President's Corner

Achieving Alignment at Every Level

November 12, 2012

Luz Vega-Marquis
By Luz Vega-Marquis
President and CEO

What does it mean to lead with families?

In my August 2012 report to you, I raised the challenge of leading with families and achieving alignment at every level of Marguerite Casey Foundation, which is essential as we look to 2016 and the creation of an infrastructure to support a national Equal Voice membership organization.

At the core of the alignment challenge is the question What does it mean to lead with families? It means that we align externally with our grantees, partners and families, and align internally in the way we work and in the way we steward our resources to ensure we are all working together toward the same outcome — a movement of and for low-income families.

Peter Murray of Accelerate Change shared with me his paper The Secret of Scale: Building Large-Scale Citizen Organizations. In it, he concludes that the largest and most successful membership organizations in the country share the same organizing model functional organizing. Functional organizations — Murray cites AARP, labor unions, churches, and professional associations, among others — attract members with benefits and services and then build on that base to advocate for their members.

In Murray’s model, functional organizing comprises three concentric circles: 1) a membership community, 2) benefits and services and 3) a media platform.

Incredibly, those are the three areas that our own research and our grantee partners and family leaders have led us to in our planning for Equal Voice. In fact,’ during our July 2012 national convening, we asked our family and grantee participants to offer their ideas in those three areas.

As you will see in the proceedings paper from the convening, the family and grantee leaders who met in Los Angeles with us shared a range of ideas, and we continue to sift through them to guide our next steps. I am working with Lupe Lopez, our director of strategic collective capacity, to refine our next steps, and we will present our strategy and plans to you at the February board meeting.

The alignment of what families are telling us with Peter Murray’s research on large-scale citizen organizations assures me that we are on the right track. Murray says the next generation of functional organizations will have to adapt to economic, technological and cultural shifts that are pushing membership organizations to be network-centric, diverse, social-network driven and global (meaning they will organize at the global/macro level while developing local leadership and engagement).

Again, those elements reflect what we have learned to date through Equal Voice and what we have charted for ourselves in our five-year plan. It is heartening to get this affirmation from outside research and to see that our families and our grantees, as usual, are providing us with the leadership and ideas we need to build a movement and a structure that will increase their collective power.

Families and grantees are motivated, ready and inspired to take their work to a new level, and they look to Equal Voice and the possibility of a national membership structure as an opportunity to spread the vision of an equal voice for all families. Our families have led us to this point, and they will remain at the center of the planning and conceptualization of the national structure — and at the center of all our strategies.

We must be ready to follow the lead of our families and to seize all opportunities to create change for families. That is why it is so important for us to be fully aligned at every level of the organization, both externally and internally.

During the past couple of months, I have engaged in conversations with the Leadership Team and staff about what it means to lead with families, and to explore how to maximize our internal alignment. I have learned that we have some philosophical and operational differences; more important, I have learned that we have the opportunity to spark creativity by exploring and embracing those differences while ensuring that everyone is moving in the same direction.

Within the Foundation, we have surfaced different perspectives on what it means to lead with families, and those perspectives are rooted in different theories about how movements are formed and how families are organized. We have different perspectives about philanthropy and Foundations because people come to Marguerite Casey Foundation with a range of experiences and skills that shape their perspectives. We need to see these differences as a strength.

Our task is to create more space for our different perspectives, experiences and skills to build on each other and to ensure that our work does not become stratified internally. We see successes and good work in different parts of our organization, but all of us will do even better by aligning how we do our work and how we work together. Each subsystem within the organization — be it communications or grantmaking or finances or administration — must know the needs and plans of the other subsystems and proceed responsively. Without that alignment, we may have the best plans — even plans that are ahead of the best thinking in the field — but the execution will fall short.

Our work is important and difficult, inspiring and complex, and we must be strong internally to carry it to the fullest potential. In the next couple of months, I will continue to push my Leadership Team and staff on these issues. In October, we had a full-day staff retreat to discuss and chart steps to change the way we work together. Those efforts will lead up to our annual staff retreat at the end of November and set the tone for 2013.

The Road of Hope Convening

In keeping with Marguerite Casey Foundation’s mission to lead with families, the 2012 Equal Voice National Convening in July included family representatives. At the August 2012 board meeting, we discussed how successful the convening was and how inspirational it was for the participants. The convening proceedings paper- included in the November 2012 board book — outlines the highlights and the lessons learned.

Rather than focusing on discussions with grantee staff, the 2012 convening facilitated leader and family engagement. At the end of the convening, we asked families to give us feedback. Here is a summary of their responses:

  • Families left the convening more familiar with the mission, vision and goals of Equal Voice and felt part of a movement that is becoming national in scope.
  • The convening provided participants with tested tools·- including the national family platform and social media- that advanced their knowledge of movement building. The national family platform, for example, provided participants with the opportunity to start conversations on policy issues they themselves are not working on and encouraged them to reach out to other leaders and families that are engaged in that work.
  • Many commented on the importance of telling their stories and listening to others’ stories. Participants see the videos and stories shared during the convening as tools to engage families and to share through the Equal Voice newspaper.
  • The convening inspired and energized families to expand their work to include youth.
  • The most valuable aspects of the convening to participants were networking, learning and idea sharing, the regional submeetings, technology and communications, learning more about the Foundation, the focus on youth performers, and the keynote presentations by Freeman A. Hrabowski Ill.

Equal Voice Advance Team

Marguerite Casey and its grantees created the Equal Voice Advance Team (EVAT) in April 2012 to lay the groundwork for the 2016 launch of a national Equal Voice membership organization of low-income families. EVAT is modeled after our movement building study group, which helped shape the 2008 Equal Voice conventions, and includes members of that group. The team’s task is to analyze structural options for building a multimillion-member organization that will be the voice of low-income families and connect our grantee partners across regions to achieve national power and influence.

Key questions that have emerged include the following:

  • Which politically active membership-based infrastructures are successful?
  • What methods are available to communicate through technology?
  • How do we ensure the processes we use are democratic and involve families in the design and decision-making processes?
  • What is the role of national grantee organizations in this process?
  • How do we enhance and not duplicate what is already in motion?

The Equal Voice network weavers — established in 2006 to support our subregional strategy — have strengthened grantee networking; in turn, the networked grantees have produced policy wins and effective messaging. For example, the 10-member Rio Grande Equal Voice Network helped prevent 80 anti-immigrant bills from passing in the Texas Legislature, and the 17-member Equal Voice for Southern California Families network has endorsed in Los Angeles and Orange counties the tax-increases of state ballot Proposition 30.

We want to further develop this infrastructure by 1) strengthening current Equal Voice networks and alliances and 2) supporting the growth of emerging Equal Voice structures. To do so, we have created the Network Weaver Team, which includes all the network weavers, a representative from the Communications Department, and the Strategic Collective Capacity staff. This team will meet quarterly with the goal of building grantees’ political power across geographies. The team will serve as a liaison between the regions/states and the Foundation’s movement building strategies and think through how the networks can actively participate in designing the grantees’ national infrastructure.

As we begin this journey to create an Equal Voice membership organization in partnership with grantees and families- to influence public discourse and public policy to the benefit of families we will continue to ask ourselves the hard questions:

  • Are we leading with families?
  • What benefits can a membership organization offer to families?
  • How can a membership organization help increase the political power of grantees and families?
  • Which communication strategy will ensure that grantees and families can shape public policy and change attitudes about poverty and the poor?

With attention to alignment and a strong strategic direction, we will fulfill the promise of Equal Voice.

Achieving Alignment at Every Level