Practical Strategies for Building a Bigger Tent•
Our nation feels more divided than ever. From political gridlock in Washington, D.C. to a fragmented media landscape, more Americans are forming opinions and consuming information from niche sources and polarizing points of view. The social change sphere is not immune from this splintered and siloed way of thinking. Nonprofits and philanthropies also have limited bandwidth at both the organizational and individual level. All of these factors contribute to a pervading tendency to forge ahead alone rather than find points of intersection and collaboration on critically important issues. Yet we need to work together to move the needle for major societal change.
The tendency to go it alone is understandable given the pressure many organizations face to articulate their missions, differentiate their strategies, and demonstrate tangible outcomes. A more narrow focus also increases the likelihood that the spotlight shines on you. But achieving ambitious goals may be easier — and the results more satisfying — with shared effort and credit.
As a bipartisan coalition-based campaign focused on expanding upward mobility for all Americans, particularly teens and young adults, Opportunity Nation is driven by bigger and broader approaches that support the entire opportunity field. Breaking down silos is part of our mission, and we recognize that big tent approaches don’t happen on their own — they require deliberate intention and extra effort.
When Opportunity Nation sought to more deeply explore the impact of civic engagement on economic opportunity, doing it alone was never an option. We knew that volunteering and membership in organizations, for example, contributed to healthy communities and both are among the 16 factors measured in the Opportunity Index. But most of our advocacy and research until 2014 had focused on education and career pathways, not the civic engagement sphere.
We embarked on a listening tour, having dozens of conversations with partners and gaining valuable feedback about what fresh information and framing would most benefit the field. We invested in original data and conducted an exhaustive literature review of the best research to date. Our final report provided concrete evidence for what we knew intuitively – civic engagement is one way to foster upward mobility that all sectors (public, private and nonprofit) can and should play a role in. Connecting Youth and Strengthening Communities: The Data Behind Civic Engagement and Economic Opportunity was produced by Opportunity Nation with data and analysis provided by Measure of America and made possible due to support from the Citi Foundation.
This project was also an opportunity for us to break down silos among various sectors – employers, nonprofits and educational institutions — and help more partners see themselves as a part of the broader opportunity frame. How did we make sure we used an inclusive approach, so our partners could see their work reflected and find value in our efforts? How did we go about making our tent just a little bit bigger?
First, we did our homework. We did not want to duplicate efforts. While our primary focus is on education and career pathways for young adults, many of Opportunity Nation’s 300+ coalition partners have direct-service civic engagement initiatives, making them not only the audience, but also the experts who should contribute their insights and experiences. We recognized the value in engaging thought leaders and influencers from the civic engagement space who weren’t already in our network, to make sure we captured a wide range of perspectives.
We took our work as it evolved to our partners and new stakeholders for comments and input throughout the process, including email questionnaires, interviews and reviews of early drafts. In this way, we forged deeper relationships with champions who would share the work with companies, nonprofits, schools and philanthropies that would find the report helpful to bolster grant proposals or shape new programs or investments. The report title, media strategy and messaging were designed to speak to multiple audiences both within and outside of the field of economic opportunity: nonprofits, educational institutions, employers and leaders in both civic engagement and economic development. And most importantly, when it was time to ask people to help us share the report, we wrote dozens of personal emails and notes along with a package of easy-to-share infographics and suggested talking points.
This approach yielded immediate and encouraging results – none of which would have been possible if we had not reached beyond our comfort zone and usual sphere of influence. New York City’s Department of Education’s Service in Schools program included the report in its monthly November newsletter that is sent to all the city’s schools. Serve Rhode Island referenced the report’s findings in a recent grant proposal to launch a new volunteer program for high school students to assist elderly and disabled Rhode Islanders. And the National Journal highlighted the report in a story about novel forms of civic engagement, such as the ice bucket challenge.
By extending beyond our own network, actively seeking feedback from the field and providing practical tools and support to a wider network, we not only produced a far better end product, we were also able to build new relationships and share our findings more broadly. As a result, more volunteer-focused organizations, employers and thought leaders are using the data and now see themselves as part of the movement to increase economic opportunity — outcomes we deeply value.
Our coalition members – and individual leaders within them – are dedicated to intentionally creating bigger, broader and better approaches to solving the challenges facing our communities and our country. The civic engagement collaboration honored the diverse perspectives of our stakeholders and helped to strengthen the “big-tent” approach to tackling one of our nation’s biggest challenges: expanding opportunity to more Americans.
Sarah Beaulieu is the Senior Advisor to Opportunity Nation, a bipartisan campaign to expand economic mobility and close the opportunity gap in America.
Jennifer Jordan is the Senior Writer for Opportunity Nation.