Advocacy: seven questions with Peter Pearson


Peter Pearson is president of The Friends of the St. Paul Public Library.

Through extensive advocacy efforts, friends advocates were able to restore

$376,000 to the libarary's 2012 budget. Read about it here.


What is Advocacy?
There are actually several different forms of advocacy.  Advocacy can be as simple as talking to your friends and neighbors about the importance of the library. An advocate for the library can is someone who understands the importance of the library in the community and wants others to know about it.  

Beyond that level is, what I would call “political advocacy,” one of the more advanced levels of advocacy. It’s the same type of thing. It’s talking about the importance of libraries in the community but instead of talking to friends and neighbors, it’s talking to your elected officials at the local level about the library’s importance.  With that, you would probably bring a message of the importance of supporting the library’s budget.


What does Advocacy mean for library friends groups?
I think Friends groups can participate in all levels of advocacy. It’s important to know that not everyone from a friends group has to feel comfortable talking to their elected officials.  You may have a Friends group where some people are only comfortable talking to their friends and neighbors, but others want to take it to the next level and go to elected officials.  

We need to encourage Friends to be comfortable with the type of advocacy that fits them and not assume that everyone is going to be comfortable doing “political advocacy” because building support for libraries through individuals is just as important. We want everyone in the library to become a library “fan” in a sense.  For library Friends groups, the meaning of Advocacy can go across that whole spectrum.

Who makes a good library advocate?
When it comes to being a “political advocate,” one of the things you need to remember is that library staff do not make good advocates. Our elected officials are going to assume that anyone who works for the library has a vested interest in the library receiving good funding.  Therefore, they would be less likely to listen to those individuals.  

So, if the library director came to the mayor or city council members and said, “I really need more money for the library.”  The response would likely be, “Well, of course you are going to say that, you’re the library director.”  

A good library advocate is someone who has nothing to gain from the library having a bigger budget to provide better services.  It’s people in the community who know the importance of libraries.  It could be business leaders or people  who are known and well respected by the elected officials; when they speak, others listen to them.  Also, of course, there are people who are just very passionate about the library; people who are regular users and understand the need for libraries can make great library advocates.

How much of Advocacy is lobbying?
Very little of advocacy actually ends up being a discussion with an elected official. Much of what we do in advocacy is to prepare messages. We prepare a platform of ideas and funding initiatives to which you want elected officials to look and respond. A lot of that comes in meetings with the library director, gathering information about community needs and discussing with other people interested in advocacy.  

Maybe five percent of your time is spent actually going to an elected official and presenting that information. So, if someone says “political advocacy” scares him or her, I would say a great approach is to be a part of the initial advocacy piece, which is tp prepare messages. Let others who are more comfortable going to the meetings do that part.

What separates a good advocacy campaign from a great one?
A great advocacy campaign, first of all, is going to be developed around community needs.  We don’t want to go to elected officials and say, “The library needs more money.”  We want to go to the elected officials and say, “Our citizens need the library to be open more hours because they’re using it for such extensive purposes as jobs search, early literacy  programs, homework help centers, etc.”  Making the case from the citizens’ perspective is extremely important.

Another piece that would set apart a great advocacy campaign is one that is able to refine its messages very clearly.  I think the last thing we want to do with an elected official is give them a message such as, “Please raise the library’s budget.”  Instead, we should go to them with a message of, “Please increase the library’s book budget by $25,000 because there is a huge need for materials, circulation has increased 10 percent in the last year.”  So, being specific with the message, I think, is a very critical part to the campaign.

Third, it’s always good if you can have highly visible people in the community be spokespersons in your advocacy campaign.  It’s very effective when business leaders and people influential in the community speak out.  When they speak, people really listen.

The final piece would be, if ever possible, to offer your community the enticement of matching funds for what you’re asking.  Your request  will always be listened to more closely.  For instance, if you were to tell the elected officials you’d like to see them add $25,000 to the library’s book budget and if they do, you and your friends group will add another $5,000 of private money.  That’s a hard request to turn down.

How is a good advocacy goal determined?
You really have to have good conversations with the library director.  This is where you’re going to have to take the key from him or her about what they think is needed.  I think in this day and age, every community is faced with very tight budget constraints. We’d be looked upon as foolish if we walked in to our elected officials and asked for a 50 percent increase in the library’s budget.  We know we can’t be ridiculous in our requests.  The library director, I think, can help determine a reasonable increase in the library’s materials budget, technology budget or hours.  Involving the library director in that conversation is the best way to determine what is a good goal.

What resources are necessary for a good advocacy campaign?
This is the best part about advocacy: it’s really inexpensive.  Our organization does an extensive, year-round advocacy campaign in St. Paul, and yet we spend hardly any money because most of the effort is volunteer time.  We have a volunteer committee, with volunteer chairs, and we have a small printing budget so that we are able to print copies of what it is we’re requesting from officials.  

These days you can’t even buy your elected officials a cup of coffee, so you can’t spend money on wining and dining them either.  So, truly the only cost is a minor printing budget for your advocacy piece and perhaps mailing costs, which would be very modest.  In addition, much can be sent through E-mail.  The best part about advocacy is its really inexpensive and you can get some really amazing results.

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