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The Promise to America’s Children and Youth

20 years ago last week, five living Presidents and Nancy Reagan were gathered together in Philadelphia at an event called the President’s Summit for America’s Future, hosted by General Colin Powell, to make a promise to our children and youth. Leaders from all sectors and all 50 states, along with young people from hundreds of communities, committed to one another and the nation that together they would provide all youth access to the critical success factors that they needed to thrive: a life filled with caring adults; safe spaces to learn, play, and grow; health and wellness for the best start in life; skills for meaningful and prosperous employment; and opportunities to share their gifts with others through service. They called these the “Five Promises,” and advancing them became the rallying cry for the America’s Promise Alliance.

I had a special seat at that Summit, even though I rarely had the chance to sit down while I was there. As a staff member of America’s Promise, I managed the logistics and much of the programming for the event. One of my fondest memories is of calling the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau to book the venue: “Hello, I’ll be bringing all the living Presidents to town for a Summit next year, and I’d like to reserve every hotel room in the city for 4 days.” There was silence on the other end of the line…then finally, “Who are you?  Where are you calling from? Presidents of what?”

That was the start to a career defining experience for me, and it has since shaped every role in my professional life.

Last week, America’s Promise celebrated its 20th anniversary in New York City, an event that inspired us all to #Recommit2Kids. Led again by Colin and Alma Powell, the event featured President Clinton and a line-up of incredible speakers, young people, and performers who passionately made the case once again that we must help guide all of our nation’s children to a life of opportunity, fulfillment, prosperity, and contribution. This time I was a guest, and yes, I was glued to my seat the entire time.

It was heartening to see that America’s Promise has maintained its relevance for a new generation of young people, and even more gratifying to see how much has been accomplished since 1997. And yet, I found myself impatient and disappointed that we haven’t yet solved so many of the root problems that continue to plague or nation’s youth – especially those living in financial, social, or spiritual poverty.

We know, in the quiet of conscience, that our children deserve better.

They deserve a life that rewards their dreams, a life of opportunity, unburdened by injustice. Equal opportunity is the defining promise of our country. It is a commitment that should unite right and left, rural and urban, rich and poor. Without equality of opportunity, economic differences harden through generations in a way that is inconsistent with our nation’s ideals.” Colin and Alma Powell

20 years later, I am still optimistic that we can expedite our progress because of the evolution of the conversation since 1997. Having participated in both events, it was evident to me that we’ve grown as a people to be more accepting, more inventive, and more precise. We’ve grown as a culture where inclusivity and equity are the expectations, and exclusion and inequity are called out for what they are. The quality of the dialogue is so much richer today than it was a generation ago in Philadelphia.

Consider these themes that resonated throughout the event:

  • Identity: Young people celebrated who they are, not what they’ve done. The amazing and talented IMPACT Rep Theater and City Kids loudly and proudly shared their truths with us in performance of song, dance, and poetry. They expressed their authentic identities in ways that wasn’t safe for them to do 20 years ago, and we, as adults in the audience, embraced them with love.

“It shouldn’t require heroism to be a child.” Tiffany Yu

  • Data: Our embrace of data in the past 20 years has shed light on problems and the solutions that can be scaled for more effective intervention. For example, Nadine Burke Harris from the Center for Youth Wellness shared research on the biological consequences of the toxic stress that is caused by childhood adversity, including increased heart disease, depression, and other health risks for children that can carry into their adult years. Her solution is to ensure that educators and pediatricians know how to screen for and intervene in adverse childhood experiences, before they become biological aftermaths.
  • Equity: Nearly every speaker spoke to the need for universal equity for our children and youth. Not just equality; equity. Not just diversity; inclusion. And not about the bad choices that kids make, but about our failure as a society to provide all kids with sanctuary so they can survive and thrive. In 1997 we talked about equality, diversity, and dare I say, the blaming of parents. We know better now, and even though we have miles to go, I was inspired by the conversation and I believe that working together, we can achieve the equity that all kids deserve.

“In order to help children at risk, we have to be able to do things that are uncomfortable.” Bryan Stevenson

  •  Reach: There were about 800 people in the room at the Marriott Marquis this week, but there were well over 1 million people following the live stream and social media conversation. As Alma Powell pointed out, this tremendous increase in reach is something that was not available to us in 1997. And since the event, the retweets and reposts have exponentially exposed people to the issues facing children and youth.


There is so much to be done for our kids and for our nation. We must never rest at the sight of injustice and inequity. While there are no excuses for failing to be true to the ideals we hold so dear, I see progress in the quality of the conversation and the solutions we’re advancing today. I have tremendous hope in the promise for America, and I am #Recommitted2Kids.


