Engineering the 21st Century Child Advocacy Organization

February 11, 1999

The Information Age is here, but are child advocacy organizations positioned to make the most out of new technology? How can child advocates create infrastructures to move easily into the next century, particularly without the resources and knowledge to do it themselves?

Massachusetts Campaign for Children has challenged the typical structure of advocacy organizations and is looking to reinvent or modify the way they do business to be more effective. Barry Hock, an independent health care and public policy consultant who advises the Campaign Steering Committee, compliments executive director Jetta Bernier for a "visionary quality" that enables her to help structure the campaign for action in today's political and social climate. The Steering Committee is composed of private citizens and representatives of faith-based and other children's organizations.

"The interesting thing about advocacy organizations," Hock says, "is that many have invested a lot of time in huge amounts of information and analysis on children's issues—but only a fraction of that information ever really gets communicated or used." Many organizations lack the know-how to communicate their messages effectively. They become marginalized, or viewed as organizations that deal solely with the needs of children in poverty, or with child abuse.

These groups may have the most up-to-date knowledge about children's issues, but the knowledge must be communicated in language that promotes support from the general public. How do they know what language will reach the public? According to Hock, groups may now take the information gleaned from their research on children and families and use it to formulate opinion polls. The results of these polls help organizations create and deliver messages that connect with and further the general public's understanding.

As a member of the Coalition for America's Children, the Campaign followed the lead of the Coalition's 1996 post-election survey of public attitudes toward children's issues. Great Expectations demonstrated that voters were more concerned with children's issues than issues such as social security, Medicare, and taxes. But, the research showed people needed tools to help them find out how candidates stood on children's issues, and to keep politicians accountable for their promises.

In addition to polling and survey research, effective use of the Internet will become a critical component to statewide children's campaigns. Says Hock, "A good Web site can act as a decision support system, collecting information and organizing it in a way that provides advocates a better understanding of where their constituency stands." It also more effectively disseminates and broadcasts information.

The Campaign's long-term plan involves utilizing techniques such as email newsletters, large group conference calling, and an online database similar to that of KidsCampaigns to create what Hock refers to as a "state-of-the-art system." Says Bernier, "We want our Web site to become an exciting, interactive place through which we will better understand each member's potential to work toward social change for children."

Bernier envisions the 21st century child advocacy organization as a sophisticated information center that makes the most of the media, uses survey research, and other techniques to position itself for the new millennium.