President's Corner

Turning the Corner

November 8, 2010

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

We are no longer a Foundation in its start-up years, but a Foundation with a track record of successful ideas, strategies and partners.

As Marguerite Casey Foundation approaches its 10th anniversary, we are at an exciting pivotal point. We are turning the corner into a new era in which we are no longer a Foundation in its start-up years, but a Foundation with a track record of successful ideas, strategies and partners. Through our 10 years of creative grant making and non-grantmaking experience, we have amassed an array of lessons, successes and even challenges that will guide our future course.

We reached this point through a convergence of key events, including the structuring of our relationship with Casey Family Programs, the move to our new office space in September 2010, and the consolidation of all we have learned through our grantmaking and through Equal Voice, culminating in lessons we took away from our national grantee convening in Chicago, September 26-28, 2010.

One of the signature achievements of the Foundation’s first 10 years is the evolution of Equal Voice. It grew from the idea of a finite campaign to raise the visibility of family issues to the establishment of new partnerships and community-based efforts — new ways of working and organizing families — throughout the country. After the 2008 Equal Voice conventions, many of our grantees adopted Equal Voice as the framework for their own work. That framework places a priority on lifting up families through a holistic approach to advocacy and family leadership development; on network building and collaboration; on challenging traditional lines of division; and on upholding the vision in which America’s promise of prosperity, security and opportunity is enjoyed by all families.

We continue to learn from our grantees. Just as many of our grantees came to view Equal Voice as the framework for their organizing and advocacy, it has become clear that Equal Voice captures the essence of Marguerite Casey Foundation’s work. In fact, we have turned the corner to see Equal Voice as the framework that will guide and align all of our work.

Years ago, we asked our grantees: What would it take to build a movement of low-income families? What role should Marguerite Casey Foundation play? Our grantees told us it would take all of us coming together. No individual organization could do it alone, but maybe together we could spark something big. And our grantees asked if Marguerite Casey Foundation could play the role of convener — to bring people together and to create a vehicle for this collective work.

We jumped in. We followed our founding brand promise: Ask, Listen, Act. We organized convenings and planning groups, and our effort evolved into what we now know as Equal Voice, a dynamic cross-regional, cross-issue, cross-strategy campaign and framework for building the base of families and for creating change.

Equal Voice has taken us to unexpected places. It took us from our 2007 grantee convening to a year long campaign to develop a family platform of issues and policy recommendations, through 65 town hall meetings, and to the 2008 conventions to ratify the Equal Voice National Family Platform with 15,000 families in attendance.

In 2009, Equal Voice took us to Washington, D.C., where 150 families presented the platform to elected officials. It then led organizations in our grantmaking regions to advance the family platform in their own communities by forming or joining local and regional networks working on family issues; by using Equal Voice based training curricula to teach staff and board members how to be more effective; and by developing advocacy and organizing campaigns focused on low-income families.

Equal Voice sparked something in our grantees, and we responded with a mini-grant program to support their local efforts. In 2009, we awarded grants to 18 organizations that had picked up the Equal Voice issues and strategies and worked on them in their own communities. This year, we awarded grants to 20 organizations, all of which are working to build a movement of low-income families and to reflect Equal Voice in their work.

We also explored nongrantmaking activities that could help low-income families’ voices be heard, such as sharing our approach to movement building with colleagues and publicizing the work of our grantees. In addition, we pursued tactics that challenge the rules by which most Foundations play, such as launching an online newspaper, producing a documentary about the Equal Voice campaign and conventions, and developing a suite of communication tools for our grantees and family leaders.

Equal Voice set our grantees in motion, and recently we have come to understand and appreciate the impact Equal Voice has had on the Foundation itself. The dynamism of Equal Voice has meant continuous evaluation and innovation for the Foundation, not only in our activities but in how we approach our work.

To put it most simply, we now see Equal Voice as the heart of Marguerite Casey Foundation’s work. We have moved from seeing Equal Voice as a parallel effort that complements and amplifies our grantmaking to seeing Equal Voice as the framework for our work, our grantmaking and our partnerships with grantee organizations.

What does this mean? It is not new, and yet it captures what we hold most dear in our approach:

  • We seek to partner with organizations that:
    • Prioritize working with others and that are active in networks that build collective power.
    • Engage in multiyear dialogues and collaboration with us and with our other grantees.
    • Help us achieve the goals of Equal Voice:
    • Advance the national family platform, its vision and priorities.
    • Build the base of families that are advocating for change.
    • Influence policies.
    • Advance a unified message.
    • Build an infrastructure that will sustain collaborative efforts in the future.
  • We seek to amplify our grantmaking and partnerships by:
    • Serving as a coordinator and convener of our partners and their collaborative efforts.
    • Building the collective capacity of our grantees and their communities to organize families and foster family leadership.
    • Building the collective capacity of our grantees and their communities to organize families and foster family leadership.
    • Developing and implementing communication tools that will insert the voices of families into public discourse and policy decisions.

Equal Voice is a framework for spurring innovation, which we have seen in our grantees and in our own work. Our next step, as we turn this momentous corner, is to focus our thinking on the challenge of how to advance Equal Voice and to maximize its impact on framing our work. This will require a focus on three key areas:

  1. Accountability: How will we hold our grantee partners and ourselves accountable?
  2. Structure: What structure will sustain and build upon our efforts?
  3. Power: How can we leverage our collective power to advance Equal Voice?

During the grantee convening in September, we engaged our grantees in conversations about these questions and gathered an incredible breadth of ideas. We learned that the majority of our grantees are ready- they may even be ahead of us- to use Equal Voice as a framework for organizing families and in their understanding of its potential. We learned we must be unambiguous about our expectations and plans, transparent with our decisions, and willing to hold our partners to the highest possible standards of action and accountability while meeting those same standards in everything we do.

In the next few months, we plan to address how to consolidate and advance Equal Voice and to present a plan to the board of directors for consideration at its February 2011 meeting. The implications will likely affect how we do our work internally, including a reconsideration of the role of our (currently unfilled) public policy officer position, an enhancement to the support that program officers provide to grantees, and a rethinking of the role of our national grantee convenings.

This is an exciting moment. It is a moment to focus on strategy and the strategic priorities that will allow us to build something that lifts up what unites our families and that cultivates hope, joy and change in our families and in our country. I look forward to entering into this new era for Marguerite Casey Foundation with your continued leadership, insights and guidance.

Conclusion and Questions

I look forward to our discussion in November, and I am pleased to leave you with the following questions:

  • Do you see Marguerite Casey Foundation as being in a moment of turning the corner?
  • What are your thoughts about what may come next for Marguerite Casey Foundation and for Equal Voice?
  • What ideas are you interested in seeing the Foundation develop over the next few months?
  • Are we asking the right questions to achieve our goals?

Turning the Corner

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