Wisconsin Historical Society

Guide or Instruction

How to Start a Historic Preservation Advocacy Effort

How to Start an Advocacy Effort | Historic Preservation | Wisconsin Historical Society

If you are concerned about preserving the historic buildings and resources in your community, you might be thinking of organizing an effort to save threatened resources or to influence preservation-related policymaking.  The steps outlined below can help you get started with a preservation advocacy effort. These steps apply whether you are working with an existing organization or starting from scratch.

If you are not already involved with a preservation-related organization, you might look at options for organizing a new preservation group or take steps to form a new nonprofit organization.

Step 1: Assemble an Advocacy Committee

Whether you belong to an existing organization or you are starting your advocacy effort from scratch, your group of supporters should form an advocacy committee to plan your group's approach to preservation issues in your community. It is best if this committee is made up of people who are familiar with the politics of your community. However, if you are just getting started with a small group of supporters, your entire group might serve as your advocacy committee. Ideally, your committee should include:

  • At least one person with expertise in government or press relations
  • At least one member with a strong interest in or professional knowledge of policymaking, such as an urban planner, a municipal government employee, or someone with a legal background.

Other good committee representatives include real estate professionals and preservation consultants who are familiar with current work in your area. If you have a nonprofit organization, your general counsel and executive director should also sit on your advocacy committee.

Step 2: Identify Preservation Issues in Your Community

To start your advocacy planning effort, your advocacy committee should hold a retreat or intensive brainstorming session to hash out the major preservation issues facing your community. In addition to your advocacy committee, you should invite the entire board of your nonprofit organization and a few experts who may not be able to serve on your committee but who are interested in your group's advocacy efforts. The purpose of your brainstorming session is to help your group:

  • Understand the scope of your community's preservation issues
  • Identify patterns or systems that create preservation issues
  • Recognize the relative severity of these issues

For your first planning exercise, your group should create a complete list of all preservation issues in your community. This list might include the following:

  • Vacant buildings
  • Cases of demolition by neglect
  • Facadectomies (historic buildings that have been demolished except for their facades)
  • Rampant teardowns
  • Loss of small farms and historic rural landscapes
  • Historic church demolition
  • Chronic insensitive development
  • Powerful developer who repeatedly buys older buildings and tears them down
  • Preservation board or local landmarks policy without enforcement or support from your community's elected officials or municipal staff
  • "Preservation-blind" public officials
  • Bad economy used as an excuse for preservation-unfriendly decisions
  • Press misrepresentation of preservation issues, lop-sided press, no preservation press, or the perpetuation of preservation myths in the public eye

Step 3: Prioritize Your Preservation Issues

When you have created an exhaustive list of preservation issues, prioritize the list by ranking each issue. Give each issue a score of 1 to 5:

1: Not a big concern

2: Somewhat of a concern

3: A true concern

4: A major concern

5: Potentially catastrophic to local preservation if not resolved

 When you are ranking each preservation issue, consider these factors:

  • Severity of the issue: Has this issue happened once or twice, or does it seem to happen all the time? For example, did preservation get left out of a development news story once, or does the press also side with development and omit preservation as a rational strategy?
  • Persistence of the issue: Is this a new development, or has it been ongoing? Has preservation always been considered a luxury? For example, have economic problems recently had an impact on decision-making (or public statements) about historic buildings, or have economic arguments and cost factors always led to preservation-unfriendly decisions?
  • Scope of the issue: Is this a problem in a particular neighborhood, or is it a city- or town-wide problem? Is it regional? Does it seem statewide? For instance, are insensitive developments happening downtown exclusively, or do you see them everywhere?
  • Community impact of the issue: If no one does something about this issue, what will be the long-term impact to historic buildings and places in your community? If the problem persists, will your community become unrecognizable?

As you are evaluating each potential advocacy target, create a database of other nonprofit advocacy groups that deal with similar issues. These groups might be neighborhood associations, your local Main Street, another preservation group, an urban league, sustainability advocacy groups, or art alliances. Evaluate the degree to which these groups are engaged in preservation-friendly solutions to the issues on your list. Then consider whether it makes sense for these other groups to take the lead on particular issues.

