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Creativity Matters: The Arts and Aging Toolkit
photo of woman watching a performance (Stagebridge)

Chapter 9: Public Awareness

Your dedication and enthusiasm shine through the music and bring so much enjoyment to all your listeners. For many who had not heard the group before, it was both a surprise and a treat! Thank you, thank you, thank you! Member, Board of Selectmen, Wayland, Massachusetts

Shifts in attitude and changes in policy have stimulated a growing awareness in the United States that older adults are vital assets to our communities—and that the arts are part of the process and part of the solution. Keeping the public awareness momentum moving is important not only to you and your program, but also to the arts and aging field as a whole, because “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Unlike marketing, which is geared toward finding participants, and unlike developing resources, raising public awareness ultimately improves the environment for all of our programs.

There is no one best way to build public awareness. Different methods work with different audiences, messages, and messengers. It’s important for each program and each organization to find the right fit, be creative and persistent, and push its message year-round. This responsibility is not just another task on your to-do list. It is an ongoing activity, accomplished in large measure through relationships and interactions with funders, elected officials, policy makers, and community leaders.

This section looks at:

9.1: Defining Terms

Public relations and advocacy both contribute to increasing public awareness. According to the Fundamentals of Arts Management, public relations consists of activities that

build goodwill within a community or audience. Public relations concerns how the public perceives and regards your work. Aims of public relations efforts might be to enhance visibility or credibility for your organization, to build trust with a particular market segment (often a new one), to develop a particular image for your organization (defining your niche or character), to inform your audiences of recent accomplishments, or to counteract general misperceptions, such as the effects of a particular controversy.107

The word advocacy intimidates some nonprofit leaders who believe that getting involved in advocacy will jeopardize their tax-exempt status or who think that they don’t know how to do it. Both of these assumptions are false. Their concern results, in part, from a conflation of the terms advocacy and lobbying. Thomas L. Birch, legislative counsel to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, explains the difference:

The words advocacy and lobbying are often confused. Advocacy encompasses a wide range of activities. Lobbying is a small part of advocacy; advocacy does not always involve lobbying.

Lobbying is about making positive change to laws that affect us and the causes we serve. Lobbying is trying to influence the voting of legislators; it is urging the passage (or defeat) of a bill in the legislature. Lobbying is citizen action at any level of government. It is part of the democratic process.

Advocacy is something all of us should do if we believe in the value of public support for the arts; it is democracy in action. Advocacy is building familiarity and trust between you and your elected officials. It is providing reliable information to legislators. Advocacy is offering a personal perspective where public policy decisions are made. Arts advocacy means speaking up for what we believe is important and talking about the arts with the people whose support and influence can help our cause.108

Advocacy, in other words, is increasing awareness and appreciation among elected officials, public and private funders, and policy makers of how arts programs enhance older adults’ quality of life and benefit the community. It is telling the story.

There are red states and blue states, but aging is purple. Dorcas Hardy, Chairman, Policy Committee, 2005 White House Conference on Aging

9.2: Identifying Audiences

In communicating the benefits of your arts and aging program, be strategic. What you say and how you say it—and to whom—are important. Key audiences are:

While implementing a comprehensive public awareness campaign is an option, time and dollars are precious commodities. As you look at these audiences and begin to think about priorities and strategies, consider what audience gives you the “biggest bang for the buck” and can best benefit you and your program.

9.3: Developing Messages

As a first step, consider why you want to increase public awareness. The answer is:

Program Example: Public Awareness Goals

The goals of the Arts and Inspiration Center developed by the Alzheimer’s Association’s Heart of America and Great Plains chapters are:

  1. To increase understanding about what happens in the Arts and Inspiration Center, therefore decreasing the unknown for the potential participant and his/her family
  2. To give an opportunity to talk about the importance of addressing Alzheimer’s disease in the early stages
  3. To inform the public about the various supportive services of the Alzheimer’s Association, the area agency on aging, and other community resources
  4. To give a different face to Alzheimer’s disease
  5. To give participants an opportunity to assume an advocacy role
  6. To allow community members to share their stories about experiences with Alzheimer’s disease
  7. To reduce stigma related to the disease and support a community role in helping those families that are facing this disease 109


Next, focus on the specific rationales that demonstrate these benefits. You don’t have to invent anything new; you already have the content in your grant applications and other funding requests; the overarching benefits; and the evaluation results that demonstrate your impact.

Ensure that your messages are compelling:

Program Example: Public Awareness Message

EngAGE: The Art of Active Aging sponsors a weekly one-hour radio show on the local Pacifica Network station. The organization describes the program this way:

Beamed from Santa Barbara to the Mexican border, Experience Talks is a live radio program that shares the experience of dynamic baby boomers and beyond in a way that communicates across generations.

