Empower Elected Officials to Support Your Main Street® Program

It's been said that Nov 2, 2010, was the largest transfer of elected officials in the past 70 years when you count everyone from school board members to members of the U.S. Congress. All those new faces mean that you have a great opportunity to find new supporters for your Main Street program. Now is the time to get started; most city councils have already had their first meetings of the year and most state legislatures will convene in the next month. Here are 10 things you can do to find opportunity within this great change. Some are bigger than others, but any time you spend educating politicians about a cost-effective economic development strategy is time well spent.

  1. SOTW-Officials-Tour
    Spread out the welcome mat and invite key officials to tour your Main Street district.
    Get over the fear that nonprofits can't lobby. You aren't. Bragging about your success is not lobbying. Ok, that was easy, right?  Learn more on lobbying as a nonprofit organization. Schedule individual meetings with all the members of your city council, county commission, and with your state legislators. This list isn't as long as it sounds and you can break it up by asking each board member to take two or three meetings. You don't need every board member to attend every meeting — just one plus the Main Street manager of your program. 
  2. Create a short list of tangible accomplishments to discuss during these meetings. Organizing a fund-raising strategy isn't tangible but increasing your membership by 20 percent is. And having a large member base (or Friends of Main Street if you prefer) shows that your program has plenty of grass-roots support. 
  3. Focus on the program's role in job development. Be sure to include the number of net new jobs your program has created because every elected official wants to hear about jobs today. You may want to calculate the cost per job. To do that, divide the number of new jobs you tracked last year by the annual budget of your program. Several statewide Main Street Coordinating Partners have done this and found that it costs their state only a few hundred dollars to create new jobs through a Main Street program. Many non-Main Street job creation programs count their costs in the thousands, not hundreds, of dollars; and I bet that your program will look equally cost effective. 
  4. Get comfortable talking to politicians. If you need some pointers, check out these great materials on Preservation Nation: Communicating with Elected Officials and http://blogs.nationaltrust.org/preservationnation/?p=3370.
  5. Put every elected official who can affect your organization on your mailing list — electronic, paper, or both. If they have staff, include those individuals as well. 
  6. Invite elected officials to take personal tours of your Main Street district. If you can arrange a crowd, they will come.
  7. SOTW-Offiicals-RibbonCutting
    Ask elected officials to participate in your events, from ribbon cuttings for new businesses to festivals and parades..
    Invite key leaders to play a role in your events, from ribbon cuttings for new businesses to being the grand marshal for your parades. Ask your officials to call the winners of your Romantic Weekend drawing for Valentine's Day, or whatever promotion you are planning next month.
  8. Make plans to attend the 2011 Preservation Lobby Day here in Washington, D.C. and a lot of fun. Check out these Preservation Nation blog posts to read about last year's lobby day.
  9. Take comfort/inspiration/motivation from this totally true-life story: When I was the director of a nonprofit in Alexandria, Virginia, (home of George Washington, a fairly famous politician), we organized individual visits to all members of the city council — there were only six — because our organization got a big grant directly from the City of Alexandria. At the first meeting, the city council member said that not only was this the first time that anyone from our seven-year-old organization had talked to him, it was the first time ANYONE from any organization receiving city funds had taken the time to tell him what they were doing with the city's money. Years later, I'm still shocked.

In managing some recent advocacy efforts on behalf of Main Street programs, I've been surprised to find that few people have made the kind of direct outreach that is so important. Kick that stale resolution of losing weight to the curb and take up a much more exciting one! You'll be glad that you did when your Main Street program gets the recognition it deserves.