How to Turn Historic Preservation Supporters into Advocates | Wisconsin Historical Society

Guide or Instruction

How to Turn Historic Preservation Supporters into Advocates

How to Turn Historic Preservation Supporters into Advocates | Wisconsin Historical Society

If you want your historic preservation group or local historical society to expand its mission into preservation advocacy work, you'll need to rally some extra help from your members and supporters.

However, you may find that some people who strongly support the idea of historic preservation are reluctant to engage in advocacy work. Although these supporters may have a variety of reasons for their reluctance, you can anticipate some of their concerns and prepare your counterarguments to try to gain their support.

Consider the following common concerns about advocacy work. Each concern is followed by a counterargument that you can use to help turn preservation supporters into advocates.

Concern #1: Your group might offend donors or sponsors by taking a public stand

To engage in advocacy work, your group must take a public stand on issues that some people in your community will not support. Your group's public comments might make a donor or sponsor (or his or her friends and business associates) look bad in the public eye. Even public comments that are intended to be productive — such as comments delivered at a public meeting to review potential alterations to a landmark — could be viewed as contentious or causing a project delay.


If your group takes a preservationist stand on any public issue, someone will likely dismiss your group as obstructionist. This term is almost always used when preservationists make comments about construction projects. But by taking well-chosen and well-articulated stands, especially on important buildings, your group can establish itself as a player within the local development community. Your group's constructive criticisms and expert insights could move a project in a positive direction.

The best advocacy groups are creative problem solvers, and problem-solving is an attractive trait to potential donors and sponsors. If your group works toward a win-win solution, you will attract popular support and more small donations from fellow preservationists. To command this kind of respect in the community, your group will need a good team of experts to present your arguments. Your group can also diminish the impact of the "obstructionist" label by advocating for good development projects as well as opposing demolitions.

Concern #2: Your group doesn't have the time or resources to properly engage in advocacy work

Advocacy requires constant monitoring, information gathering, public comment, and follow through. Your group probably has few if any staff members, so the idea of getting involved in community planning issues may be overwhelming. Your group may struggle to get a quorum at regular board meetings, and you may feel that you cannot handle the demands of preservation advocacy.


Your group's advocacy plan should account for your capacity. Although an all-volunteer group is unlikely to accomplish as much as an organization with paid staff, your group can still carve a place at the table. All-volunteer groups can usually assemble an Opportunities List to focus community attention on a handful of preservation opportunities. If your group moves toward advocacy work, you may attract leaders to your regular board meetings because you will be discussing more time-sensitive, high-profile community problems.

Concern #3: Your group has been successful with its educational mission, and moving into advocacy work could risk its continued success

Education is an extremely important and fun part of a supportive preservation environment. Education gives people in your community reasons to care about the past or understand why they instinctively care about historic places. And people pay to be educated — which is always a good thing for a nonprofit group. Given education's value, your group may be hesitant to rock the boat by making public comments and facing the "obstructionist" label.


Education is often the first step in in clearing up misunderstandings — and in cultivating future advocates. Therefore, if your group is already known and respected for hosting popular public programs, you are in a perfect position to move into advocacy work.

A tour can be a great starting point for creating an advocacy network. Tours tend to attract crowds of people who are not necessarily members of your group, and they allow participants to see the value of preservation first hand. Tours can be adapted for members of your city council or mayor's office to support many types of advocacy actions.

Concern #4: Your group may alienate members or supporters who dislike controversy or disagree with your group's stand on an issue

Your group may already have a following in your community and a support base of people who regularly attend your educational programs and donate to your group. You could lose some supporters and donors if you start to participate in public arguments and take sides on issues. It is unlikely that every preservationist in your community will agree with your group's solutions — especially if your solutions require compromise or new construction on an old building. And once you start advocating about certain issues, some people may think you're not advocating hard enough for a particular issue they care about.


Your group may lose some supporters if it begins to advocate for particular issues, but it also stands to strengthen its existing base by attracting new supporters. Before your group starts to make public statements, you can use the process of integrating advocacy into your program as an opportunity to involve your supporters more actively.

If you are considering an advocacy program, let your supporters know; solicit their thoughts and opinions. You can invite a guest speaker from another respected preservation group with an advocacy mission to speak to your group. Ask this speaker to present the possible consequences of increasing your public engagement.

