May 26, 2015

How to Save a Place: Become an Advocate

Note: This Place Matters is a campaign that the National Trust started in 2009, before Black Lives Matter had come into being as a movement. Out of respect for Black Lives Matter and the important message behind it, we retired the campaign in June 2020. We encourage National Trust supporters to instead celebrate places that are important to them using the hashtags #SavingPlaces or #TellTheFullStory.

Over the course of this month's How to Save a Place toolkit series, we've covered a lot of ground: managing your expectations during a preservation project; understanding the difference between federal, state, and local groups; learning the fundraising basics; sorting through the various types of historic designations, and more. Now, it's time to start thinking like an advocate, because getting other people to support your project -- from your friends and neighbors to government officials -- will be critical to the success of your preservation efforts.

Build Grassroots Support

While it can be tempting to start at the top and go straight to the highest-level leader you can think of, it can be equally helpful to start with a grassroots campaign to galvanize the local community. Then, when you approach government leadership, you'll be able to demonstrate that the place you're trying to save has a lot of people pulling for it.

One of our favorite tactics here at the National Trust to suggest is heart-bombing. It's fun, positive, and a terrific way to get lots of great visuals of people interacting with historic places. Best of all, it's easy to pull off -- all you need is a group of building-lovers and elementary school art supplies (think construction paper, scissors, markers, and glue). Set a date and time to meet up with your hand-made hearts, and show a threatened building your love.

Another great way to gather supporters and build buzz both off- and online is through the This Place Matters campaign. Like heart-bombing, it's easy -- just print a sign, take a photo, and share it with the #ThisPlaceMatters hashtag -- and ask others to do the same. Keep an eye on the hashtag, and when you see other folks sharing your site, reach out to them to become more involved in your campaign.

Heart-bombing is a fun, positive, and a terrific way to get lots of great visuals of people interacting with historic places.

Activate Your Team

Once you have your advocates on board, it's important to make sure they have something to do after showing their love. A good next step can be a petition from a site such as, where anyone can build a social media-friendly petition. Offline petitions are useful, too. Just make sure that if you're going to ask for people's email addresses and you want to be able to email them again, include a check box so signers can opt in to getting messages from your group.

Of course, getting offline signatures can require taking your message out into the community through street canvassing. Enthusiastic advocates can make a huge difference in getting your message out -- and more names on your petition. Be sure your team is prepared with the details they need to answer questions (prep a one-pager with easy-to-remember responses to common inquiries), a handout with additional information, and never underestimate the power of props. Seriously: a fun gimmick that captures your enthusiasm will grab people's eye as they're heading about their business.

If you've got people who would rather talk on the phone that chat with people on the sidewalk, consider phone banking as an option for them. This is especially helpful when tied with an online petition, as your phone bankers can give people the web address of the petition to sign as part of their call script.

And if getting as many eyeballs as possible for your place-saving project is a goal, a "honk and wave" might be just the thing. Think gigantic signs, pom-poms, and other bold expressions of enthusiasm displayed from a highway overpass or high-traffic intersection. Your spirited group of preservationists can help get drivers and passers-by fired up with their passion for the cause.

During a "honk and wave," your spirited group of preservationists can help get drivers and passers-by fired up for the cause.

Take it to the (Grass) Top

Unless you happen to be lucky enough to have high-powered decision-makers among the members of your street or telephone teams, the next step in advocating is getting your message -- and your petition signatures -- in front of the government leaders who can impact your project. This effort is called lobbying, and while it might bring to mind Washington power brokers and expensive steak dinners, in reality, it is something anyone can do.

Lobbying is most effective when there's something specific for lawmakers to act upon, so time your meeting request when they are going to be considering the project you're interested in. Prepare for your meeting by gathering accurate, factual material to support your position, and build that information into a brief document you can leave behind as a reminder. Keep your examples as specific and local as possible -- lawmakers always want to know how their districts will be impacted by their decisions.

As you plan for your meeting, don't forget to focus on the basics:

  • Identify yourself and the project you're representing.
  • Be succinct and clear about your position.
  • Have your research readily available.
  • Follow up quickly on any outstanding questions.
  • And of course, say thank you. (Your mom was totally right about that one.)

Also, don't limit yourself to thinking that lobbying is done only at the federal level. You can also focus on the same kind of relationship-building and face-to-face advocacy at the state and local levels -- because, as noted in earlier posts, preservation decisions are made at all levels of government.

Sarah Heffern, the National Trust's former director of social media, embraces all things online and pixel-centric, but she’s also a hard-core building hugger, having first fallen for historic places in a fifth grade “Built Environment” class.

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