Making the Case for Main Street

MD
Maryland Governor Martin O?Malley tours Berlin after its selection as a Main Street community.

Credit: Maryland Office of the Governor

The time to educate your public officials about Main Street is now! It's the middle of "budget season" for most state legislatures, and many state governments are struggling with deficits and looking to cut programs. State budgets aren't the only ones at risk. During a recession, budget cuts loom at all levels of government, so it's essential to convince elected officials of the value and success of your revitalization efforts.

Effective Advocacy for Main Street Programs

What is "advocacy"? Basically, advocacy means being in favor of something - an issue, a policy, an organization. It can range from relationship-building activities, such as educating decision makers, informing the public, raising visibility, and gaining support for Main Street to activities designed to bring about a specific change in policy.

Tips for Taking Action

Here's a list of advocacy actions your program can take to shore up support from elected officials:

  1. Mail a general information packet to your state and congressional legislators. Include a one-page cover letter outlining your program's major accomplishments, your latest newsletter, your annual report, and a list of your board and committee members.
  2. Call your Main Street Coordinating Program to see if any cuts are planned for your state, county, or region. Even if no cuts are planned, contact your state legislators and remind them to support your Main Street coordinating program.
  3. Draft a sample phone call script or e-mail for your board and committee members to use. Emphasize your economic statistics.
  4. During the May Congressional District Work Period, May 23-31, 2009, schedule meetings with each member of your Congressional delegation.
  5. Schedule a visit with the mayor of your community to showcase your program's progress. Make this an upbeat visit to thank him or her for any city funding your program receives.
  6. Make quarterly presentations about your program's progress at city council meetings.

Lobbying is a form of advocacy involving efforts to influence legislation. Specific laws govern lobbying by nonprofit organizations, so it is important to understand what constitutes lobbying and ensure that your program does not run afoul of these limitations. In general, Main Street programs rarely reach those limitations, which include actions such as endorsing candidates and spending a substantial amount of staff time on lobbying. You should not be worried about being a strong advocate for your program. Find out more about the rules and regulations governing nonprofit lobbying.

Building relationships with elected officials is like saving money in the bank. It gives you people you can rely on in times of need. Here are a few tips for getting started.

  • Broaden your base of support: Build a group of supporters who represent a wide-ranging, diverse constituency. Elected officials respond well to groups of constituents who represent multiple interests.
  • Research your decision makers: Get to know your representatives in Congress and the state legislature as well as important local decision makers. Learn what motivates elected officials and how they can help your cause.
  • Understand the decision-making process: Familiarize yourself with the policy-making process at the level you are targeting - local, state, or federal. This will help you plan strategically and time your efforts to coincide with important points during the decision-making process.
  • Get to know the issues: Study policies that affect Main Street, such as funding sources and economic incentives. Prioritize these issues and research the pros and cons so you can anticipate potential concerns or opposition.
  • Craft a message: Carefully craft a message that conveys to decision makers how important your Main Street program is to your community and how it relates to specific policies or issues. Be sure to showcase statistics to highlight your successes with measurable data.
  • Engage elected officials in different ways: If you are new to advocacy, begin by building a foundation through outreach and education, then advance to specific requests. Put elected officials on your regular mailing and news release lists. Friend them on Facebook; send them your e-blasts.
  • Mobilize your supporters: Your role in advocating Main Street does not end with contacting elected officials. You also need to mobilize your members and volunteers as well as the general public. Give them background information and the details of specific issues, then motivate them to take action. Emphasize how their action will benefit Main Street and your community.
  • Prepare for emergencies: Keep an up-to-date contact list of advocates, background information, and talking points on critical aspects of your Main Street program. And to ensure that you can get access when you need it, stay in constant touch with your local officials and state legislators.

Adapted from the National Trust Main Street Center's upcoming book, Revitalizing Main Streets, Chapter 8: "Effective Advocacy for Main Street Programs," by Rhonda Sincavage and Stacey VanBelleghem. Available in May, 2009 at www.preservationbooks.org.

For more information about Main Street advocacy, check out the following issues of Main Street News:

You can also find more information about public policy help from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.