Concern #5: Your group's members and supporters aren't argumentative people — they just like to learn about old buildings

Most people in your group are probably attracted to historic preservation because of its great cultural value, because old buildings are beautiful, and because they enjoy knowing more about interesting places. People who love old buildings also tend to like history and information, but they are not necessarily skilled at persuasion.


Your group doesn't need to be filled with "argumentative" extroverts in order to advocate for historic preservation. In fact, your group will be taken more seriously if it's not made exclusively of "cranky" outspoken people. The best advocacy groups are diverse. The skilled but introverted researchers in your group can pull together the data and analyses necessary to make an argument for a historic building or place. If you partner these detail-oriented researchers with eloquent writers and speakers who can motivate large groups of people, you can create a perfect grassroots campaign.

Concern #6: Your group should not get involved in the dirty business of politics

Advocacy is associated with politics and government. Although public sentiment toward government ebbs and flows, many people in your community may be disgusted with what they hear and read about their government and elected officials. Some of your supporters or potential supporters may question why a support group for a community value like historic preservation would get involved with those who engage in the dirty business of politics.


Most public issues in your community have advocates. If you are concerned about historic preservation's place within your community's priorities, consider all the other voices vying for public attention in the press and within local government. Elected officials must prioritize public issues, so it's easy for them to dismiss issues that few people fight for. Most public officials and government staff want to do right by their community and will honestly care about your concerns. Your group shouldn't let bad experiences with one or two people keep you from participating in public decisions.

Concern #7: Your group might compromise its tax-exempt status by getting involved in advocacy

Your group depends on charitable donations, and the threat of possibly losing your ability to solicit donations may be frightening. Your group may wonder how it would get by if you could no longer accept tax-deductible donations.


Your group should get familiar with the IRS rules related to advocacy and lobbying. Advocacy is much broader than lobbying; it includes any activity that could influence public policy. This could include indirect educational work or a public demonstration in front of a courthouse. The IRS rules for lobbying activity by a 501c3 organization state that "no significant amount" of staff and volunteer time can be spent lobbying members of Congress and other elected officials. An organization with a 501c3 tax status is allowed to spend up to 20 percent of its resources on lobbying. The IRS's definition of lobbying is specific:

  • If you ask an elected official to take an action on specific legislation, or ask your membership to ask their legislators to act, your actions are considered direct lobbying.
  • If you ask your membership to ask the general public to take an action, your actions are considered grassroots lobbying.
  • If you criticize or promote legislation within a member communication, it is not considered lobbying if you exclude a call to action and information about how to contact legislators.

The call-to-action part of the IRS rules separates lobbying from general advocacy. The IRS considers a communication to be a "call to action" if it does any of the following:

  • Encourages the recipient to contact a legislator or government employee to influence legislation
  • Lists the address, telephone number, and other contact information for a targeted legislator or government employee
  • Includes a petition, postcard, or similar tool that prompts the recipient to contact a legislator or government employee
  • Identifies a legislator's view on an issue or the members of a legislative committee that will hear a targeted piece of legislation (identifying a bill's sponsor does not constitute lobbying)

Concern #8: Property rights issues are a nightmare

Although few people in your community may object to the concept of historic preservation, the idea of limiting property rights may be another story. Very few topics strike American nerves as deeply as property rights disputes. In addition, resource protection laws can draw a line in the sand between those interested in history and those who support laws to protect it. Your members and supporters may feel that their limited time is best spent on activities with a greater chance of success than debating property rights issues.


While it is valid to be concerned about getting involved in property rights issues, your group will not change anyone's mind about historic resources by avoiding the property rights issue altogether. If your group is interested in historic district protections for significant areas of your community, you'll need a majority of property owners on your side. But there is no need for direct intimidation or acrimony. You can start with the most supportive property owners and work up to conversations with residents who do not currently support your views.

You can often work around the naysayers and assemble a quiet majority. You can sway holdouts through personal connections, charm, and educational efforts that include information about preservation's benefits for property owners. For example, preservation policies often support incentives, such as historic preservation tax credits. Your group can work with government officials to spread the word about these incentives and correct misunderstandings of the law.

Learn More

Find more how-to articles about historic preservation advocacy.