Advocate Proactively

Best practices for academic and public library supporters

January 23, 2017

One of the breakout groups at the advocacy meeting. From left: Casey Wallace, Christopher Moffat, Elissa Checov (a 2016 I Love My Librarian winner), Eugene Hamer, and Susan J. Schmidt (United for Libraries president). In the background is Donna McDonald (United for Libraries secretary).
One of the breakout groups at the advocacy meeting. From left: Casey Wallace, Christopher Moffat, Elissa Checov (a 2016 I Love My Librarian winner), Eugene Hamer, and Susan J. Schmidt (United for Libraries president). In the background is Donna McDonald (United for Libraries secretary).

“Are you a proactive or reactive advocate?” was the question asked of those who attended a Monday meeting on advocacy, sponsored jointly by ALA’s Reference and User Services Association and United for Libraries at the 2017 Midwinter Meeting in Atlanta.

Donna McDonald, director of the Arkansas River Valley Regional Library System and secretary of United for Libraries, noted that many public library users are “unaware of the library’s funding challenges, and the biggest supporters may not be frequent users.” Elected officials can often be a “hard sell” because they are also looking at funding for roads, police, and other community essentials, she said. “But it could help to tell them that the library is only 4% of their budget. Cutting a small segment of the budget by 10% is always more drastic than a larger segment.”

McDonald keeps in contact with laws and legislators using several apps:

  • Countable, which offers daily notifications on upcoming votes in the US Congress and allows you to record video messages to your elected representatives
  • LobbyUp, a bill-tracking utility for Arkansas (other states have similar apps)
  • Engage, advocacy software that the American Library Association provides to its chapters

Perhaps her best advice was to develop an advocacy message using the “Pixar pitch,” as developed by Daniel Pink in To Sell Is Human. Every film produced by Pixar (including Finding Nemo) uses a similar structure that tells the story “crisply, with clarity, to create the action you want.” McDonald said that their stories follow this pattern:

  1. Once upon a time there was …
  2. Every day …
  3. One day …
  4. Because of that …
  5. Because of that …
  6. Until finally …

This pitch format allows for successful storytelling using a framework that enforces conciseness.

Dustin Fife, director of library services at Western State Colorado University in Gunnison, emphasized that advocacy is personal. The most effective advocates are those who have personal relationships with local legislators and funders or their staffs. “Make people know from the very start what is important to you,” he said. “Talk early and talk often. Don’t wait for the perfect moment or a perfect plan.”

Attendees broke off into 15 or so separate groups to generate a list of best practices for advocates. This is a partial list of what they came up with:

  • Develop an effective elevator speech.
  • Talk about results and return on investment.
  • Recognize all gifts from supporters and potential supporters.
  • Have your staff embedded in local social service organizations.
  • Make use of personal relationships.
  • Explore opportunities to give your library a human face.
  • Invite legislators into the library for a behind-the-scenes look.
  • Be bold in getting your message out.
  • Make friends with local media.
  • Talk in verbs, not nouns. Nouns (like books, computers) can be cut; verbs (inform, learn, collaborate) are more difficult to cut.
  • Share information freely about your content and services.
  • Let your library Friends help.
  • Talk to your state library.

Finally, McDonald mentioned a useful book just published by ALA Editions: United for Libraries Executive Director Sally Gardner Reed’s The Good, the Great, and the Unfriendly: A Librarian’s Guide to Working with Friends Groups, which shares best advocacy practices from Friends groups across the country.