Child Advocates Find Voice in Togetherness

Print More

When leaders in Arizona’s legislature proposed slashing funds for children and youth programs in the state budget early this year, the Children’s Action Alliance wasted no time in mounting a counterattack.

Within 24 hours, Susan Gerard, the governor’s health and welfare policy adviser, got an e-mail from the alliance that rebutted the proposals so well that she forwarded it untouched to the governor’s media staff, which used it to criticize the legislature’s budget plan. “Our press people didn’t have to change a word,” Gerard says. “It was all there.”

Anyone who thinks it’s tough to get lawmakers to pay attention to children’s issues these days might learn something from the Children’s Action Alliance, whose executive director was named last year by the Arizona Republic as one of the top 25 leaders in the state. The alliance’s accomplishments include persuading lawmakers to beef up early childhood education and family support programs in the mid-1990s, helping to pass the state’s children’s health program in 1998 and hosting a gubernatorial forum last fall that was attended by every major candidate.

The alliance has been one of the stars of the National Association of Child Advocates (NACA), a network of statewide nonprofits from 44 states that has grown significantly in size and influence in recent years, but stands at a crossroads that could either boost or diminish its influence.

At a time when tight state, federal and foundation budgets threaten the ability of the association’s member organizations to carry out their missions locally, the association is adjusting its focus: It is seeking to become a bigger player in Washington, and in tandem with that shift changed its name last month to Voices for America’s Children.

Leaders of some member groups fear that a higher federal profile may dilute the national group’s support of state child advocacy organizations. Supporters say the changes are needed, if not overdue. “We don’t have enough intensity or volume with our existing groups,” says Jerry Stermer, president of Voices for Illinois Children and vice chairman of the national Voices board. “We aren’t winning.”

By many measures, however, Voices for America’s Children has succeeded – demonstrating both the potential and the challenges of trying to help youth-focused organizations on their home turfs by connecting them through a national network.

Founded in 1984, the national group “has had significant influence on how child advocacy is conducted across the country,” the Urban Institute said in its 2001 book, Who Speaks for America’s Children? That influence comes from a process by which the Washington office provides policy updates and technical assistance and facilitates communications among its 59 member groups, which lobby state legislatures, conduct research, analyze budgets, churn out opinion papers and strive to become high-profile advocates on children and family issues.

For small groups that often feel isolated and powerless among the high-priced lobbyists in state capitals, getting help in such areas as talking with lawmakers and the media about federal welfare policy has been invaluable. “We have come from a baby organization to what I believe is one of the stronger ones in six years, and I absolutely could not have learned how to lead such an effort without the national organization,” says Suzanne Clark Johnson, president of Virginia Voices for Children.
That might be the ultimate reward for child advocate Jim Lardie of Cleveland.

The Value of Networking

The desire of Lardie and some colleagues to brainstorm and bond led to the birth of the network 19 years ago.

Lardie, who had been running the Institute for Child Advocacy in Ohio since 1976, began meeting with advocates from other states informally in the early 1980s. In late 1984 the group incorporated as the Association of State-Based Child Advocacy Organizations, based in Cleveland, with a mission to help develop more statewide child advocacy groups and make them more effective. In those early years, the core support came from New York’s Edna McConnell Clark Foundation.

In 1992, under the leadership of Eve Brooks (founder of Statewide Youth Advocacy in Rochester, N.Y.), the network moved to Washington, D.C., and changed its name to the National Association of Child Advocates. The idea: Give the member organizations more visibility in Washington and easier access to information about federal policy, while keeping the focus on supporting the state groups.

Today, Voices for America’s Children runs on an annual budget of $1.8 million (raised mostly from such foundations as the Annie E. Casey, the David and Lucile Packard and the W.K. Kellogg foundations), with 12 full-time staffers, a part-timer and several interns. From a modest office on lobbyist-rich K Street in downtown Washington, the staff sends out analyses and updates on congressional action, provides technical assistance and training sessions on advocacy strategies and management, gives advice on fund raising and works to create new statewide advocacy organizations and foster the growth of existing ones.

One of Voices’ most powerful tools is communication. Throughout the year, the national organization keeps group leaders informed of what their colleagues in other states are doing through e-mail, listserves and a monthly electronic mailing. And it convenes an annual meeting of the groups’ chief executives.