Step 4: Create an Advocacy Plan

When you have a prioritized list of preservation issues, your advocacy committee can prepare an advocacy plan for your group. An advocacy plan is similar to a strategic plan and often grows out of a group's strategic planning efforts. But while your strategic plan will help your group come together around big-picture issues and your goals, mission, vision, fundraising and budget, and staffing decisions, your advocacy plan should clearly lay out your criteria for prioritizing preservation issues and your methods for handling issues as they arrive.

 There is no one-size-fits-all advocacy plan, but your advocacy plan should outline these three key items:

  • How decisions are made
  • What information is necessary to make a decision
  • Who needs to be at the table when decisions are made

Like other governing instruments, such as your strategic plan and your budget, your advocacy plan should be mindful of your capacity. If your organization is all-volunteer, you may not be able to accomplish as much as a group with staff dedicated to advocacy issues.

Your advocacy plan will help your group answer major questions like these:

  • How will our group prioritize all of the preservation issues we could possibly tackle?
  • How will our group respond to a surprise demolition?
  • How can we guarantee that everyone in our group is on the same page about our advocacy actions?
  • How can we make the most of our time?

Your advocacy plan will also help you say "no" to residents who have concerns that you simply don't have the time or resources to address. Your "no" will be more meaningful (and less dismissive) if you can explain your plan to a grassroots preservationist who thinks your group doesn't care about a particular issue or isn't doing its job.

Step 5: Prepare Issue Briefs

Once you have assembled your advocacy committee and adopted an advocacy plan, you need to task a person (or group of people) with doing research to prepare issue briefs. Each brief will serve as an official basis for vetting a problem against your advocacy plan. The researcher should prepare a one-page brief on each preservation issue. The sample issue brief checklist in this article outlines the information you will need to make good decisions.

Your ideal researcher will be a preservation professional, historian, library sciences expert, or research specialist. This person should know where to find critical information on the web and how to use your local archives. Interns may be able to research potential advocacy issues, but keep in mind that students need to be directed by someone on your advocacy committee. The information in a brief should help your committee quickly understand:

  • What the problem is
  • What the issue's relative importance is
  • Who the decision-makers are
  • Why a given problem is happening now

The advocacy brief and any related materials, such as links to recent press, should be circulated among committee members in advance of the next committee meeting. Committee members should be encouraged to look into issues they care about before each meeting and report on additional information or insights they've gathered.

Step 6: Hold Regular Advocacy Meetings

Your advocacy committee should meet once a month and communicate frequently via email between meetings. Your committee meetings should focus on discussion and actively thinking through problems, not merely reporting on issues. Each meeting should build on past discussions but also include new information and insights. Based on the information in your advocacy briefs and your meeting discussions, your advocacy committee will determine whether your group should take further action on an issue.

Your advocacy meetings should take place in an environment conducive to listening and debate. You might secure a conference room in a member's office for a regular monthly working session over lunch. Or your group may choose to have meetings at members' houses or in restaurants over an evening meal. Whatever venue you choose, it should be convenient for your committee members and accommodate active engagement.

Advocacy is all about action, so your advocacy committee should have a low tolerance for members who contribute little or nothing to your campaign. All of your committee members should be prepared for your meetings. Each committee member should strive to constantly learn new things about your community.

An invited guest at your advocacy committee meetings can deepen your group's understanding of an issue, help bridge a partnership with a potential ally, or provide your group with tools for success. For example, if your group is struggling with a systemic problem, your group could apply for grant money to consult with a specialist from another preservation group that has solved a similar problem.

Step 7: Engage Your Community

Before you engage anyone outside of your group, your group should be clear about its message and reasoning. You want individuals or organizations outside your group who disagree with your position to at least respect your methods and professionalism. Whenever your group advocates for a position–any position—you will face external conflicts. Use your advocacy plan and public relations plan to anticipate these external conflicts. Your group should create a separate plan for handling internal crises.

Advocacy work is inherently thought provoking, so your advocacy committee activities can make excellent blog and Twitter content. Include summaries of your advocacy work on your website. If your group consistently reports on what you're learning and doing, you will attract the attention of your current followers, potential new members, contributors, and the media.

If your advocacy committee is part of a nonprofit organization, your meetings will be great opportunities to engage potential new board members. Advocacy meetings are active, full of energy and ideas, and focused on actions and solutions. They provide a perfect introduction to community leaders who might want to join your organization and its leadership. They can also provide a good training ground for vetting a potential board chair.

Learn More

Find more how-to articles about historic preservation advocacy.