Wisconsin Historical Society

Guide or Instruction

What You Need to Know Before You Start a Historic Preservation Advocacy Group

Starting an Advocacy Group | Historic Preservation | Wisconsin Historical Society

If you want to see more historic preservation advocacy in your community, you might be thinking of starting a nonprofit organization. But before you draw up the paperwork, you should do some homework.

Understand Your Supporters and Community

Start by finding out who your supporters might be and evaluating your community's historic preservation values. The size of a community, its economic base, whether or not municipal staff are available, and the degree of community leadership all influence values. Your research will help you identify your community's advocacy values and help shape your the efforts you take to address any challenges they present. Your research will also identify any existing groups that could help you achieve your goals. Plus you will have gathered information that will help create a thoughtful, context-based strategic plan.

Moving Your Existing Group Toward Advocacy

If you already have an existing historic preservation group dedicated to public education and stewardship but it does not do advocacy work, you are in good company. Most historic preservation groups and historical societies in the U.S. were not chartered with advocacy missions.

Many groups founded in the 1970s with loose, informal structures now find themselves developing more formal structures, such as a charrette, to engage in larger community planning issues.

Your existing group members may be reluctant to engage in advocacy for a number of reasons. If you are thinking of incorporating advocacy to your group's mission, you and your fellow preservationists should be honest about your organization's concerns and the concerns of potential supporters.

Discuss these concerns with your group's inner circle. Discussions will help you determine how much resistance vs. support to expect from members and help you decide whether your group could expand into advocacy.

Partnering with an Existing Preservation Organization

An alternative to forming a new historic preservation advocacy group is to partner with an existing preservation-oriented group in your community. The following types of groups might be open to an advocacy partnership:

  • Main Street organizations
  • Neighborhood associations
  • Your community's planning department or preservation office
  • Affordable housing advocates
  • Local chapters of the American Institute of Architects and the American Planning Association
  • Business improvement districts
  • Arts organizations
  • Groups focused on history

Partnering with a Special-Interest Organization

As you begin to rally support for preservation advocacy in your community, you may learn that a significant number of current or potential supporters are interested in a specific area of preservation. Some common special-interest areas within historic preservation are barns and farm conservation, churches, and modern design. If this is the case, reach out to existing groups whose mission is focused on these resource types. For example, the Wisconsin Barn Preservation Program is dedicated to saving Wisconsin's barns. These three organizations also assist special-interest preservationists:

  • The National Barn Alliance provides national leadership for preserving historic barns.
  • Partners for Sacred Places offers a vast amount of how-to support, training, and resources for people who want to preserve or find a new use for a historical church or other sacred place.
  • DoCoMoMo International serves as a watchdog and resource group for the conservation of buildings, sites, and neighborhoods of the modern architectural movement.

Some national and international groups have local chapters with individual 501c3 designations. These small groups can often accomplish a lot with very few volunteers by limiting their mission to a single resource type.

When you reach out to other preservation-oriented groups, you may find that your growing connections suggest additional partnerships that will help you in the future. You should also prepare for challenges that partnerships may present to your group.

Using Social Media to Find Partner Organizations

Social media networks are a good place to find potential advocacy partners. Start an inventory of potential contacts and partner organizations, and look at how they are using the web and social media to cultivate grassroots support. Test the waters by participating in their online discussions. Comment on their insights about historic places in your community. Note whether they respond to your preservation questions and comments.

You can also look for local blogs that cover preservation as one of their many civic, general interest topics.

Facebook is home to countless unofficial advocacy groups (meaning they are not recognized by the IRS). It is a good place to test your idea for an advocacy partnership with minimal risk. 

Your existing supporter can easily recommend your Facebook page to others who might be interested in learning more. A Facebook page can also attract other supporterswho may come to your site organically based on their interest in the local community and historic preservation.

Facebook should complement your organizational planning, not take the place of it. On its own, without new content, a Facebook page is just another static web page on the internet, doing little more than a yellow pages ad would for your organization.

Starting an Advocacy Group to Shape Public Policy

Your research may suggest that your supporters, partner groups, and community really want a grassroots organization that will focus on lobbying work. If this advocacy group will spend more than a small portion of its time shaping public policy and decision-making responsibilities, you and your supporters should form a separate 501c4 organization.

Your new 501c4 organization should have a completely separate identity and a separate board from your current organization. Chartering a 501c4 is similar to creating a 501c3 organization, although donations to a 501c4 organization are not tax deductible. However, membership dues and contributions may be considered business expenses.

Learn More

Find more how-to articles about historic preservation advocacy.