Lessons Learned from Saving the Historic Tax Credit: Launching the Campaign

By Special Contributor posted 05-23-2018 16:50


By Renee Kuhlman, Shaw Sprague, Michael Phillips, Andy Grabel, and Sarah Heffern

On December 20, 2017, during the final hours of congressional action on the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, the historic tax credit (HTC) was added back into the bill. The HTC is the single most important incentive for the preservation of our nation’s historic buildings and has been instrumental in preserving more than 42,000 nationally significant resources. The National Trust for Historic Preservation, the National Trust Community Investment Corporation, and the Historic Tax Credit Coalition were able to catalyze strong political support for the HTC through our most significant political advocacy campaign in decades.

By documenting our successes and lessons learned, we hope to assist future advocacy efforts at all levels of government. This three-part series covers launching the HTC campaign, building an advocacy network to connect with legislators, and messaging through media engagement and high-level resources. 

Sengelmann Hall in Schulenburg, Texas, is an example of a successful historic tax credit project. | Credit: Stern Bucek Architects


The National Trust for Historic Preservation has undertaken many advocacy campaigns in the past, but none have been as complex, enduring, and impactful as this one. The historic tax credit (HTC) campaign prompted the largest ever response by National Trust members to an advocacy message, motivated record-breaking social media outreach, generated the greatest number of media impressions ever from the preservation community, and secured legislative success in an incredibly challenging political environment. Against significant odds, preservationists aligned with business stakeholders across the country to prevent the repeal of the most significant preservation tool of the past three decades. 

Assembling a Campaign Team

The National Trust, along with the National Trust Community Investment Corporation (NTCIC) and the Historic Tax Credit Coalition (HTCC), initiated a long-term advocacy campaign based on a clear understanding of the commitment that would be needed to successfully protect the HTC. Throughout the campaign, executive leadership of the National Trust, NTCIC, and HTCC met regularly to oversee changes, maintain momentum, troubleshoot breakdowns, and launch bold ideas within the campaign. 

To carry out such a significant policy initiative, both the National Trust and NTCIC committed to forming a campaign team, including adding staff to focus almost exclusively on HTC advocacy. The HTCC, meanwhile, increased its membership dues to build the financial resources needed to hire a team of lobbyists. 

The Trust and NTCIC initiated the HTC campaign around a large table, inviting many different departments to contribute to the conversation. We convened a broad-based campaign team to handle management, advocacy, public affairs, marketing, and development. The team met every two weeks to report recent activities and assign tasks, giving each department the opportunity to update the group and refine advocacy objectives. 

Cincinnati's Union Terminal was brought back to life through the use of the historic tax credit. | Credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation 

Uniting Around a Message

To establish the right tone for the campaign, the National Trust for Historic Preservation began by investing in public opinion polling to determine whether voters had a positive perception of HTCs and whether they thought that HTCs benefitted their communities. The results revealed strong bipartisan support for continuing the HTC. This information was invaluable to us when we launched the campaign. Having a sense of whether most voters agree with your position provides confidence when you walk into an elected official’s office and request their support. 

The HTC campaign began and ended with a core message: rehabilitation projects that use HTCs create jobs and provide a consistently strong return on federal investment. More important than ensuring that legislators fully understood how the HTC works was establishing an association between the incentive and good economics. Thus, rather than trying to convey its value for preserving architectural heritage or promoting smart urban design, the campaign focused on the credit’s ability to create jobs and revitalize communities. Making this case required us to understand the priorities of our target audiences and deliver the same message through a variety of messengers. To that end, different team members disseminated the message through different channels and to different audiences, including legislative offices, the media, HTC stakeholders, and donors. 

Social media was one of the key communication methods used to keep on message during the campaign to protect the historic tax credit. 

Assembling an Advocacy Network

When our campaign began, the HTC had been a permanent part of the tax code for more than 25 years and there was no advocacy network in place to defend it. In fact, many people did not know the credit existed, let alone understood its multiple benefits. Accordingly, the HTC campaign team began with a significant outreach effort that included state and local partners; Main Street organizations; economic development agencies; and local affiliates of national partners—for example, the American Institute of Architects.

Educating stakeholders required us to stay the course as prospects of tax reform waxed and waned with the shifting political winds. Taking note of successes along the way helped us all maintain perspective during the lengthy campaign. While ensuring that the HTC survived a tax overhaul was our ultimate objective, the ability of the National Trust, NTCIC, and HTCC—in partnership with many other diverse voices—to help a broad range of advocates effectively demonstrate the economic and heritage preservation benefits that the HTC offers communities had a broader impact. We familiarized many legislators with the value not only of the credit but also of preservation overall. The benefit to the preservation field is reflected in the increased number of legislators currently cosponsoring the Historic Tax Credit Improvement Act

Renee Kuhlman is the director of policy outreach, Shaw Sprague is the senior director of government relations, Andy Grabel is the associate director of public affairs, and Sarah Heffern is the director of social media at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Michael Phillips is the public policy manager at the National Trust Community Investment Corporation. 

Read the other posts in this series building an advocacy network to connect with legislators, and messaging through media engagement and high-level resources. 


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