“It matters a lot to be part of [Voices], more so in a state like mine, where you can feel isolated,” says Carol Kamin, executive director of the Children’s Action Alliance, referring to Arizona’s conservative reputation. It “gives us a family of people who are doing the kind of work we are doing.”

‘Stop Getting Screwed’

As with any national network, the success of this one has been uneven around the country, depending largely on local political conditions, agency leadership, and the availability of local philanthropic support.

In Arizona, the Children’s Action Alliance has grown from modest beginnings in 1988 – in donated office space with a part-time director and secretary – into a powerful statewide force with a 14-person staff and a $1.3 million budget. More than 90 percent of that budget comes from foundations (such as the Ford and Casey foundations and St. Luke’s Health Initiative of Arizona).
The rest comes from individual contributions raised through direct solicitations and from corporate contributions, mostly raised through the alliance’s Through the Eyes of a Child art auction.

A big part of the alliance’s clout stems from its participation in the State Fiscal Analysis Initiative, a network of nonprofit groups that bring expertise in tax and spending matters to state budget debates. Two years ago the alliance helped to defeat a tax break proposal that would have benefited corporations, and late last year an alliance staff member was part of a small group that helped Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) develop her budget.

“To the extent that organizations like ours become smart on taxes, we are going to stop getting screwed,” Kamin says.
Now, with Arizona facing a budget gap of more than $1 billion for fiscal 2004, the alliance is part of a coalition of nonprofit groups fighting proposed cuts in state programs. On Tuesdays, the coalition leaders take groups of citizen activists, all wearing bright yellow buttons, to protest at the statehouse. Timothy Schmaltz, a management and political consultant for the coalition, says the alliance’s participation has greatly enhanced the coalition’s power and influence.

Gerard, the governor’s health and welfare policy adviser, adds that the alliance “is phenomenal at getting TV coverage and getting newspaper editorial boards to buy totally into their proposals.”

But there is no formula for replicating such success, as evidenced by the struggles of some groups in other states.

In Georgia, the national organization is trying to help local advocates establish a new state group to replace one that closed in November. The defunct organization, Georgians for Children, was created in 1989 and became known for conducting forums around the state to determine which issues needed attention from the Legislature, then working with other groups to advance an agenda. Georgians for Children was praised for its work on children’s health insurance and welfare issues.

“By 1995-1996, this was the pre-eminent child advocacy organization in the state,” says Gus Thomas, executive director of the agency from February 2000 to the end, and now part of the effort to launch a successor.

The agency had trouble hiring and keeping good staff and, most importantly, had little success at getting support from business leaders to either serve on the board or contribute money. Bobbi Cleveland, executive director of Atlanta’s Tull Charitable Foundation, says corporate Atlanta has long considered education to be an economic cause worth supporting, but has only recently come to appreciate the economic importance of issues such as children’s health and family nurturing.

Supporters hope the new group, Voices for Georgia’s Children, will be up and running later this year.

That group will arrive at a particularly tough time for anyone, including child advocates, trying to persuade the state and federal governments to spend money on causes that don’t involve war or homeland security.

Seeking a Bigger Voice

This is the new reality: Thirty-six states project budget deficits for fiscal 2004. Foundations, which provide the bulk of funds for the state groups, have seen their portfolios shrink along with the stock market. The Packard Foundation, for example, expects grant awards under its Children, Families and Communities Program to fall to $18 million in 2003, compared with a high of almost $83 million in 2000.

As a result, says national Voices President Tamara Lucas Copeland, this year’s strategy is defense: helping state groups try to save programs from state chopping blocks by suggesting new revenue sources and opposing across-the-board budget cuts.
(The majority of the member organizations get no direct government money.)

Copeland, who became president of the network in 1997, has worked on Capitol Hill in Washington and in Virginia state government, as well as for other nonprofit groups such as the National Health and Education Consortium, which promotes links between health and education professionals. Agency leaders praise her professionalism, vision and ability to handle the needs of the members, the media and foundations.

“Tamara Copeland came to this organization at exactly the right time, when we needed a charismatic, substantive and very member-oriented leader,” says Jack Levine, president of Voices for Florida’s Children. “She knows that balance between being our ambassador to foundations, having a more national focus and giving us, at appropriate junctures, our own voice.”

Which brings the association to its crossroads.

