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Developing a Strong Main Street Advocacy Program to Drive Your Organization to Legislative Success


Former NMCMSC President Francis Bee of Gallup addresses the crowd at the MainStreet in New Mexico Day at the New Mexico State Capitol Rotunda

As Main Street practitioners, our work is constantly impacted by decisions made by governing bodies at the local, state and federal level. These decisions can impact our organizations’ funding and projects, as well as policies that can either support or hinder our work in historic preservation and economic revitalization. It is important that when faced with legislation or decisions that can negatively impact our work, we are able to advocate on behalf of our Main Street organizations’ priorities.

In 2004, local Main Street organizations in New Mexico banded together when funding to the state coordinating program was threatened. Their initial successful advocacy efforts led to the forming of a formal 501(c)(6) non-profit organization, the New Mexico Coalition of MainStreet Communities (NMCMSC). For the last 12 years, the Coalition has successfully advocated at the state legislative level on behalf of issues impacting the local Main Street organizations throughout the state. On an annual basis, the NMCMSC advocates for maintaining the budget of the state coordinating program to ensure the local organizations continue to receive valuable services and support. Additionally, it advocates for public infrastructure funds to be allocated to the New Mexico MainStreet program, and disbursed, via a grant application process, to local programs for infrastructure improvements in the Main Street districts. And finally, the Coalition will, from time to time, drive specific legislation in partnership with the state government, other partner organizations or will craft and advocate for its own legislation.

Keep reading for information on engaging in advocacy on behalf of your Main Street program, and examples from the NMCMSC on how they have achieved success throughout the years.

Why should we advocate

Our elected officials represent us and our fellow constituents. However, depending on the state, your legislators may also work a full-time job in addition to holding their elected position. We can’t expect them to be experts on everything, and if they are not familiar with the Main Street program, it is up to you to educate them. Most will appreciate the knowledge you are able to share, as well as your real world examples demonstrating your program’s impact. And don’t forget, if they aren’t familiar with your program, it will most likely be forgotten when it comes time to make decisions that impact it. This is true at the city, county, state and federal level.

How we build a coalition

Oftentimes, as was the case with the NMCMSC, a coalition might form in reaction to a threat from another group, a piece of legislation that will have a negative impact to your organization’s work, or to save the program’s budget. Building a coalition prior to a threat, will put you in a better position to address the threat and activate your membership. In the case of the Main Street program, a network of organizations throughout the state with a common goal already exists, and can work together to advocate for their needs at the state-level of government.

The NMCMSC formed a 501(c)(6) non-profit organization, whose dues-paying membership is made up of the state-wide Main Street 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations. The board is made up of representatives of Main Street organizations from all over the state, ideally representing different geographical regions, as New Mexico residents, culture and economy vary from region to region.

The IRS does not restrict lobbying efforts of 501(c)(6) organizations in the same way it does that of 501(c)(3)s, so this creates more flexibility as far as advocacy and lobbying activities. Click here for more information.

Don’t forget that there are other organizations in your state that might be ideal partners for your coalition—community development and historic preservation organizations—and may have some of the same issues as your Main Street coalition and would be willing advocate with the legislature.

When to begin advocacy efforts

Ideally advocacy efforts would begin well before the start of the legislative session. You might begin advocacy efforts during the election campaign, meeting with all the candidates to educate them about your program, while also making sure to keep your organization and its representatives firmly out of the campaign process. Regardless, you should make every effort to meet with your legislators prior to the start of the legislative session. Once the session begins, their time will be limited, and it is unlikely they will be able to give your issue or program the time and attention that it deserves. Keeping your elected officials in the loop as to your projects and activities on a regular basis throughout the year ensures that when you need their support on an issue, they will already have a base knowledge of your program and its efforts.

Whom to target with advocacy efforts

The elected officials that represent your district, whether it is at the city, county, state or federal level, are obvious targets of your advocacy efforts. But keep in mind that legislation will need to first pass through several committees (depending upon which level of government you are working with), before it makes its way to the floor of either the House or the Senate for a vote. It is possible that your legislators may not be sitting on those committees. In that case, you will need to reach out to other members of the committee. This will require doing some homework on the legislators, and determining which will be open to supporting your bill. Alternatively, if you have formed a coalition with the other communities in your state, the Main Street programs with elected officials on each committee, can contact their legislators as the bill moves through the committees.
The NMCMSC develops a spreadsheet listing the legislators that represent each Main Street program in the state and highlights those that serve on key committees, so the local programs know who to contact depending upon which committee the bill is currently sitting with.

