacy is also an excellent resource for questions about lobbying.

Advocacy the St. Paul Way

As a library foundation, The Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library has been conducting citizen lobbying for over 18 years now. This is just as important, if not more important, than the private fundraising we do each year. Our process is simple but effective: We create a standing committee of the Board called the Advocacy Committee. It begins meeting 9-10 months before the Library’s budget is finalized. We have representation on the committee from every political ward in the city. The committee meets with the Library Director for several monthly meetings to develop a platform of funding initiatives for which we will lobby. The platform is put into a concise, two-sided, 8″x11″ document with rationale and specific amounts requested. Then committee members who live in the Ward of each City Councilmember schedule appointments to present the platform to them in their offices. Committee members attend public testimony and budget hearings and a copy of the platform is issued as a press release to all local media.

This simple process has been helpful in stabilizing and increasing the library’s budget in most of the last 18 years. The parts to our process that make it successful include the following:

  1. The process starts well before the budget is finalized: this isn’t an 11th hour approach to advocacy.
  2. The library director is extensively involved in discussions with the citizen advocates, so the library’s interests are represented throughout the process; there aren’t any loose cannon advocates.
  3. The platform is specific in its requests for funding. We request funding for specific programs and give exact dollar amounts needed. We avoid advocating in generalities like: “raise library funding next year.”
  4. Constituents are meeting with the elected official for whom they have likely voted and by whom they likely are known. I also attend all meetings with elected officials to assure the continuity of our message.
  5. We never go away. The elected officials know that our advocacy is an ongoing effort. We will be back year after year, and they have come to expect us.

I am always amazed when I hear that a library doesn’t have a program of citizen advocacy in place. There is no reason why every library can’t have an effective advocacy program. The timing is right to get organized early in the new calendar year so you will be able to have an impact on the 2014 budget for your library. It’s easy, it’s legal, and it’s effective! Now get going and have some fun with the most energizing activity you can take on. You may never conduct a used book sale again!


The Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library’s work in advocacy and fundraising has been recognized nationally. In response to a number of inquiries for assistance in these areas, we created a consulting arm of our library foundation six years ago called Library Strategies. Fees charged to other library organizations come back as revenue to help support our own library foundation. Using our staff and other library experts from around the country, we have offered consulting services to places as geographically diverse as Alaska and Eastern Europe.

Library Strategies has just received a contribution from Sage Publishing in California to test a new method of training in advocacy and fundraising. We are looking for one public or academic library which is willing to be trained in effective advocacy and fundraising by Library Strategies experts. The training would involve extensive onsite training in fundraising and advocacy; developing a three year plan for increasing private and public funding; and providing remote mentoring and guidance for a year after the onsite training is complete. In order to qualify for this assistance, a library must be willing to commit at least three individuals to be a part of the training: the Library Director, a Trustee or member of the Library’s Governing Board, and a citizen interested in developing the library’s fundraising and advocacy programs (such as a Friends or Foundation Board or staff member). Please contact me at peterp@thefriends.org for additional information about this exciting opportunity.