by Dan Hendey, CPRP, CPSI, Education Manager
Long Term Advocacy
Advocacy in the moment is important. However, long-term advocacy efforts will reap the largest rewards for your organization. While immediate concerns and annual budgets can often take priority, all leaders recognize the importance of investing time in long-term planning, strategy, and professional development.
The goals of long-term advocacy are to develop and cultivate continuing relationships with decision-makers, build credibility for yourself and the department, become a trusted resource, and be recognized as an essential community service.
As mentioned earlier, there is no substitution for developing relationships with decision-makers. Relationships built on trust and mutual respect promote honest dialogue, are open to persuasion, and often result in a team approach to problem-solving. There are many ways to build relationships, but they all start with the concept of inclusion. Ask decision-makers to volunteer, attend, or even speak at your events. Find opportunities to pop-in, talk, or ask for their assistance or advice—volunteer to assist them on some project or action. Be creative; how you do this will vary, but reaching out to each decision-maker is important.
Developing strong relationships in the community is also critical. Often it is the advisory boards, non-profit organizations, and community activists who can assist you the most. Unlike elected officials, many of these voices do not change office every several years and are freer to engage in supportive activities for your agency. When I started at my department, I volunteered to provide sportsmanship and first aid training for all the PAL baseball coaches. When it came time to request new playground equipment, the PAL championed my efforts. In addition to the advocacy, community members and groups can also be enlisted to write Op-eds to support your agency, offer input on programs and plans, and provide valuable volunteer assistance. Decision-makers, especially elected public officials, listen when citizens talk, especially on the local level. You need to educate these individuals and groups by holding information and feedback meetings, reaching out to community leaders, business owners, health professionals, and other department heads to hear their ideas and to educate them on the importance of recreation. This is also an ideal time to listen and identify opportunities for mutual benefit either through partnerships, dual promotion, or complimentary services.
Also, it is important to reach out to the whole community when planning. This can be done through surveys, focus groups, community meetings, and interviews. Each method has positive and negative aspects, and some thought is needed when deciding on your most effective tool. Seeking input from the community comes with an unspoken commitment for action on your part. Your integrity and community trust will be affected by what you do with the gathered information.
Be a Resource
Another path for long term advocacy is to become a resource for the community and decision-makers. Your words matter, and so does your ability to provide correct and timely information on issues involving Recreation and Parks. You and your agency should be the information source that the community and decision-makers depend on for recreation and park issues.
As a recreation professional, what you do is important and can be essential but is usually not urgent. During times of crises (fires, floods, riots, COVID, and other calamities), the important often takes a back seat to the urgent. Developing skills in emergency services such as first aid, policing, local distribution, food preparation, and social services or incorporating your facilities into the response can add to your department’s value when dealing with a community crisis. Where I worked, several neighborhoods within were located on a riverside and flooded periodically. I became quite skilled at setting up the community room as a shelter and working with the health, fire, and police department in housing and feeding those who were uprooted for the duration of the flood. I planned for these events and soon became part of the emergency management team. Several recreation departments in Pennsylvania have also participated in helping their communities during COVID by warehousing and distributing food to those in need, serving student lunches, and helping health service workers to screen visitors and patients. Being able to help and participate in a crisis will make you more essential to a community.
Seek Professional Development
My last suggestion to build long term advocacy is to seek professional development. There are many great books, excellent teachers, and fantastic courses and presentations out there that can help you to go where you want to go. As a greenhorn, I learned early on that there was much to be gained by being prepared, knowledgeable, and open. Long term advocacy means that you must continue to meet, educate, and convince those around you of your professionalism, your department’s competency, and the necessity of your services, programs, and facilities. Community needs, like people, can change over time. Your job is to assess those needs, plan for them, and meet them effectively and efficiently. Professional development can expand your knowledge and provide you with the tools to accomplish your goals. Five to 10 percent of your time (2-4 hours) each week should be committed to professional development.
Don’t be afraid to ask and ask again
As someone who runs an agency, department, or supervises others, you will be in a position to advocate. My father once told me, “You don’t get what you don’t ask for,” and it stuck. I remember this whenever I need to make a difficult ask. If your request is denied, find out why. Use the experience to examine your idea and make appropriate changes or find a better way to sell it. Don’t let a single rejection stop you. Often folks need time and multiple requests before they are convinced to support a project or program. Having the nerve to ask is half the battle; successfully advocating is what will get you over the line.
In summary, advocacy takes time and effort. However, taking steps in the short and long term can yield significant benefits for you and your organization. While everyone’s situation is unique, common strategies such as education, fostering personal connections, addressing needs, and developing persistence can reap the rewards for anyone in a position to advocate. Your mandate lies in the constitution and your firm belief in the value of recreation. I cannot think of better reasons.
Sources/links for article
Greener Parks for Health – NRPA Communication Toolkit
Re-Positioning to Be Essential; Senator Joe Simitians’s Tips for Successful Advocacy. Presented at the 2011 PRPS annual conference
Investing in Equitable Urban Park Systems Elridge, Burrowes, Spauster; Urban Institute July 2019
Green Infrastructure and Health- A Literature Review; NRPA and the Williamette Partnership.
Community Engagement Resource Guide: Creating Equitable Access to High-Performing Parks, NRPA 2019
Awareness and the Use of Parks, NRPA, 2019
Why Parks Matter, Paul Levy City Center Digest, Aug, 2019