Public Education v. Advocacy–an important distinction for library trustees

This piece appeared in the November 2017 issue of Trustee Hotline, published by Library Journal. 

This fall, the director of the New Jersey Library Association asked me to put together a list of public education/advocacy dos and don’ts for library trustees, staff and friends. These are important not only so library supporters can stay on the right side of the law, but in order for everyone involved—trustees, Friends, or staff—to effectively run their campaigns, whether they are leaders or part of the team.

Basic Rules:

  • No taxpayer funds can be used on advocacy or vote yes activities. This includes working hours of staff as well as those of the library director. The library’s website can be used to educate but not advocate for people to vote yes. Public education is telling folks the basics—the who, what, where, when, how much, what happens if it passes or fails (for a voter initiative) or what happens if you don’t get the funding you’re asking for (if it’s going to your local elected officials for an increase).
  • Advocacy during voter initiatives is different from the everyday library advocacy of speaking out on behalf of the library or talking about what the library does. When staff is not working, they can advocate for the library but it has to be of their own free will. There can be no coercion regarding staff involvement when they’re off the clock.

Trustees:

  • As a library trustee, you can educate.
    • Talk about voter initiatives with facts and numbers and some passion but do not say, “Vote Yes.”
    • Advocate for your library by talking to local elected officials who provide funding about the library’s fiscal needs and how the library uses that funding.
    • Let the public know what the library does for the community, which can include providing statistics from your library’s annual report and data showing the public service return on investment.
  • You don’t give up your first amendment rights when you become a library trustee.
    • If you ask voters to vote yes, you MUST be clear that you are speaking as a private citizen and a taxpayer and NOT as a library trustee.
    • Use the same facts and numbers that are in the public education talking points/materials to express your passion for the library, but make it clear you’re speaking as a private citizen.
    • If you write a letter to the editor and ask people to vote yes, do not identify yourself as a library trustee. If you write a public education letter to the editor without a vote yes message, you can identify yourself as a trustee.
  • Trustees can approve the preparation and dissemination of materials, websites, and social media, that educate the public. These come from the library and can have board members’ names on it.

Friends:

  • How Friends groups advocate for their libraries depends on their tax status:
    • If your Friends group is a separate 501(c)3, you can use as much of your budget as you’d like for public education. However, you can only use up to 20 percent of your annual budget on advocacy.
    • If your Friends group uses the library’s tax ID number (essentially acting as a program of the library), it cannot advocate—only educate.
    • If your Friends group has its own tax ID number but is not a 501(c)3, you can use as much of your budget as you want on advocacy activities.
  • Friends can produce materials, social media, or websites as long as they’re working within the limitations of their tax status.
    • Advocating for the library on Facebook, Twitter, or other social media channels is free. It has no budget impact unless a post is boosted.
    • Websites can be easily developed to give information on the library and provide people with a platform to show their support.
    • Direct mail and other printed materials may well be the most expensive part of an advocacy program, but are a worthwhile investment. It is the best way to get directly to your voters. You may also want to invest in social media advertising. You can target Facebook ads just to your community.

Staff:

  • The library director should never be put in a situation of saying Vote Yes. S/he is taxpayer funded 24/7, 365 days a year. Anti-tax folks wait for directors to slip up.
  • Library staff, when they are at the library, cannot advocate. They cannot ask patrons to vote yes. They can only educate. The role of staff in advocacy activities when they are not on the clock is a personal decision that staff members can make. There can be no perceived or actual coercion on the part of administration to get staff involved.
  • Library staff and the director can be involved in preparing public information materials.

It seems pretty simple: taxpayer funds cannot be used to say Vote Yes, but library trustees don’t give up their first amendment rights to free speech—they just have to be clear that they’re speaking as private citizens, not trustees.

It is absolutely essential that trustees understand the difference between public education and advocacy. In other words, they have to know what they’re getting into when they engage in these efforts for their library—and they have to make them both an absolute priority. This past fall, I worked on two campaigns. One had a library board president who embraced the leadership role, understood the difference of the dos and don’ts outlined above, listened to advice, rallied the troops, and won $130,000 more in funding with 71% of the vote.

The other campaign I worked on had a group of well-meaning trustees but no real leadership. The board president was torn in a number of different directions and wouldn’t delegate. It is essential to empower the rest of a library board as well as reach out to community members who want to help. The more you delegate and share responsibility, the more work will get done, the more momentum will build and the more likely you are to win. This library didn’t.

Here’s the bottom line—know the difference between public education and advocacy so that you can lead, follow, or get out of the way.