In recent years presidential nominating conventions have evolved from selecting nominees, to serving as a four day infomercial for candidates hoping for a bounce in the polls. I attended my first convention in San Francisco in 1984 when Senator Gary Hart for whom I worked came in second to Vice President Mondale for the Democratic nomination. I remember standing on the podium behind Hart, looking out at thousands of supporters from across the country that had been part of his journey, and thinking how much talent goes untapped after campaigns end. That, combined with the devastating famine in Ethiopia just 30 days later, motivated me to start Share Our Strength.
The post-convention period is a chance to assess candidates in the new light of a one-on-one contest; to find out who will put what is right ahead of what’s popular, who speaks for those too vulnerable and voiceless to speak for themselves, who supports investments and even sacrifices that might be necessary to advance the prospects of the next generation.
General election campaigns target the middle class. But the work of many of us in the nonprofit sector focuses not on the middle class but on those living in poverty. If we expect politicians to pay attention to our issues and embrace our ideas – during the campaign and during the next President’s administration – we have to follow five “rules for relevance”:
n We must shine a spotlight on problems that are solvable and programs that work. Childhood hunger in America is a good example, as are the effective but underutilized solutions like school breakfast and summer meals.
n We must hold ourselves to the highest standards of performance measurement, accountability, and transparency using clear metrics to demonstrate outcomes. The work of the LEAP Ambassadors Community @ http://leapofreason.org/performance-imperative/about-pi/offers excellent ideas for doing so.
n We must say how we’ll pay for what we advocate. Congress operates under spending caps that dictate when funding is added for one program, it must be subtracted somewhere else.
n We must demonstrate the return on investment to society tomorrow from interventions we make today.
n We must be strategic: not just asking for more spending everywhere but being selective in fighting for what has the most bang for the buck.
Over 30 years Share Our Strength has learned that our work as a nonprofit can’t take the place of government. But it can model ideas for public policy to adopt. Nonprofits can do things government cannot do: we can take risks, be more entrepreneurial and agile, and be closer to and better positioned to learn from those we serve. But when it comes to scaling our successes, to ensuring they reach all who need them, public support is indispensable.
I left my first political convention back in 1984 disappointed, exhausted, and broke. But I also left energized. From Iowa to New Hampshire, from New Jersey to California, I’d seen firsthand the vast array of talented people who wanted to make a difference, who had skills to deploy and strengths to share. Our learnings at Share Our Strength in the 30 years since, encapsulated in the five rules above, show how they can be engaged to create transformational and lasting political and social change.