Corporate Responsibility in the Unpredictable Trump Era

Win, Lose, or Draw… I don’t think any of us know what the Trump era will bring.

For companies, a Republican President and Majority signals a pro-business agenda for the next four years. But Trump’s populist approach is unpredictable, and many of his proposed or projected policies could create headwinds for businesses. As I write this, corporate executives in all industries are watching carefully, listening intently, and muddling through mixed messages to develop stances on a myriad of scenarios, as they wonder how his positions on trade, immigration, healthcare, and education (to name just a few) will impact their businesses. Workers and consumers are watching their employers and their brands closely, expecting an increased level of corporate responsibility to ensure community and national well-being. Between government policy and public sentiment, companies will face enormous pressure to “do good” in the months and years to come.

An active and engaged Corporate Social Responsibility strategy is one way that companies leap into the future. It’s often through CSR strategies that companies can develop, test, and implement solutions to societal problems that if solved, would improve business, address headwinds, and elevate communities around them.

With this in mind, here are a few of my predictions for CSR in the Trump era:

1. More companies will invest more resources in education and workforce development in order to attain the talent they need to be competitive.

Many of Trump’s discussed policies could affect the ability of US-based companies to prepare, attract and retain skilled workers. Almost every company, in every industry, will need to be in the business of building “homegrown talent” and will therefore increase their investments education and workforce development. Take just some of the stances reflected in Trump’s inaugural address on Friday — Limiting H1b temporary work visas. Bringing manufacturing jobs back to US shores. Making major infrastructure investments to rebuild bridges, roads, rails and airports. Eliminating the Common Core curriculum in our public schools. If any one of these policies are enacted, much less all four, there will be immediate and intensive demand for many more skilled workers in communities all across the nation. Vacancies in high tech jobs that are already difficult to fill will skyrocket, and advanced manufacturing, engineering, and construction management jobs will demand that many more of our workers are STEM educated, trade certified, and digitally literate. The war for talent, and the deep need to upskill our workforce, are paramount.

As a result, there will be a marked increase in CSR investments that meet the specific needs of the changing labor market. We can expect companies to increase their investments in STEM education in K-12 and higher education, with a focus on women and minorities to broaden the pool. Community colleges and nonprofit workforce development programs that provide industry certifications will be in high demand, and companies will provide financial access to for those in the lower income brackets to grow the talent pool. Programs that teach soft skills, critical thinking skills, and problem solving like in the maker movement or youth entrepreneurship will attract CSR dollars and focus. Finally, more companies will work to upskill their current workforce instead of hiring trained employees from the outside.

2. Companies will do more to keep their employees, and their customers, healthy.

Regardless of the outcome of the Affordable Care Act or programs that may replace it, companies are anticipating that healthcare costs will increase, and it is therefore more important than ever to keep their employees healthy. They also know that every dollar that their customers spend on healthcare and insurance is a dollar not be spent on their products or services. While this trend is not new, we can expect many more bold announcements in the next 12-18 months from companies committing to their employees’ and communities’ health and well-being.

What were once perks for employees only in Fortune 500 companies will now become mainstream, like private gyms and on-site medical care. Employee bonuses and incentives for healthy behaviors and preventative care will become common place. Medical screening and community-based health fairs will be offered locally by companies who are not in the health care sector. Finally, housing, education, and human services organizations will be asked to integrate the provision of health care into their existing programming, and will be provided with increased corporate funding to do so.

3. Companies will go above and beyond regulatory obligations and take public stands on social issues, because millennial workers and consumers will hold them accountable for their corporate citizenship record.

In its 2016 study on Business and Politics, Global Strategy Group found that 81% of Americans believe that corporations should take action to address important issues facing society, and 88% believe that corporations have the power to influence social change. Further, 88% of millennials want to work for companies whose values reflect their own values, and taking a public stance on issues like pay equality, LGBTQ rights, and other human rights drives net-net brand favorability.

For example, we recently saw brands who came out in opposition to North Carolina’s “bathroom law” gain favorability across industries. We’ve seen very public boycotts of companies whose stands are more regressive, like Hobby Lobby. And while regulations in areas including environmental sustainability, community development, or safety may loosen as a result of the Republican wave, companies who retreat from their commitments in these areas face swift and painful consumer backlash. Corporate social stances may not have much influence in Washington over the next four years, but they will have influence everywhere else — more companies will take a stand and communicate their positions on social issues, and they will be rewarded on their balance sheet for doing so.

4. Collective impact, increased collaboration, and new methodologies will continue to gain favor and drive the CSR agenda forward.

