Thursday, April 22, 2010

Lessons from the Wisconsin Bicycle Summit

Yesterday I attended the Wisconsin Bike Summit, and thought I'd share some thoughts, both from the sessions and my thoughts about advocacy itself.

The first session I attended was one on building effective community partnerships for bicycle trails. However, I want to write a bit about advocacy in general, whether it's for bicycling or other topics.

1. Decide what you want. Specifically. More funding from a certain source. A change in law. A specific piece of infrastructure built. A specific policy change from a government body. The more specific you can be, the easier it will be to articulate your message. This will make it easier to tell the decision-makers what you want, and also easier to gain support from people that can help you by joining, volunteering, giving money, etc.

2. Start small. Many of us want big social or legal changes, but remember the proverb about a journey of a thousand miles starting with a single step. Especially if you are new to advocacy, or an unknown group, it will also be less overwhelming to those involved if they don't have to take on a huge project.

3. Celebrate the small victories. I almost want to put this first in the list, because it is so important for both those involved directly in your advocacy and for growing your group or movement. Those of us who feel like we are banging our heads against a brick wall, or fighting a hurricane force headwind, need to see that our work is worth it. Change is often incremental, but it is also often steady. I am old enough to remember being told:
  • Women can't work outside the home because it will destroy our families. They don't need to be paid like men because they don't have to support a family.
  • We can't prohibit industries from dumping raw effluent into our lakes and rivers because it will kill our economy. It's unreasonable to ask industry to clean up their smokestack emissions.
  • We can't ban smoking in offices, because no one will ever get any work done.
Look around and notice when you have made a change, no matter how small. This is important for both getting others to join you and to keep your staff, volunteers, and donors motivated. Change is very hard and often exhausting for those trying to effect it. If you don't celebrate the small victories, you will get burned out.

5. Build partnerships. Your partners may not be just the true believers in your movement, but also those who would benefit in some other way from a change you want. Are there health, economic development, social justice, environmental, or personal economic savings benefits to be gained? If you can get well-respected people that are not the expected allies to show support, your message will be heard - not just received - by more groups and will be more likely to succeed.

6. Perfect your message, vision, and mission. Be able to state it to anyone in 15 seconds. Everyone hates sound bites, but they work. If anyone expresses interest in your group or movement, you should be able to explain what you do and why it is important before their eyes glaze over (or they reach for the remote if you are being interviewed.) A good solid message, vision and mission will also help with possible funders, volunteers, political contacts, or those partnerships you want to build. Obviously, you should be able to give more details when asked, and your message may be different if you are talking to the local PTO vs. the Tourism Council.

7. Be flexible in your methods, but stay true to your mission. If you get turned down for funding, find things you can do that are free or cheap. If you have lots of smart, hardworking volunteers, you will use different methods than if someone offers you free advertising or printing. Press can be very important, and is essentially free. Social media can get people to write letters or turn out at meetings. Maybe someone wants to help you make those important contacts, or has other talents that will make possible a tactic that you thought was out of reach.

8. Communicate with your members, volunteers, and allies, and also your opponents. There are many groups, issues, and news swirling around. Don't overwhelm people, but make sure that they don't forget you. Let supporters know both that you appreciate their efforts, and what you need them to do for the next step. Or just make sure they know you are working hard for what they want. Thank the people  that have helped you, and make sure that those who are standing in your way hear from you too. Especially if want a political change, communicate victories - someone says they will support your efforts, and also communicate when there are elected officials that need a push or convincing.

9. You are not alone. If you are not working in an office with plenty of like-minded people, or part of an organization with regular meetings, it can feel like you are the only person out there, the only person working on this issue, or the only person with these views. You are not alone, and it is important to get feedback and reinforcement in your mission from others working toward the same goals. That is one reason for tip # 8 - communication. If you don't communicate with your allies and supporters, it can get very lonely. Talking, emailing, blogging, or meeting with others working for the same goal can also give you fresh ideas. Maybe there are others, in other cities, that have used a technique or tool that you haven't thought of or discovered. If there is no one in your immediate area, see if there is a national or regional listserv or meeting. Even if you have to join a group in another geographic area, you will see that others are also struggling with the same issues and problems, and you can support each other.

10. Finally, don't give up. Funding will come and go, or not come at all. Volunteers may burn out or float away. You will get good and bad press. Local or world events will make your message more or less relevant to the general public. But keep your eyes on the goal, and remember why you thought it was important. And remember # 3 above.