Our program has changed over the two years we’ve been on the air, and so has our name. You may know us as Good for Life. Our tag line has also changed—from The Voice of Southern California’s Seniors, to The Voice of the 2nd 50 Years, to Experience Talks.

We’ve come to learn that it’s not so much the age of our guests that unites them, but their ability to learn from and pass on experience. Experience in the hands of people like Patagonia founder, Yvonne Chouinard, actor Ed Asner, State Senator Sheil Kuehl, and playwright John Patrick Shanley leads to reflection, perspective, and—dare we say—wisdom.

In a time when there is so much emphasis on the ephemeral—on passing trends, youth, and novelty—we feel inclined to give a voice to those who’ve seen a few things, to discuss the subjects that make a difference to how we view ourselves and our world, and perhaps to discover the things that endure.

We know that age isn’t necessarily an indicator of wisdom, but it’s the baby boomers and those beyond who—like it or not—are now our village elders. In seeking out what the best of them have to say, we hope to give you, the listener, something to reflect on, to smile about, to ponder, and to share with the people in your lives.

Sometimes the tag line says it all. So, we’re no longer Good for Life —we’re now simply Experience Talks. 111

9.4: Selecting Messengers

A rule of thumb in public awareness is that the people your program affects are the best messengers. Obviously, in the arts and aging field, this means the program participants. Family members, too, can speak eloquently about benefits. Community leaders—elected officials or business, foundation, or corporate executives—are also effective messengers. If you enlist their help, they can talk about your program to a variety of audiences in different settings. Indeed, your message—the combination of personal stories and the type of hard evidence that you’ve amassed from outcome evaluations—gives them the content they need to demonstrate their community involvement.

9.5: Developing Methods

Public awareness efforts must be ongoing. The success of advocacy, in particular, is directly related to your ability to cultivate policy makers and elected officials throughout the year and over time. Every opportunity that you have to talk or write about the benefits of your arts and aging program is an opportunity to increase public awareness.

In addition to the marketing strategies listed in chapter 6, try these methods:

Program Example: Creating Synergy

The Foundation for Quality Care’s Art from the Heart program is a visual arts competition among residents of long-term care facilities. The winners’ works illustrate a calendar, and additional top selections are framed for exhibition. These pieces are loaned to state-level elected officials to be displayed prominently in their offices. Each politician who participates has to pick up the work of art from the facility in which the older adult artist resides. The facility creates a celebratory event around this visit and invites members of the media to attend.

Meanwhile, the calendars are distributed widely to all elected officials and within all relevant state departments, such as health and human services. This practice personalizes residents not only to policy makers, but also to lobbyists and department staff, thus raising awareness.


Program Example: Using a Program to Increase Public Awareness

The creators of the Arts and Inspiration Center set up one-time groups in various settings such as retirement communities, senior housing, churches, and physicians’ offices. By participating in these groups, individuals learned about the actual programs at the centers. At the senior high-rise, for example, interested residents joined a sample Memories in the Making group, which they found enjoyable and meaningful, dispelling misconceptions of suitable activities for individuals with Alzheimer’s disease. The residents’ experience also catalyzed conversation about the importance of early diagnosis. In the physician’s office, staff and nurses participated and subsequently referred patients to the centers. 112


No matter what methods you choose, be persistent. If you want a funder or community leader to speak on your behalf or attend an event, don’t assume that a “no” means that he or she is not interested; perhaps there is just a schedule conflict. Keep extending the invitation, and explore other options for his or her involvement with your program.

Remember that the quality of your materials and presentations matters. Not only do the print pieces transmit your values and professionalism, but they also attract attention. Audiences will want to read something that looks good and listen to a message that is delivered effectively.

Keys Points about Public Awareness

Next: Chapter 10

Chapter 9 Notes

107. Shirley K. Sneve, with Dorothy Chen-Courtin and Barbara Schaffer Bacon, “Marketing: Tools for the Arts,” in Dreeszen, ed., Fundamentals of Arts Management, 306–7.
108. Thomas L. Birch, “Advocacy and Lobbying: Speaking Up for the Arts,” NASAA Advocate 10, no. 1 (2006): 1.
109. Creating an Arts & Inspiration Center (Kansas: Alzheimer’s Association, Heart of America and Great Plains Chapters, n.d.), 22.
110. Sneve, with Chen-Courtin and Bacon, “Marketing,” 311.
112. Creating an Arts & Inspiration Center, 22.

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Appendix 3:
Kairos Dance Theatre Support Letters (1) (2)