Casting your ballot in the voting booth may be the most fundamental of democratic acts, but talking to your elected official -- called lobbying -- is the indispensable next step. Preservationists, like every other group of citizens joined in common cause, have the prerogative and the responsibility to let members of Congress know that the legislation they enact has consequences, positive and negative, for historic preservation goals back home.
The good news is, if you’re making the case for preservation in your community and encouraging others to take action, you already are an advocate. Lobbying calls for the same communication skills, knowledge of preservation and its benefits, and concern for local communities. Other than that, no specific training or experience is required.
This toolkit offers a broad foundation on how to approach this type of advocacy on the federal, state, and local levels. Every person has the ability to be a grassroots lobbyist, and these tips will give you a good place to start.
1. Do your research. Before you begin contacting legislators, look up the members of the House of Representatives and Senate you want to target to find out what historic resources are in their districts, what interests they have, what committees they sit on, and where they stand on preservation-related legislation. Also check in on what national organizations are doing (such as in the National Trust’s Advocacy Center) for more details on specific legislation and advice on how to lobby for it. In addition, your state and tribal historic preservation offices and statewide or local organizations may have lots of useful data and case studies that you can learn from and cite in your lobbying efforts.
2. Consider your timing. The best time to lobby is when a representative or senator is considering writing or sponsoring a bill that will benefit preservation. If you make your position known at this stage, you have a greater opportunity to influence the legislation.
3. Make a specific request. Any contact with legislative members should include a clear statement of the action you would like them to take. Possible actions include introducing a bill, becoming a cosponsor, voting in committee or on the floor in favor of a bill or amendment, or contacting another key member.
4. Have accurate information on hand. It’s important to know as much as possible about the bills you’re lobbying for. Your case will be improved if you use accurate, factual material to substantiate your position, and this ground work will be reflected when your representative or senator makes an informed decision on an issue. You may also want to provide rebuttals to arguments your opponents are making on the issue.
5. Use real-life, local examples. Your lobbying efforts will be stronger if you can connect the legislative issue you are discussing with examples of how it will benefit historic resources in your community. For example, name the historic districts and types of buildings that would benefit from a historic tax credit. Mention specific restoration projects that were funded using Historic Preservation Fund grants-in-aid. Explain how cuts in funding would delay preservation projects or endanger historic resources. Only you can make it real and relevant for your legislators.
6. Establish an ongoing relationship. The most successful advocates are the ones that have a well-established relationship with offices. Check in on a regular basis, not just when you need your member to do something. Invite them to local events, keep them informed of local preservation issues, and notify them of good things happening in-district (preservation awards, new tax projects, etc.). Take care to build that relationship, and, ideally, the offices will eventually reach out to you for advice and information on preservation issues.
7. Contact the D.C. office. Your first communication to the Washington, D.C. office of a member of Congress is likely to be directed to the legislative assistant who handles preservation issues. Legislative assistants are generally scrambling to assemble briefings on short deadlines and not inclined to engage in extensive discussions or policy debates with constituents. To help your case, provide concise, well-organized presentations, including material on how the issue plays out in that member’s district.
8. Contact your district office. Senators may have six or so offices around their state. A congressman in a small district would only have one; in a larger district, two or three. While staff members who work in the district office are not directly involved in the legislative process, they are more readily accessible and familiar with local issues. Usually the district director or another senior advisor is the member’s eyes and ears in the district and provides important feedback on the priority of local issues. The member’s schedule in his home district is usually arranged by these offices as well. Use them often!
9. Remember to hit all levels of government. Although federal laws have a tremendous impact on preservation, the success or failure of preservation may be determined at the local level. Fortunately, all of the same rules apply; “lobbying is lobbying,” regardless of the office the elected official holds. On the state level, state legislatures decide many important preservation issues, such as state-level protections and residential or commercial tax policy. At the local level, network members can band together to encourage beneficial zoning changes and ordinances.
10. Polish your communications. Whether lobbying in person or by email, phone, or letter, certain techniques hold true. Remember to identify yourself. Be succinct with your request. Ask specific questions. State your position on the issues. Have your research on hand, and keep your exchanges short and to the point. Always follow up on any questions or requests. And most importantly -- say thank you!
For more in-depth information, explanations, and advice, browse the Lobbying 101 section at Preservation Leadership Forum.
P.S. Next week, Washington, D.C. is welcoming preservationists from around the country who will be putting these tips into practice during Preservation Advocacy Day (Feb. 25-27). Learn more.
Have you ever lobbied for a preservation cause? Tell us about your experience in the comments.
Note: These tips were adapted from the 2002 edition of A Blueprint for Lobbying which was first published in 1984 by Preservation Action. The first edition was written by Mona B. Ferrugia, edited by Nellie L. Longsworth with Julia Churchhman, Kathryn Nichols, Elle Wynn, and Chas A. Miller III contributing. The 2002 edition was substantially expanded and updated by Susan West Montgomery.