President's Corner

Equal Voice: The Road of Hope

August 6, 2012

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

We believe that families can lead a movement to bring about long-term policy and social change.

Equal Voice has become the embodiment of Marguerite Casey Foundation’s goals and mission to support a family-led movement: It is not simply a grantmaking and communication strategy but a philosophy —the belief that families can lead a movement to bring about long-term policy and social change that will improve their economic and social well-being.

I think of Equal Voice as a belief system that unites people who, at first glance, may not seem to have much in common. Although we are from different cultures, different parts of the country, and have different experiences, we come together as Equal Voice because we have a shared vision: that no family should live in poverty; that all families must have equal opportunity to prosper.

To achieve that shared vision requires that we embrace the fact that we are all responsible for the well-being of families.

Equal Voice is also our grantees and the cross-issue networks, constituent bases and leaders they have developed and engaged to further families’ impact on local, regional and national policy, an opportunity for families to lead in their own voice.

Finally, Equal Voice is the voice of families and a barometer by which to measure the progress made on issues affecting poor families. Through Equal Voice, more than 40,000 families — most of them connected with a grantee organization — have participated in the development of a national family platform that gives voice to their issues and provides a tool for families to speak and advocate on their own behalf — first, in 2008, through the Equal Voice for America’s Families campaign and conventions and, in May 2012, at the first online Equal Voice national convention.

It is clear that Equal Voice has demonstrated its effectiveness as an organizing and base-building tool as well as a communication strategy. The challenge for the Foundation now is to balance its relationship with its grantees and its deepening relationship with families mobilized through Equal Voice.

I believe articulation of Equal Voice as a philosophy and values system will help increase the staff’s, grantees’ and families’ understanding of Equal Voice; ensure .we advance a unified vision; help define our expectations of each other; and engage our hearts and minds in a commitment to a family-led movement.

Putting Families First

As Equal Voice continues to put a face to poverty and give voice to poor families, we do so with the understanding that philanthropy has changed little since the Rockefeller Foundation made its first grant in 1913. Yet, the world around us has changed dramatically: The number of people living in poverty is the highest it has been since the 1960s, and, through technology, we have the potential to connect millions of those people. Equal Voice provides the opportunity to reach beyond the base of the Foundation and its grantees to build a national family constituency to influence public policy and change the “lift oneself out of poverty by the bootstrap” narrative to one that addresses the policies, practices and attitudes that keep families in poverty.

Ten years ago, the Foundation adopted a grantmaking strategy to support a family-led movement to lift families out of poverty: We would provide long-term general support to anchor grassroots organizations committed to working across issues, regions and ethnicities; those organizations, in turn, would support families advocating on their own behalf. ·

If we had chosen the traditional grantmaking framework, we would have supported family empowerment through organizational structures- such as community-based organizations: Philanthropy funds organizations; organizations support communities. But, in that framework, families are consumers, not architects.

Equal Voice asks organizations to lead with families. If successful, that strategy will shift the balance of power to the 49 million people who live in poverty: Those families will be seen as a viable voting block whose concerns and issues shape public policy.

Equal Voice inserts families in the middle of the relationship between funder and grantee. Current philanthropic models and theories do not support that construct. The relationship — attitudes, expectations — between a Foundation and its grantees is defined by the traditional role of Foundation as grantmaker rather than as active partner in executing and implementing a national strategy to build a movement base of families.

Our approach asks program officers not only to administer grants and build relationships with grantees but also to connect our partners to the ideals and potential of Equal Voice and to evaluate their effectiveness in advancing not only organizational goals but those of Equal Voice as well. That requires our program officers to widen their lens: to think of themselves not only as grantmakers but as messengers of the philosophy embodied in Equal Voice. That may mean, for example, that program officers’ site visits will include connecting to the community the grantee serves rather than having a relationship only with the grantee.

The Challenge of Leading with Families

Before the 2012 Equal Voice online convention and during the convention, families identified and ranked 13 issues of importance to them. Education ranked first. No matter their age, race, ethnicity or culture, families told us that investing in their educational futures and those of their children was of utmost importance.

That families prioritized issues other than those grantees were working on disconcerted many of the grantees. For the families, however, the process of voting was exhilarating. In several follow-up interviews with family and grantee participants, the power of the convention was in families determining the issues.

In Greenville, Miss., participants were so energized by the convention that, afterwards, they canvassed the neighborhood asking those who hadn’t attended the gathering to vote on the issues. And, in Los Angeles, a group of mothers who participated in the convention asked about starting their own Equal Voice for Mothers group.

