The nuts and bolts of building successful alliances were the subject of the workshop’s final two presentations. Speakers described their experiences in bringing groups together and the lessons learned from those experiences. Particularly with unexpected allies, the formation of alliances requires building on shared objectives while finding ways to work around differing goals and perspectives.
The Congressional Hunger Center (CHC)1 trains and inspires innovative leaders who work to end hunger. These leaders bridge the gap between grassroots efforts and national and international policies. CHC sees itself “as a leader in the movement to ensure access to food as a basic human right,” said its executive director, Edward Cooney. In this role, it has had success in creating effective cross-sector alliances to protect against attempts to cut federal food and nutrition assistance programs or weaken or terminate federal nutrition standards. Likewise, it has made significant headway with cross-sector alliances focused on expanding nutrition programs or standards.
As an example, Cooney cited a 1981 effort that included redefining certain foods to maintain adherence to nutrition standards. The Reagan administration and Congress had cut child nutrition programs by 28 percent, which had the effect of cutting 8 to 10 cents per school meal. At that
point, nutrition standards could not be met, which led to such proposals as allowing ketchup to count as a vegetable and donuts as a bread product (USDA/FNS, 1981). “It wasn’t an evil attempt,” Cooney said. “People were really trying.”
A wide variety of groups, including unions, principals, Parent-Teacher Associations,2 religious groups, food service personnel, nutrition and health groups, and pediatricians, joined forces under the aegis of the Food Research and Action Center3 and the Child Nutrition Forum.4 In addition, agricultural producers, including the National Association of Wheat Growers5 and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association,6 were involved, largely because they had a financial interest in the issue. These groups worked together and kept the legislation from achieving its ultimate end, which was to terminate the entitlement status for child nutrition programs, according to Cooney. The coalition also succeeded in blocking a change in the nutrition standard from providing one-third to providing one-quarter of the recommended dietary allowances per meal.
The coalition was particularly effective in drawing attention to its causes. For example, when cuts in school lunch funding were proposed, the alliance arranged to have the prospective lunches served in the Senate cafeteria. A picture was taken that is now on display at the National Archives, said Cooney, showing Senator Byrd, Senator Leahy, and others eating this meal, “which sounds small and is small.”
A similar example occurred in 1995 when Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich proposed combining nutrition programs into a block grant that would have eliminated all federal nutrition standards. A cross-sector alliance defeated that effort.
Cooney drew several lessons from these campaigns. First, each sector has something to offer. Educators saw the relationship between nutrition and learning and were the best group to articulate that point. School food service personnel added their expertise on how the programs operated.
Another lesson is political. Every town in America has a school, Cooney observed. “If you are an elected member of Congress and you are going to cut the national school lunch program, there is only one phrase that applies to you—former member of Congress.”
Additionally, some of the most persuasive people are the most unlikely
ones. For example, agricultural producers were particularly effective at making the case that school lunch funding should not be cut, in part because of their financial stake in the program combined with their political clout.
Another lesson is that sending thousands of informed comments to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) can greatly influence rulemaking. In 2011, proposals to change the school lunch rules generated 130,000 comments. “That’s a lot of federal workers spending a lot of time at night going over those [comments],” noted Cooney.
The media matters, continued Cooney. In 1981, when graphics were first coming into play on television, NBC showed on one side of the screen an 8-ounce glass of milk with a school meal and on the other side a picture of a farmer and a 6-ounce glass of milk. The farmers who were watching that night and saw 2 ounces of milk disappear for 27 million children “didn’t call 911,” said Cooney. “They called their member of Congress. Those reg[ulation]s were toast in 2 weeks.”
Cooney noted further that the combination of well-informed national organizations and strong networks of state and local partners has made it possible to craft and implement significant child nutrition benefits. The 1998 and 2010 child nutrition reauthorization bills illustrate this point. Bipartisan support also makes it possible to get proposals enacted.
Finally, partnering with groups that have a financial interest in child nutrition programs is not morally corrupt—“it’s effective,” said Cooney, although he admitted that not everyone agrees with that statement. Cooney said that CHC’s guideline is “no permanent friends, no permanent enemies.” The organization forms alliances with corporate partners when there is a common interest and a clear legislative or regulatory goal and agreement on a specific initiative CHC has authored. If a corporation does not agree with the position of an alliance, it is no longer part of the alliance. If it changes its position, it can join the alliance again. “We are not consistent. We see no value in that as a concept.”
Accepting money from corporations opens an alliance to criticism, Cooney acknowledged. The best defense against such charges, he advised, is public disclosure of an organization’s priorities and of the funding received from the private sector. It is helpful to “demonstrate that your organization is willing or has taken a policy position on principle that a corporate donor opposes.” He suggested that an organization have a board-approved policy that allows private-sector funding only if no strings are attached. In concluding, Cooney urged the audience to seek new opportunities for cross-sector alliances.