How we develop our message

When preparing to ask a business to sponsor an event or donate to a project, we usually prepare by developing a clear and to the point pitch, specific examples of how our work has impacted the community, and have a defined message we want to relay. The same goes for speaking with legislators and other elected officials. We want to make a good impression and respect the time they are willing to give us, so being prepared and articulate can only improve your chances of success. Legislators want to hear from their constituents about what is happening in their district. Be prepared to share specific information about the impact your work is having in their district. Remember that you will most likely have several different audiences, so you should develop messages for each audience.

Also, prepare yourself for a refusal, or an opinion that might not be in line with that of your organization. Know what the opposition will be arguing. You will definitely encounter this at some point in your advocacy efforts. Just remember to be respectful and thank the legislator for their time. Keep them in the loop and continue efforts to educate them as to the importance of your organization’s work. You never know when your priorities might align, or you may finally sway them to support your efforts.

New Mexico Coalition of MainStreet Communities Board from left to right: Michael Bulloch, Farmington; Sandy Rassmussen, Corrales; Lisa Pelligrino-Spears, Clovis; Tabatha Lawson, Lovington; Bianca Mitchell, Grants; Brenda Ferri, Raton; and Gail Houser, Tucumcari.

How to engage in advocacy with our elected officials

As mentioned prior, the engagement process with elected officials should begin well before the start of the legislative session, and in a variety of ways. Ideally, you begin engaging with them prior to asking them for something.

Pre-Session Meetings
Meeting one-on-one with a legislator prior to the start of the session should enable you to receive (ideally) their undivided attention and begin building a relationship. Members of the NMCMSC have seen success with inviting their legislators for coffee several times a year–just a 30-minute commitment in an informal setting.

Invitations to special events, activities and community meetings
Getting your legislators to one of your events or activities allows them to see you and your organization’s work in action. In particular, you should invite them to ribbon cuttings or grand openings that they can use as photo ops or as demonstrations of the good work they are doing in the legislature.

Phone calls
If you call your legislator prior to the start of the session, you have a good chance of having a phone conversation with them. If you call during the session, you will most likely reach a secretary or other staffer. If this happens, make sure to leave your name, organization’s name, city and what you are requesting of them. Believe it or not, those messages will be relayed to your legislator, and while you may not receive a return phone call, if they hear from enough constituents on the same issue, it can impact their actions.

If you are sending a physical letter, send it either prior to the start of the session, or hand deliver it to their capitol office. Dropping it into the mail during the session, when every day counts, will probably be ineffective. An email will be received immediately, and can have a similar impact as the phone calls, if enough are received on the same issue. The NMCMSC utilizes an email list serve to alert its membership when bills are in certain committees or when they are up for vote, to let them know when they need to use immediate action with regard to contacting their legislators either by email or phone.

Committee testimony
During the summer, legislative interim committees being meeting. These committees can make recommendations on the state coordinating program budget or vote to support certain legislative initiatives. The NMCMSC uses this opportunity to request time to present before the committee, particularly if it is meeting in a Main Street community. You can highlight the successes of the local program, while also educating the legislators as to the needs of the state-wide network. Once the legislature moves into its regular session, the session committees may seek testimony in support of legislation that impacts your program as well, so be prepared.

Advocacy materials
The NMCMSC utilizes a variety of advocacy materials, depending upon the situation. Annually, they develop a two-sided brochure laying out the legislative initiatives, and economic impact statistics, which can be handed to a legislator in a meeting, or left at their office with a staff person. The NMCMSC members visit their legislators offices during the legislative session, and leave not only the brochure, but a thank you note attached to a small bag of cookies or candy, as well as a New Mexico MainStreet pin. Often time the office staff person enjoys the treats, and remembers (and appreciates) your efforts, which can help get your message passed along to your legislator. Using the initial information from the brochure, you can expand upon it and create a one-page document. And finally, creating a website allows you to provide even more information on your legislative issues and programs, and can be updated on a regular basis.

Remember that advocacy never ends. Build advocacy efforts into your annual work plan to begin building relationships with your elected officials. There may come a time in which you need to call upon them for their support, and this will put you in a prime position for success.