However, just as the 2008 Equal Voice campaign surfaced challenges in nurturing a family-led movement, so did the 2012 online convention. Eighty-two percent of the participants in the 2012 Equal Voice online convention had not taken part in the 2008 campaign and convention or in the subsequent 2009 policy convention. Why were the families involved in 2008 not involved in 2012? Do grantees need resources to build and maintain constituent databases? And, why did fewer than half of our grantee partners participate in the online convention?

Both conventions also created struggles within the Foundation. In the past, I have attributed internal struggles to interdepartmental issues. Only now have I come to realize that at the heart of these challenges is the fundamental question “What does it mean to lead with families?” Equal Voice asks that we hold — in one hand — organizations and families. ‘As grantmakers, how do we do that? How do we support grantees while elevating the voices of families? Why is it so difficult internally to accept that if we lead with Equal Voice, we can be both a funder and a base builder without overstepping?

As we look to 2016 and the creation of a membership structure, we must confront those questions headon and seize the opportunities presented by Equal Voice. Internally, our grantmaking will remain the same, as we are committed to supporting organizations that lead with families, and we will take the tirne to ensure that the Foundation staff is aligned, with our mission and speaking with one voice about Equal Voice.

Equal Voice 2016

In the last two years, we have sought input to chart our next steps with Equal Voice: In a listening tour of our grantmaking regions, we asked our grantees what should corne next; we interviewed more than 40 colleagues and grantee representatives to gather ideas; and grantees convened focus groups, researched options and presented ideas for building a structure that would support coordinated action.

We drew on that input to produce a five-year plan that will guide the Foundation’s efforts to achieve two overarching goals by 2016: 1) an Equal Voice membership structure that functions as a coordinating entity for our grantee partners and families and that influences public discourse and policy to the benefit of families, and 2) engaged families.

We don’t seek to create a separate organization where one is not needed, but we recognize the need for a structure that brings organizations and families together beyond geography, using new technologies and innovative approaches. We look to learn from existing models and from the opportunities that new technology creates for such a structure.

When we sought input, we heard loud and clear that a role the Foundation can play is developing tools and supporting strategies to engage- organize and mobilize- families. For that reason, we plan to:

  • Position the national family platform as a tool for family organizing, tying it when possible to local, regional and state efforts.
  • Provide support for efforts to increase voter participation.
  • Engage youth in our work by building the capacity of organizations to reach out to and involve youth.
  • Build and use technology tools that will provide the infrastructure and vehicles necessary to coordinate outreach and build our impact.

We have formed the Equal Voice Advance Team, a group of 35 grantee representatives who will serve as a brain trust — that is, they will gather ideas, act as a sounding board for strategies, and advise us on the best use of our resources.

With the addition of a director of strategic capacity and the formation of the Equal Voice Advance Team, we are ready to explore the development of an Equal Voice membership structure to take Equal Voice to the next level.

Internal Strengths

The Equal Voice movement building strategy rests on three pillars: 1) grantmaking to support organizations that engage and empower families; 2) collective capacity to bring grantees and families together; and 3) communications to elevate the voices of families.

Our communication efforts have gone beyond promoting the Foundation or advancing the work of the grantees. Before and during the 2012 Equal Voice online convention, 1.9 million people were introduced to Equal Voice by our message “Equal Voice for America’s Families.” People from around the country clicked our ad “Vote for Families on May 20”; others ‘liked’ our “Every Issue Is a Family Issue” postcards on Facebook; and others read the Equal Voice newspaper. As Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center for Community Change remarked, “Equal Voice is the right model and right message at the right time.”

The Equal Voice newspaper, our social media campaign and Maria Full of Hope, our youth empowerment project, have helped push out the Equal Voice message and framework well beyond our grantee base. We strive to position Equal Voice as a shared vision- one that families, the grantees, the Foundation, policymakers and the public at large can achieve together.

The road before us is that of hope. Each challenge presents us- families, grantees and the Foundation — an opportunity to find new ways to build this road together. We are all travelers on this road. We learn as we go. And as rocky and complex as this journey may be, there is no greater reward than to know that the road we are building leads to a better future for families.

I look to you for your guidance and recommendations as we continue to work to ensure that Equal Voice — the voice of families — realizes its full potential.

Questions

  1. What does it mean to “lead with families”?
  2. What responsibility do we have to the families mobilized through Equal Voice who are not part of a grantee organization?

Equal Voice: The Road of Hope

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