Advocacy means arguing in favour of something, such as a cause, an idea, or a policy. The aim is not just to get people to change their opinions but to change the way they behave; you need active support and decisions that will make a difference, not smiles and warm words. Although advocacy is not the same thing as fundraising – you might want to get a school to open an after-hours theatre club just as much as you want your grant renewed – it often lays the groundwork for financial support.
What is advocacy?
Within this broad definition of advocacy as ‘arguing in favour of something’ there are lots of things to take into consideration. Essentially it is developing a relationship. You are trying persuade someone, or a range of people, to do what you want. Whether the relationship is one-to-one, such as when you are talking to an individual philanthropist, or with a group, for example trying to gain support at a Council meeting, you are dealing with people. Organisations and abstract ideas like ‘government’ don’t make decisions – people do. So even if you don’t meet or know the people you are trying to persuade - from the Secretary of State to the anonymous Foundation that will only communicate by post – you need to do your homework on them and get behind their facades.
You also need to look at yourself, and make an honest assessment of your abilities, resources, experience, and networks. How good do you think you are at advocacy? If you don’t feel confident, why is that? What can you do to raise your own game? Who do you know who can help?
The next thing to look at is the context in which you are working. There are broad trends at work that you have no control over, such as the state of the economy and the yield that Trusts are getting on their endowments. These things will constrain or liberate the people you are talking to, and there are micro factors as well, such as competing claims on their time, attention and resources on any given day.
Do you have a realistic assessment of the cause itself? It is something of a cliché to say that it’s easier to get support for a sexy new building than for the running costs of a community dance group, but it’s true. Whatever the cause, if you’re going to advocate for it you must believe in it 100%, heart and soul. If you don’t, then your own reservations will show, and weaken your case.
Finally, you need to take into account the issue of time – and timing. There is nearly always a ‘right moment’ for a specific request. It can take a short time or a very long one to get to that point, but however long the preceding period, the moment will result from there being a ‘climate of inevitability’. Advocacy is the long-term project that builds up to the moment. You need to take people to a place where what you are proposing seems like common sense, and where opposition crumbles because of the strength of your case.
What is the role of evidence?
Evidence is a vital part of advocacy. There are lots of ways to persuade people to do what you want them to do – some of them illegal or morally questionable – in the arts however, advocacy arguments should be based on firm foundations.
That said, what is the real role of evidence? People often defend their decisions by saying that they are following ‘evidence – based policy’. Basing decisions on evidence is rational and defensible: if you spend public money you should be able to say why you have done it, and when money is tight and there are many competing priorities, evidence becomes even more important.
But in truth, decisions are more often evidence-informed, or evidence-influenced, than evidence based, partly because ‘evidence’ is often inconclusive. Data and findings help to build an argument, but in isolation they rarely provide an overwhelming reason to take a decision.
Equally, decisions are often not made on the basis of evidence, but rest on world-views, horse-trading, irrational prejudices, and ideology. It is important neither to under-estimate nor over-estimate the importance of evidence. The recent arguments about whether or not to build HS2 provide a good example of the use, abuse, and fragility of competing evidence-based cases.
Building an evidence-based case for your cause starts with deciding what evidence is going to be useful. Is there evidence already out there that you can recycle or quote from? Start by looking at Audience Finder and search for types of evidence that suit your needs.
There are many useful sources of macro-level statistics and data including the government’s own publication and statistics website Gov.uk where for example you will find DCMS’s annual arts participation survey, Taking Part, The National Statistics Office has national data, and the Local Government Association produces a wide range of publications, some of them with localised information.
But more useful than these are the websites of national agencies dedicated to the arts, such as Arts Council England, which contain presentations and toolkits on how to advocate, lobby MPs in addition to industry research. Then there are other organisations producing helpful reports, from charities like NESTA and lobbying bodies such as the Cultural Learning Alliance: to think tanks and Foundations. In the case of Arts and Health, this useful website brings a lot of source material into one place.
You should also keep abreast of the literature by reading sector-specific magazines like Arts Professional, and, as always, use your networks to find out what’s good and what’s not.
Often, your advocacy will need more specific evidence than that provided from general research. For example, you might want to show the detailed and specific effects that your own organisation has in its own particular locality. In some cases, you can collect your own information – though when you present it, you must expect a degree of cynicism: your data would show that you’re a great success wouldn’t it? In other cases, you might want to commission research (which might also be greeted with some scepticism). When commissioning research you need to think about which methodologies should be used, have a realistic idea of how much the work will cost and how long it should take. If you’ve never commissioned research before talk to someone who has – you can find them though your networks. Or find a report you particularly admire and email the people who produced it. A handy practical guide to different types of economic impact methodologies can be found in the business planning.
Evaluating a Salford cultural and education partnership which co-creates theatre with children and young people.
How The Audience Agency is innovating to help art galleries find out more about their visitors in a fun and interactive digital way.