Guide | Making the case using evidence

John Holden, a visiting Professor at City University London, shares his top ten tips for advocacy...

Advocacy means arguing in favour of something, such as a cause, an idea, or a policy. The aim is not just to get people to change their opinions but to change the way they behave; you need active support and decisions that will make a difference, not smiles and warm words. Although advocacy is not the same thing as fundraising – you might want to get a school to open an after-hours theatre club just as much as you want your grant renewed – it often lays the groundwork for financial support.

What is advocacy?

Within this broad definition of advocacy as ‘arguing in favour of something’ there are lots of things to take into consideration. Essentially it is developing a relationship. You are trying persuade someone, or a range of people, to do what you want. Whether the relationship is one-to-one, such as when you are talking to an individual philanthropist, or with a group, for example trying to gain support at a Council meeting, you are dealing with people. Organisations and abstract ideas like ‘government’ don’t make decisions – people do. So even if you don’t meet or know the people you are trying to persuade - from the Secretary of State to the anonymous Foundation that will only communicate by post – you need to do your homework on them and get behind their facades.

You also need to look at yourself, and make an honest assessment of your abilities, resources, experience, and networks. How good do you think you are at advocacy? If you don’t feel confident, why is that? What can you do to raise your own game? Who do you know who can help?

The next thing to look at is the context in which you are working. There are broad trends at work that you have no control over, such as the state of the economy and the yield that Trusts are getting on their endowments. These things will constrain or liberate the people you are talking to, and there are micro factors as well, such as competing claims on their time, attention and resources on any given day.

Do you have a realistic assessment of the cause itself? It is something of a cliché to say that it’s easier to get support for a sexy new building than for the running costs of a community dance group, but it’s true. Whatever the cause, if you’re going to advocate for it you must believe in it 100%, heart and soul. If you don’t, then your own reservations will show, and weaken your case.

Finally, you need to take into account the issue of time – and timing. There is nearly always a ‘right moment’ for a specific request. It can take a short time or a very long one to get to that point, but however long the preceding period, the moment will result from there being a ‘climate of inevitability’. Advocacy is the long-term project that builds up to the moment. You need to take people to a place where what you are proposing seems like common sense, and where opposition crumbles because of the strength of your case.

What is the role of evidence?

Evidence is a vital part of advocacy. There are lots of ways to persuade people to do what you want them to do – some of them illegal or morally questionable – in the arts however, advocacy arguments should be based on firm foundations.

That said, what is the real role of evidence? People often defend their decisions by saying that they are following ‘evidence – based policy’. Basing decisions on evidence is rational and defensible: if you spend public money you should be able to say why you have done it, and when money is tight and there are many competing priorities, evidence becomes even more important.

But in truth, decisions are more often evidence-informed, or evidence-influenced, than evidence based, partly because ‘evidence’ is often inconclusive. Data and findings help to build an argument, but in isolation they rarely provide an overwhelming reason to take a decision.

Equally, decisions are often not made on the basis of evidence, but rest on world-views, horse-trading, irrational prejudices, and ideology. It is important neither to under-estimate nor over-estimate the importance of evidence. The recent arguments about whether or not to build HS2 provide a good example of the use, abuse, and fragility of competing evidence-based cases.

Building an evidence-based case for your cause starts with deciding what evidence is going to be useful. Is there evidence already out there that you can recycle or quote from? Start by looking at Audience Finder and search for types of evidence that suit your needs.

There are many useful sources of macro-level statistics and data including the government’s own publication and statistics website Gov.uk where for example you will find DCMS’s annual arts participation survey, Taking Part, The National Statistics Office has national data, and the Local Government Association produces a wide range of publications, some of them with localised information.

But more useful than these are the websites of national agencies dedicated to the arts, such as Arts Council England, which contain presentations and toolkits on how to advocate, lobby MPs in addition to industry research. Then there are other organisations producing helpful reports, from charities like NESTA and lobbying bodies such as the Cultural Learning Alliance: to think tanks and Foundations. In the case of Arts and Health, this useful website brings a lot of source material into one place.

You should also keep abreast of the literature by reading sector-specific magazines like Arts Professional, and, as always, use your networks to find out what’s good and what’s not.

Often, your advocacy will need more specific evidence than that provided from general research. For example, you might want to show the detailed and specific effects that your own organisation has in its own particular locality. In some cases, you can collect your own information – though when you present it, you must expect a degree of cynicism: your data would show that you’re a great success wouldn’t it? In other cases, you might want to commission research (which might also be greeted with some scepticism). When commissioning research you need to think about which methodologies should be used, have a realistic idea of how much the work will cost and how long it should take. If you’ve never commissioned research before talk to someone who has – you can find them though your networks. Or find a report you particularly admire and email the people who produced it. A handy practical guide to different types of economic impact methodologies can be found in the business planning.