The days of making an impact as a sole player in a hierarchical organization are over. No individual program can solve the complexity of problems or attract enough attention to make a dent in societal issues or public sentiment. There is too much noise on social media, too much competition for CSR talent, and too many stakeholders in any single issue for one company to act a lone ranger. Like politics before it, the discipline of CSR requires deep and meaningful partnerships with a range of stakeholders, sometimes odd bedfellows. Further, CSR initiatives can no longer be led inside by just Government Affairs, Public Relations, Community Relations, Human Resources or Marketing teams, but must align and integrate all of these functions in order to have the desired impact. In short, CSR methodology must be revolutionized in order to really address the issues just ahead on the horizon.

Externally, corporate responsibility will continue to shift from individual impact to collective impact, and the collection of partners for any one initiative will expand. The most powerful and enterprising initiatives will include participation from companies from across industries, foundations, nonprofits, government, associations, and the public, partnering to influence opinions, demonstrate impact, and change lives. CSR and nonprofit programming will adopt new ways of thinking and problem solving – borrowing techniques that drive industry innovation like Design Thinking and Lean principles. Old cultural norms that shackle innovation in various fields – large foundations, institutes of higher education, traditional nonprofits, or corporate hierarchies – will be challenged, modernized, and democratized. Because our work is grounded in a vision for the future state of society, CSR professionals will find ourselves leading the pack to integrate partnerships that create collective impact.

So, Win, Lose, or Draw, corporate responsibility is more important than ever, and its impact has the potential to go further for our society than ever before.


Where Do We Go From Here?

“What do we do now?” 

“Are we still even relevant?”

“We need to rethink this strategy.”

“I don’t think our message matters anymore.”

These are just some of the messages I heard yesterday from nonprofit and foundation leaders, all concerned in their own way about how the outcome of this Presidential election will affect their work.

True, waking up to this new reality is jarring in many ways, and the hurdles we’ll face as a nation are many. However, this is no time to question the value of purpose-driven work. We need those strong social programs, those breakthrough ideas and those smart solutions now more than ever to drive positive progress in our country.

We need the example that your organizations set every day for others. People who are climbing their way up the economic ladder, who are advancing their education, who are contributing back to society in meaningful ways. We need you.

The question that may still linger though is “Where do we go from here?” To shed some important perspective on that question, I’ll sit down next Tuesday at The Chronicle of Philanthropy with Bill Milliken—a decades-long leader in social innovation. Bill founded Communities in Schools, the largest, most effective dropout prevention organization dedicated to keeping kids in school and helping them to succeed. And he’s now built a new organization committed to sharing what he’s learned during his tenure at Communities in Schools. We’ll talk about how he advanced his mission even when administrations seemed against him, and even when politics (with a big P and a little p) got in the way.

It was Buddha who said that “every experience, no matter how bad it seems, holds within it a blessing of some kind. The goal is to find it.”

Let’s keep looking. See you Tuesday, at the final installment of Mission Forward 2016.

If you’re not yet registered, please reserve your seat today.


Measuring What Matters

“Focus on the outcomes, not the activity.”

It’s one of my most-often used phrases at C.Fox, and it’s just as much a statement as it is a challenge to my team. Specifically, it’s a challenge to break away from traditional ways of thinking about communications metrics to focus instead on how strategic communications can move missions forward.When organizations focus too much on activity, I believe the only place they move is in circles.

While measuring outcomes over activity may seem like common sense, new research shows that 70% of nonprofits are still stuck in the slog of measuring communications activity. In fact, more than 80% of survey respondents admit to tracking “reach metrics” (press mentions, follower growth on social media accounts, search engine rankings) and “output metrics” (events hosted, tweets posted, policy briefs published).

Why?  Because, quite frankly, it’s easier.  There are tools galore to make day-to-day communications activities look meaningful. But not so much if you’re trying to correlate communications efforts to impact or outcomes. But what’s the point of those published reports, tweet chats or news hits if you’re not seeing any direct correlation to mission advancement?

Earlier this year, we piloted a new measurement tool at C.Fox called Spur Change, designed to track the progress of business goals against strategic communications efforts. What we found in the pilot phase is that Boards and their leadership have been craving this kind of tool—a dashboard-style view of outcomes that gets beyond the bean-counting of communications metrics, and provides instead rich insights into the role that communications plays in moving missions forward.

We also found that the most compelling outcomes occurred when three key elements were firmly in place:

  • Communications had a central seat at the executive table. It was never an afterthought.
  • The communications team listened just as much as they talked, and they used what they found to improve and adjust their messages for even better outcomes.
  • Communications messages were narrow-casted, vs. broadcasted. Those who focused their communications to a smaller set of influential audiences saw a direct increase in engagement vs.when they broadcasted their message to the general public.

