Policy and Advocacy Starting Place: Building Public Will

Contributed by:  Cornelia Grumman, Education Director, Robert R. McCormick Foundation

Public will-building strategies are an essential component of systemic reform of early education, and an integral part of our Education Program grantmaking strategy at the Robert R. McCormick Foundation. We’ve approached this from a few angles.

First, we work with grant partners to outline communications and “go to market” strategies at the beginning of proposal processes, rather than as an afterthought at the end. We encourage them to imagine which actions they hope specific audiences will take as a result of engaging with their work, and to think through the most effective ways to reach those audiences.  In cases where our partners have limited capacity, or feel such outreach is not “theirs to do” (such as when drifting into policy engagement might compromise academic independence,) we encourage them to fully steep policy or advocacy organizations in the idea so that they may take the baton and run.  Often we will pair grant partners with communications firms or graphic designers to simply help distill good ideas, package them succinctly, coherently and compellingly, or to help convey information visually through great design.

Second, our foundation worked with a coalition of other funders in Chicago to attract the award-winning education media model Chalkbeat to provide steady coverage of early education issues, among other topics, and create the media stories we wanted to see.  In one approach to create buy-in among more skeptical peers, we developed a series of journalistic-style vignettes, with beautiful photography, showcasing teachers around the state who had come to embrace Ilinois’ new kindergarten readiness assessment, called KIDS, as a way to improve instruction.

Finally, we look for moments of transition – such as changes at the mayoral or gubernatorial level – that provide opportunities for philanthropy to support the field in identifying audacious new policy goals, developed from a broad and diverse group of stakeholders that foundations can help convene. Philanthropy can then play a role in deepening public support for the policy idea by supporting communications and coalition building efforts to deepen understanding and add champions.

Amid so much noise, competing for eyeballs and attention spans, no longer is it sufficient to create a messaging campaign and bleat it to the masses. For instance, instead of advocating simply for better compensation, draw audiences into conversations grounded in provocative questions rooted in data, such as “Why is it OK in Illinois that 47 percent of early childhood workers make so little they qualify for public assistance?”   Broader stakeholder groups today are more effectively drawn into “conversations” – of all forms, including electronic, through media or in convenings – around policy questions as a way of deepening understanding and engagement.  Is it that level of engagement, supported by philanthropy, that can significantly increase the chances of moving policy dreams to reality.