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Lessons From Philadelphia


How to Give Voice to Groups That Lack Powerful Constituencies

Certain groups – such as disadvantaged youth – lack powerful constituencies who can give voice to their needs and help attract the kinds of attention and resources they need to improve their lives.

Yet drawing on lessons from a recent dropout prevention project in Philadelphia that involved several local, regional and national foundations, there are ways to successfully increase the visibility of such otherwise neglected populations and rally others to their cause. CommunicationWorks, LLC, a Washington, DC-based communications consulting firm, shares lessons from Project U-Turn.

The past three years, with funding from local, regional, and national philanthropic organizations, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, the William Penn Foundation (the lead local funder), and others, Philadelphia has built consensus around a new policy agenda to address the problems of one of the city’s most neglected populations – the tens of thousands of young people who leave school at great risk to themselves and at a great cost to the local economy. In October 2006, the city launched Project U-Turn, on of the largest citywide dropout prevention and recovery campaign in the United States. This effort – the plan for which was developed by CommunicationWorks in partnership with city leaders and key organizations across all sectors – offers lessons for foundations and national organizations about how to draw attention to the needs of groups without a powerful constituency.

Conduct research that identifies the full impact of the problem (for individuals, key segments of the population, and the community as a whole) and that points the way to develop new solutions. Research needs to identify the cost and magnitude of the problem, crucial gaps in services, and provide insight into targeted solutions that will work and are achievable. Funders can tap into the expertise of national experts at colleges and universities in the region to conduct the research. In Philadelphia, leading scholars at the University of Pennsylvania and The Johns Hopkins University found that more than 8,200 students in Philadelphia drop out each year and as many as 5,000 younger students attend school so infrequently that they are unlikely to graduate on time, if at all. They determined that dropouts come from every part of the city and every racial and ethnic background. They also learned that it is easier to predict who drops out than previously understood. Most future dropouts can be identified at the start of high school, and 80 percent can be identified by the end of 9th grade. They also identified key indicators of risk that provided one of the basis for targeting youth at risk and for developing a policy agenda to make resources and interventions more effective.

Create or identify a catalyst organization to work across sectors and shift the debate from a focus on the problem to an examination of solutions and resources. In Philadelphia, the widely respected Philadelphia Youth Network served as a general contractor bringing together all sectors of the community to launch Project U-Turn as a means of building involvement and commitment of civic, business, education and political leaders, parents, and other key stakeholders. The coalition hired outside facilitators (including a local agency and a national expert) to plan a community-wide effort and to ensure broad participation across key segments of the community.

Coordinate communications efforts with a common playbook. It is crucial, with the wide range of organizations and agencies, that the advocates use a common set of tools for communicating and planning their effort. CommunicationWorks worked with the members of Project U-Turn to develop a multi-year plan that presented campaign challenges and opportunities, goals, measures of progress, messages, strategies and tactics, potential partnerships, and campaign costs and priorities over three years. Using a common plan to which each agency has input ensures efficient use of resources by coordinating the diverse objectives, expectations, and resources of multiple advocates.

Set benchmarks that are challenging and attainable, measure progress each year, and hold civic leaders accountable. By setting benchmarks for progress, communities can understand how far they need to go and reset priorities. Philadelphia seeks to leverage $2 million in new and existing resources toward this agenda and meet three policy targets: 1) reduce the number of dropouts by 25 percent of more than 2,000 students by the year 2010-2011; 2) increase the number of high-quality alternative educational opportunities available to struggling students and out-of-school youth to at least 5,000; and 3) reduce the number of high-risk youth dropping out by at least 10 percent over the next two years.

Give leaders from multiple sectors real roles, but enable the public officials with the most at stake to set the tone for aggressive action. In Philadelphia, school district CEO Paul Vallas has made the dropout crisis his personal crusade and launched a broad intervention to support out-of-school youth and dropout prevention. His leadership has sent a signal to other community leaders, the schools and parents that the response to the dropout crisis will be anything but business as usual.

Reach beyond the leadership of the city to the state level. States set the context within which localities have to work, and many funding streams for youth-serving programs are within state, not city, budgets, and many strategies used in urban areas to address key social problems apply to other communities. It is crucial that advocates work closely and on a bipartisan basis with state leaders to help address these challenges. In Philadelphia, for example, a significant portion of the funding for interventions will come from work-preparation funds made possible by state leaders.

Engage – and embrace – the populations the initiatives seek to help. Key target groups should advise on strategies and solutions, their stories should be told, and their voices must be amplified. In Philadelphia, for example, the launch event for the anti-dropout campaign not only brought together civic leaders from across the city but brought together more than 500 out-of-school youth to participate in a specially designed program to help them assess their options for entering alternative learning programs or returning to school.

Use the media as a vehicle to amplify messages to key audiences. Efforts to draw attention to the needs of underserved population should treat the media as a valued partner and share new information and research on an embargoed basis to ensure equal treatment of diverse media outlets.

• Make addressing the issue compelling, relevant, and do-able. Create a sense of urgency and collective responsibility and promote actions and solutions that are practical and make a difference. Initiatives should identify real ways people can get involved and demonstrate real progress and momentum.

• Focus on sustainability from the outset. The ultimate goal of an initiative must be to ensure that key changes will be institutionalized. Efforts should focus on identifying and coordinating new resources to benefit key populations and sustain and accelerate improvement efforts for the long haul.

• Create incentives for greater cooperation across agencies and map out crucial changes in policy across public agencies.

• Garner support from the business community. Identify what is at stake and the vital economic interest in addressing the problem at hand. Bring business leaders to the table when discussing policy solutions and to advocate for focusing investments where they are needed most.

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