Is your organization among the 70% still measuring activity over outcomes?  If so, make 2017 the year to put strategic communications at your executive table. Let’s spur change, together.


Getting From Here to There

It’s strategic planning season.

This month, tens of thousands of organizations will start their strategic planning process for 2017.  And according to Inc. Magazine, more than 50% of those organizations will find the entire process futile.

Some of the questions that lead to this strategy-on-a-shelf syndrome: “We built a plan that was too big for us”, “We didn’t take into account the true capacity of our team”, or “We didn’t spend enough time thinking about why we do this work or for whom we’re doing it.”  

Here at C.Fox, we’re currently counseling a number of organizations through the process, all from their own unique position: There are some organizations planning for launch, others are merging and some are re-booting. The request in all cases is nearly identical: “Help us get from here to there.”

As we help each organization do just that over the coming months, and make sure they ultimately have a strategy that sticks, we’ll ask a whole series of probing questions, some of which we share here in case you’re entering the season of strategic planning, too:

  • What Are We Solving For? Can you answer this one in a way that would compel your supporters to act?  Don’t shortchange the process of understanding and articulating why your organization matters, and what it’s working to achieve. As much as you think someone will support you because you’ve got a great idea, you must be prepared with proof that your idea is a real and relevant one. (And that means wrestling with how you’re measuring your impact on the issue too.)
  • What Do We Stand For? Surprisingly, most people have a much easier time answering “what are you against?” even though the answer to the first question is at the heart of your organization’s purpose and values. Once the answer is identified, and consensus among the team is reached, other business decisions start to fall more naturally into place.
  • Who’s Our Most Important Customer? One of Peter Drucker’s signature questions. As Drucker saw it, you’ve got primary customers (those whose life is changed because of your work) and secondary customers (those who must be satisfied for your organization to achieve results.) If you want your plan to stick, take the time to understand your customer base, and build a plan to engage a select number of them in the planning process before you even think about plotting strategy.
  • What Do Others Think Our Value Is? Do you know what your primary customer would say if you asked them to define your value? Strategic planning can’t happen in a vacuum, regardless of how well you think you know answers to the questions above. Talk with enough people at least one step removed from your organization to find out how they describe your organization and its impact, and to uncover possible weaknesses or threats in your model. You’ll likely find that their answers contain some of the most crisp and compelling elements of your work, in a way that only an outside perspective can see.

Life, as We Don’t Know it?

Sometimes, the most unexpected stories stick with us, for unexpected reasons.

Last month, I heard a fascinating interview on NPR with Columbia University astronomer David Kipping. Kipping and his team are hot on the trail of alien moons. Yes, alien moons.

Astronomers have discovered planets orbiting distant stars, but they’ve never discovered a moon outside of our solar system—which we’ve learned (or at least I did after hearing the interview) is the critical element in the search for life beyond our planet.

The tale of these alien moons has been running through my head for weeks, but not necessarily why you might think. On the surface, Kipping’s pursuit is indeed fascinating and important, made even more so as the interest and investment in space exploration rises and the idea of a life beyond Earth seems within reach.

But, I’m sorry to say, the science of alien moons isn’t what stuck with me.

Rather, I starting thinking about the intersection between those alien moons and the kind of remarkable investigation and discovery I see happening in the social sector.

For most of us in the business of doing good, we have certain “stabilizing” factors. Most of us remain grounded by the people we serve, the missions we fulfill, and the value we provide.

But, what would life be like if we looked beyond the stability of what we do, or what we’ve built in order to affect significantly greater change tomorrow?

I’ve been asking some variation of that question in strategy sessions I lead for clients since I first met Mauricio Lim Miller, who instilled the idea of “questioning the expected” in me a few years back. And, it’s a theme that’s been backed up in recent months through inspiring conversations with Plinio Ayala of Per Scholas and Bill Milliken, founder of Communities in Schools.

Questioning the expected, and being willing to explore new ways for an idea to thrive is really at the heart of our new Mission Forward series, which launches today, and will feature the voices of dozens of thought leaders, including the three mentioned above.

Over the course of the next 18 months, I’ll be moderating conversations with each of them—individuals who have pursued their own “alien moons”; who have pushed themselves and their organizations to look beyond their own stability, to think bigger and bolder about what it takes to find life in a new idea—and the philanthropist or partner who chose to invest early in their idea.

The curious thing, I believe, is that there are commonalities in each of the changemakers who are pursuing new and different solutions to old questions, and it’s why I am so excited for this Mission Forward series.

Just like Kipping and his alien moons, if you’re on the hunt for something that can bring new life and new clarity to your organization’s purpose, and your drive forward, I do hope you’ll join me this summer and fall.

To finding your own alien moon—