In the final presentation of the workshop, Miriam Rollin, national director of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids,7 spoke about how to work with—as well as what not to do with—unexpected allies. Fight Crime: Invest in Kids is an organization of about 5,000 police chiefs, sheriffs, and prosecutors and a few hundred crime victims, most of whom are parents of murdered children. All of these spokespeople “are passionate advocates for investments in kids shown by research to have later crime reduction impacts,” said Rollin.
Rollin also is a vice president of Council for a Strong America,8 the parent organization for three sibling organizations to Fight Crime: Invest in Kids. One is America’s Edge,9 which seeks to improve America’s competitive edge in the world through investments in children that have been shown by research to strengthen business and the economy. The second is Shepherding the Next Generation,10 which consists of conservative evangelical faith leaders interested in social movements and policy change designed to improve the lives of children. The third is Mission: Readiness (see Chapter 2)—a group of several hundred retired military leaders promoting investments in children that also advance long-term national security interests.
Desirable Attributes of Unexpected Allies
Rollin cited four attributes that can make for powerful unexpected allies.
The first is the ability to get inside the door of policy makers. A potential ally may have an articulate spokesperson or extensive research, but according to Rollin, access to policy makers, especially moderate and conservative politicians, is much more important.
A second desirable attribute of a potential ally is a compelling, research-based, job-connected message and motivation. Motivation is important to ensure that an individual is effective in meetings and can also make people want to listen.
A third attribute is the ability to get media coverage. Unexpected messengers can be especially attractive to the media, said Rollin. “Wait a minute, so you have a cop talking about little kids and Head Start? You
have a retired admiral talking about school lunches? That unexpectedness gets you partway there.”
The fourth desired attribute of an ally, said Rollin, is not being a direct recipient of funding associated with the issue being discussed. This is another reason why having law enforcement representatives speak about Head Start, after-school programs, and juvenile justice is so effective for Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, said Rollin.
Conditions for Effective Alliances
Once an alliance with an unexpected partner has been formed, what are the best ways of working with that partner? Rollin pointed to six conditions: developing a research base, building relationships, facilitating engagement, utilizing an anecdote or personal story, choosing a high-impact messenger, and maintaining an identity.
The first condition is developing a research base specifically designed for the messenger. The ally needs to speak in terms that both the ally and the ally’s audiences understand and feel comfortable with. Allies are experts in their own areas, not in child nutrition, early childhood education, or after-school programs. “We joke now that we [Council for a Strong America] are a quadra-lingual organization. We speak cop, we speak military, we speak business, and we speak religion.”
The second condition is building relationships as a key component of the work. The allies tend to be grassroots organizations. They are not going to respond just because their partner organization is passionate about an issue. Rollin elaborated on this point: “You need to not just fax and e-mail stuff out. You call them up. You do a follow-up call. When you recruit them, you don’t recruit them by sending an e-mail or fax. You recruit them by meeting with them. It may be at a law enforcement conference. It may be at a lunch you have locally. It may be just going to their offices and meeting with them. It’s a lot more intensive, but it’s relationship based. And that’s what is going to help them become passionate about the issue and be an effective messenger.”
The third condition is making it easy for an ally to become engaged. Examples include arranging the logistics of a trip to Washington to testify, preparing draft materials for op-eds and for meetings with policy makers, and fully briefing representatives of the ally in advance.
Fourth is making sure that the ally is telling a story. The story should be backed up by research, but “policy happens through anecdote,” said Rollin. If a prosecutor is working on child abuse prevention, the story can be about a child who was killed by an offender. If a sheriff from a low-income com-
munity is talking about Head Start,11 he or she can talk about the impact Head Start has on the lives of people from those communities who succeed.
Fifth is choosing a messenger that will have the greatest impact for particular policy makers. If a legislator is an evangelical Christian, an evangelical pastor may be a powerful messenger.
The final condition is maintaining an identity that is distinct from the service providers who receive money from the programs being promoted, Rollin said. Unexpected allies are not child advocates or anti-hunger advocates. They are law enforcement or military personnel or others.
What Not to Expect from Unexpected Allies
Rollin closed by briefly describing four things she believes should not be expected from unexpected alliances.
The first is a response from an introductory e-mail or a fax. As Rollin noted earlier, organizations seeking an ally need to follow up in person.
Second, messaging is more likely to be effective when knowledgeable staff “speak the language” of the target audience. At the Council for a Strong America, the research and organization teams are shared among the four sibling organizations, while the membership staff that recruit, educate, and motivate members are different for each organization.
Third, allies should not be expected to participate in multiple or long meetings. For example, advocacy coordination meetings can be long, painful, and frequent, and grassroots organizations will not have patience for them.
Lastly, allies are unlikely to join all the advocacy campaigns on which a coalition works. For example, prosecutors are passionate about effective research-based investments in prevention and intervention, but they are unlikely to work on reducing or restricting the ability to try children as adults. Similarly, not all of the allies in an organization are going to agree with all of the positions held by other allies.
Rollin ended by saying that enlisting non-traditional allies can be challenging and often requires unconventional procedures. However, it also adds great value in bringing the work of researchers to policy makers and the media in ways that can make a difference for children.