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Conference Blog: Movement Building and Grassroots Advocacy

Friday, September 14, 2018   (0 Comments)
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Movement Building and Grassroots Advocacy:  How Capacity Builders Can Help Organizations Build Power from the Bottom Up

How Do you Create a Brand-New Advocacy Group from the Bottom Up?

In 2010, the arts and creative community in Massachusetts didn’t have the support it needed. No advocacy organization existed. Over the two previous decades, the Commonwealth did have three arts advocacy groups that were founded with fanfare, did some good work, but ultimately ran out of money and energy, and dissolved. These groups generally followed a Chamber of Commerce style model, an inside-the-State-House, grasstops advocacy model promoting a relatively narrow self-interested platform.

As a result, In 2010, statewide funding for the arts sector had dropped 67% to a low of $9 million. Funding for the arts in Boston was the lowest among major cities in the nation, and access and participation to arts education had been in a steady decline.

So how do you serve a sector that isn’t being served? How do you create an organization from the ground up?

Arts organizations in Massachusetts answered this question by forming MASSCreative, a statewide public education and advocacy group for the arts and creative sector. They started again from scratch (for the fourth time!) and invested in a broad-based grassroots model to build a sustainable model from the bottom up.

MASSCreative is built on a strong and time-tested foundation. By adapting tools from the other social movements, MASSCreative has created a new grassroots advocacy model for the arts and creative sector. This model builds capacity for a more vibrant, healthy, and connected Massachusetts by bringing more resources and support to the arts and creative community. Over the past six years, the organization has grown from a one-person shop, with no members, and a modest $125,000 seed budget, to a powerful voice for the arts and creative community with six full time staff, 400 dues-paying members, a budget approaching $600,000, and more than 30,000 residents who have taken political action in support of arts and creativity.

Five learning objectives have guided MASSCreative’s growth and can be adapted to help other advocacy organizations begin and grow. These are:

  1. Comprehensive outreach and planning with stakeholders to define need and mission, and earn support of key stakeholders. Before the founding of MASSCreative, the arts community spent time affirming the need for a new organization, defining the mission, and bringing the stakeholders together as a united group to launch the project. Through this process it created ownership of the organization by the key players in the sector.
  2. Use Program to Build Organization  and use Organization to Build your Program. Starting from scratch in 2012, MASSCreative built its organization through running issue campaigns. Through engaging the field in campaign actions, MASSCreative brought in groups as members, activated residents around the issue, built visibility through earned and social media, and attracted donors to the work. This increased organizational capacity in turn allowed MASSCreative to increase the breadth and depth of its programming. The cycle continues through increased organizational structure which provides capacity for bolder campaigns, which in turn bring in more partners and support.
  3. The Movement Needs to Reflect its Mission. The success of MASSCreative relies on the ability of its board and staff to build a base of support that is diverse and inclusive. It is this base of support that helps define the platform of the organization and can build the widespread base of support needed to influence political leaders.
  4. Use and Adapt Tried and True Advocacy Strategy Models. MASSCreative borrowed and adapted tried and true strategic structure from another advocacy movement and overlaid it in the sector. The organization’s strategy tripod uses public education, advocacy, and grassroots organizing to tell the story, ask for what the sector needs, and build the power it needs to earn support from government leaders. These strategies that have helped guide other advocacy group’s activities all work iteratively to create the context for policy change.
  5. Develop and Use a Compelling, Consistent Public Interest Narrative. Movements work best when they are in the public interest and they have an accompanying narrative that supports that mission. Many advocacy groups fall into a self-interest mission and narrative and are unable to build broader support for their cause. In working to build support for the arts as a public good and worthy of public support and resources, the arts and creative community needed to develop a broader narrative and build public will talking about the power of arts and creativity to build vibrant, and healthy communities.

MASSCreative is the result of the efforts of arts and creative leaders who saw a need and filled it. MASSCreative started from scratch and has grown to become a sustainable organization that has the political power and capacity to create change. The environmental and anti-war movements provided organizing lessons for success that were adapted for the arts community. The result is an organization with a growing staff, bold policy platform, a budding grasstops and grassroots infrastructure, and record of campaign successes. It’s a lesson for other leaders of how social change can happen when you build for the ground up.

Submitted by: Matt Wilson, Executive Director, MASSCreative