Ten top tips for advocacy

1. Know who you are talking to or writing for

Do as much research as you can on the person you want to influence. Find out what they think and what their views are. I know one arts manager who boasted to a local politician about how much public money her organisation had leveraged into the town. But he was against public spending, so all it did was wind him up. He would have responded better to arguments about how the arts create local jobs by attracting employers.

Avoid situations where you are trying to reach too many audiences at the same time. Often when I write a report, I ask the person commissioning it who it’s for and they say ‘funders, the public, politicians, arts managers… and others.’ But each of those audiences has different concerns, and might use different language. If you are going to communicate effectively you need the right voice and the right tone, as well as the right content, and that means knowing who you are communicating to – even they are an imaginary ‘member of the public.’ Think through what you will be up against – scepticism; ideological antipathy to the arts? – and have your answers ready.

2. Be brief

You need key facts and figures at your fingertips and a persuasive argument in a few sentences. If there’s initial interest you can get into more detail later. Make your points succinctly and keep executive summaries to a maximum of one page.

3. Using the facts

Try to find and use ‘killer stats’ and ‘killer facts’ - and keep on repeating them, over and over. Some ‘facts’ are like earworms – ‘the creative industries account for 6% of GDP and are growing at twice the rate of the rest of the economy’ is one that was often re-quoted and stuck in many people’s minds. The original source was hedged about with realistic caveats, but the ‘facts’ helped establish a general truth about the vigour of the creative sector. Make sure you know your sources and they are credible, in case someone asks you.

4. Delivering the message

You might send an email, or put a report in the post – but that doesn’t mean anyone has received it, let alone read it or thought about it. So make sure your voice is heard, by checking that it has been. And make sure you use the right communications methods - sometimes the telephone beats an email, or a hard copy of a report gets read when a pdf doesn’t. Remember that through social media you can directly reach huge numbers of people, and they are all potential supporters of your cause.

Your passion and enthusiasm will be the best advocates for your cause, so try to get in front of people to make the case in person. Go out and actively engage – ask to address a Council meeting, see if you can talk to the Trustees of a Foundation. If you can get such people to see your work, so much the better, because the work often speaks for itself; but it’s not easy to get people like Councillors to come and see things. They can be fearful of the art itself, or of being put on the spot to make commitments, so you must allay their fears in advance (even if a commitment is exactly what you eventually want from them).

5. There is strength in numbers

So many arts organisations work on advocacy (and everything else) in isolation. That is not cost-effective, nor is it efficient in terms of getting a message across. One report from one organisation is easily dismissed. A joint report from every theatre, or gallery, or better still every arts organisation in a town or region, less so. Many heads are usually better than one, and many pockets make things affordable, so create alliances with your local peers (don’t think of them as competitors). Join or develop national and regional networks.

6. Get someone else to deliver your message

When you advocate, it is obvious that you have a vested interest in the outcome.

That means you might be treated with scepticism, especially if the person you are addressing doesn’t know you. But if you can get someone they trust – a friend, or political ally for example, to say what you were going to say, that often works well. It is a truism in fundraising that ‘people give to people’ as well as to causes. Also if you can get a business person to confirm your economic impact, or a medical expert to talk about the arts-in-health, so much the better.

7. Concentrate on outcomes

Imagine you’ve run a lot of workshops in schools. You and your team have worked long hours, and done more that anyone has a right to expect. It’s been exhausting but fulfilling, and you are proud of what you’ve done. But if you say to someone ‘We’ve run ten workshops this term’ it doesn’t mean much. If you tell them you made sacrifices they will respond with: ‘join the club’. They have no way of judging whether ‘ten workshops’ is good or bad, and in any case the number of workshops is merely an output. What matters more is what has been achieved as a result – what were the outcomes for the children and young people who were involved? You need the facts and figures for outputs as base, but outcomes are always more persuasive than outputs: satisfaction ratings from voters are more convincing than audience numbers, and a young person kept out of prison is more meaningful than a tally of NEETS who you’ve worked with.

8. Cultivate good relations with the press and other media

One traditional but still important way of getting your message across is through print and broadcast media. It is very worthwhile creating a good relationship with your local media, ready for the day when you want to use them as an advocacy channel. Sending a press release (brief and to-the-point) can be surprisingly effective as your words can get reprinted, unedited, for free.

9. Ask yourself if you need professional PR help

You are an arts manager with a million and one things to do. Sometimes you need to employ a communications professional to help with your advocacy. You can find one through the Public Relations Consultants Association

10. Map your networks and use them

Advocacy should not be a lonely business. It should involve your staff, your networks, and above all, if you have them your Board of Trustees. Remember, when talking to politicians, that your audience are their voters (and in the case of a local authority Councillor, your audience may be bigger than the number of people who voted for them).

Finally…

Advocacy is both a short-term campaign, when you want something specific to happen, and a long-term venture, because you should be creating the right conditions for the decision you want on a continuous basis. This means you are always on duty as an advocate for your organisation and your artform.