In February the association’s 18-member board of directors (which is split almost evenly between association members and nonmembers) launched the group’s push for a higher national profile by adopting two issues as public policy priorities for this year: obtaining “significant federal fiscal relief” for the states, and winning the reauthorization of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant and the Child Care Development block grant. The association plans to work on increasing funding for the child care block grant, maintaining the current work requirements for former welfare recipients (as opposed to increasing them) and changing child support rules to encourage states to give families on welfare more of the money collected from noncustodial parents.

The board says national staff members will “advocate directly with federal policy-makers” in Washington and help members in key states lobby their congressional delegations. The Washington office – which hopes to add staff – will try to impress lawmakers and staff with information about how federal policies play out in the states. “We have on-the-ground stories that national folks don’t have,” Copeland explains.

Proponents say the move will raise the national group’s profile with foundations and the public.

But many association members worry that stepping up the organization’s Washington presence will stretch the network’s resources, and the association will hardly make a difference, what with groups such as the Child Welfare League of America and the Children’s Defense Fund already dominating children’s-issue lobbying on Capitol Hill.

“Is your job to build the capacity of state- and city-based groups, or do you want to be a national presence, and what are the tradeoffs?” asks David Richart, director of the National Institute on Children, Youth and Families at Spaulding University in Kentucky and a former leader of Kentucky Youth Advocates, a network member.

Some members are just unsure. “I think that this could be worthwhile, but it has to be done very carefully,” says Anne Arnesen, director of the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, a national Voices member.

“We will have to demonstrate the value added by this approach,” says Valora Washington, former program director at the Kellogg Foundation and now chairwoman of the national Voices’ board. “We are committed to sustaining and increasing the service we already provide.”

What’s In A Name?

As any agency knows, a name change is no small matter. NACA decided to rename itself Voices for America’s Children after a publication that it put out with that name a couple of years ago got a strong favorable response from member agencies, foundations and legislators. Staff members say the new name better reflects the organization’s mission and will make it less likely to be confused with other groups.

Some member organizations already had “voices” in their names, while the national office has encouraged others to switch to a “voices” name or add it in a tag line. (At Kamin’s group in Arizona, the letterhead now reads, “Children’s Action Alliance: A Voice for Arizona’s Children.”) Levine of Voices for Florida’s Children said he was eager to change his group’s name (effective last January) from the often misunderstood Center for Florida’s Children, and his board readily agreed. “The only question was why we didn’t do this 15 years ago,” he says.

Others are less taken with the idea and are unwilling to give up the recognition they’ve earned with their own names. Says Robert Fellmeth, executive director of the Children’s Advocacy Institute in San Diego: “I am proud to be a child advocate, and I like the old name.”

Barbara O’Brien, president of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, says that while some organizations see value in a name that links them to a national, Washington-based group, “I don’t think it helps here. There’s suspicion of Washington in Colorado.”

It will take years to tell whether name changes or the effort to bolster the national group’s Washington influence will make a difference. For today, the agencies must focus on fending off state budget cuts for programs and raising money for themselves.

In Arizona, for instance, a couple of foundations have warned Kamin that future grants may be less than she’s used to.

The agency leaders are thankful that the network has helped them grow to the point where they can even worry about such matters, and they seem to believe that, in general, the group is on the right track.

“This is an organization that started with nothing, and because of people like Tamara Copeland and her staff, they are now something,” says Fellmeth of San Diego. “They are working for children.”


Tamara Copeland, President
Voices for America’s Children
1522 K St. NW, Suite 600
Washington, D.C. 20005
(202) 289-0777

Jerry Stermer, President
Voices for Illinois Children
208 S. LaSalle, Suite 1490
Chicago, IL 60604-1103
(312) 456-0600

Carol Kamin, Executive Director
Children’s Action Alliance
4001 N. Third St., Suite 160
Phoenix, AZ 85012
(602) 266-0707

How to Make an Advocate

Tamara Copeland is particularly excited about an evaluation project, the Essential Elements Initiative, that Voices for America’s Children is undertaking with $350,000 from the Packard Foundation. The aim is to use focus groups, on-site visits and retreats to develop a model of what a child advocacy organization should look like.

“How to be an effective child advocate is not something you learned in law school or when you got your MBA,” says Copeland, president of Voices. “There is a need for a vehicle that lessens on-the-job training.”

She hopes that such a model can bolster newer and less successful organizations, help them target their training and help groups explain their needs and objectives to potential supporters.

Copeland also hopes the project will help the child-advocacy movement hold onto the wisdom and ideals of its early years. “The founders won’t be there forever,” she says.