Wisconsin Historical Society

Guide or Instruction

How to Find and Ask for Support from Government

Government Relations for Historic Preservation Advocates, Part 1 of 2

How to Find and Ask for Government Support | Historic Preservation | Wisconsin Historical Society

This is Part 1 of a 2-part series on government relations for historic preservation advocates. Part 2 describes How to Target Your Government Outreach Efforts to the Right People.

Government plays an important role in historic preservation. This means that government relations will be a significant part of your preservation advocacy work. Always remember that "relating" to the people you elect is not a privilege — it is a First Amendment right. Government is set up by law to hear grievances from the public, so you will have to follow many rules in your government relations efforts. But these rules were put into place to protect the rights of citizens to participate in government, as well as to prevent abuse.

The rules and procedures governing grassroots interactions with elected officials cover one-on-one contact, financial support for elected officials, and lobbying. As your group begins to build a good relationship with your government officials, you will learn more and more how these relationships can help you accomplish great things in your community.

Finding Government Support

Preservation advocates usually do not have a problem finding supporters among elected officials. Many legislators are partial to historic preservation. They recognize the connection between history and what they do on a daily basis, and they think of themselves as a part of history. The challenge for preservation advocates is to find elected officials who will be true leaders for the cause. When your elected officials must choose among many important public concerns, will they choose to support your cause?

Elected officials can lend support in a number of ways, such as helping you receive grant funding by writing a letter of support. They can also help you persuade their less-supportive elected peers, such as other members of the city or county council or the mayor.

Elected officials make decisions about the initiatives they support based on three things:

  • The information they receive
  • The priorities of their constituents
  • Their own gut feelings

Those who slice up the pie of public dollars look over the range of public interests and distribute slices based not just on need, but also on personal preferences. Every public official and his or her staff members have priorities that shape how your group's interests fit into their work.

Asking for Government Support

Although you may be tempted to think of government as a faceless beaurocracy, remember that the government is a system made up of people just like you: busy individuals who have private lives and appreciate being treated fairly. Here are some ways that your preservation group may reach out to elected officials:

Draw positive attention to a local project. Creating goodwill up front with elected officials at all levels will help you when your advocacy group hits a snag down the road. Keep a list of key government officials and a file of your interactions with elected officials, just as you would with essential members of the press. Refer to your government file when you are making your guest list for ribbon-cuttings, hard hat tours, and other noteworthy events. Federal and state legislators love being invited to participate in local celebratory events. City council members and mayors are essential participants in any local preservation project.

Advocate for funding. An important job for all preservationists is to speak out to protect dedicated government funding for history and historic preservation. If you don't speak up, preservation money might disappear. Other groups will be advocating for their piece of the pie, and so should you. Talk to the state and federal legislators who oversee appropriations (i.e., spending). If you don't reach out, you might also miss opportunities to receive funding from nontraditional sources. For example, more historic preservation funding comes from the federal transportation budget than any other program. There are many other government sources of funding that might help you at the local level.

Help solve problems. No single entity can revitalize your historic downtown or rework your comprehensive plan. Ideally, nonprofit organizations, for-profit entities, and government will all work together to make great things happen on the local level. Elected officials and their staff enjoy working with groups who have identified local problems and are working to solve them through community engagement. You can demonstrate a key role in shaping your community and command respect from elected officials by:

  • Collaborating with local officials on solutions
  • Providing your expertise
  • Helping to form a common public message about plans once they come together

Your efforts will pay off later when you ask those officials for something. You will be known for contributing rather than simply asking for handouts or demanding change.

Recognize the positive use of public funding programs. If your group has successfully completed a project thanks in part to federal and state tax incentives, announce this fact to your federal and state legislators as well as to members of your press list. As you regularly recognize the good work of government programs and those who control them, collect local examples that will help you advocate for other causes in the future. You can use these examples in your advocacy materials.

Build a caucus for preservation. A few states (Washington and Illinois) have a heritage or historic preservation caucus. A caucus is a group of legislators who care about a particular issue or common interest. A heritage or preservation caucus can sometimes operate as a body to write new legislation, prevent preservation-unfriendly legislation, or improve existing laws.

Learn More

Find more how-to articles about historic preservation advocacy.