Monday, August 29, 2016

Bill Gates, poverty, schools, race, and No Kid Hungry

            I thought I’d improve on my blog posts by sharing one from Bill Gates instead.  Last week he wrote about “a powerful conversation on schools, poverty and race”

            Gates recounts his conversation with Washington State Teacher of the Year, Nate Bowling who teaches at a school in Tacoma, WA where 70% of the students are eligible for a free or reduced price school meal, what educators are calling “the New Majority” in recognition of more than 50% of  public school students now living below the poverty line.

            Bowling received a lot of visibility when he wrote a piece called “The Conversation I’m Tired of Not Having” for which Gates includes a link. It’s blunt and provocative about racial attitudes and practices in America and also worth your time to read.  But what caught my attention was how Bowling so directly framed what’s at stake in our work, while explaining his passion for teaching: “It is a matter of life and death,” he said. “If my students are not successful in school, they end up in the prison-industrial complex.” 

Ultimately Bowling was optimistic: “All kids can learn if they have the support.”  He was speaking mostly of quality teachers but we know that necessary support includes the food and nutrition critical for kids to succeed. That’s the fundamental premise of Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign.  Whether we succeed or not really can be a matter of life and death.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Postcard from where the economic recovery never happened

            There’s an important new study of which you should be aware. 

I typically seek out inspiring and encouraging news to share because our work is hard and we need all the positive energy we can get to keep moving forward against long odds.  But it’s also important to know when those odds get longer and that’s what we learned last week in an analysis published by the Congressional Budget Office. 

            The study found that since the great recession those who were well off have recovered and those who were not are in even worse shape (evident in contrasting stock market growth with the number of Americans on SNAP not going down materially.)

            Wealthy families and average families both had more wealth than when before the recession hit, but the wealthy saw theirs bounce back at a much faster rate.  In 2007 8% of American families had debt averaging $20,000. By 2013, 12% had debt averaging $32,000. Now the wealthiest 10% of Americans hold three-quarters of the nation’s wealth, as opposed to the two-thirds they held in 1989.

            Imagine not only being poor in the richest country on earth, but being left out of the recovery our government worked so hard to achieve. For some.  It’s not fate, accident, or bad luck. Policies and political choices create such a dynamic. The hunger we fight is a symptom of this deeper problem.

            Even if you listened very carefully, you would not have heard anything from either political party about this new report on growing inequity.  Instead, giving voice to that falls to us and others.  It’s not technically what we do day to day, but it is inescapable morally. If you’d come to the scene of a tragic accident that injured kids, called for help and learned the emergency responders were distracted doing something else, you would do the best you could whether you were trained to do so or not.  So must we. That’s a tall order given all we have going on, but it’s the only path to preventing recurring tragedy and damaged kids.


Thursday, August 11, 2016

The Second Greatest Danger of Campaign 2016

The greatest danger in our presidential campaign is the divisiveness and even potential climate of violence being fostered. But the second greatest danger is that issues have been hijacked almost completely out of the campaign as the press and political community have little choice but to react to and denounce one outrage after another.

What mandate will our next president have to enact specific policies and programs if policies and programs are not being seriously discussed?  How can we discern and assess competing ideas for fixing our schools, addressing hunger and poverty, rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, combatting terrorism?   The president we inaugurate in 2017 is much more likely to be effective in creating change if voters endorse such change beforehand, not merely default to who they see as the less dangerous of the two.

What a shame it would be, given the great challenges facing our nation – and especially the desperate needs of the most vulnerable and voiceless of our fellow citizens: the hungry, homeless, impoverished - for our next president to have spent years and a hundreds of millions of dollars in pursuit of the office and then get there without a clear mandate from the public to get specific things done starting on day one.

If there’s a silver lining in the dark cloud hanging over our presidential campaign it is the possibility that the growing backlash to crossing every boundary of civilized discourse and decency actually unites the country in ways that nothing else could.  Each day now sees more long-serving public servants, past and present, many of them Republican, putting nation ahead of party.  That needs to happen on both sides of the aisle, now and in the next White House.  It needs to emerge as our new national ethic. If it does, even for a short while, there are no limits to what we can accomplish.

Friday, August 5, 2016

The fleeting possibility of political unity on behalf of our nations kids

If there is any lesson from the past 6 months it’s that anything can happen in American politics and, as Morgan Freeman says at the end of the film Feast Of Love, “the unexpected is always upon us.”  So while no one can predict what the next 12 weeks will bring, one possibility is that Donald Trump will unify the country – to support Hillary Clinton -  in ways that never could have been imagined.   We are already starting to see indications – in the endorsements of Secretary Clinton by a Republican Congressman, by former CIA Director Morrell, by Hewlett Packard’s Meg Whitman.  More will soon follow.

            The opportunity for Secretary Clinton, if she can rise to the occasion, is to put partisanship aside in the same way that some Republicans are beginning to do, and to convey a vision of how she would govern with national unity as a first priority, as opposed to the partisanship that that has all but paralyzed Washington for many years  (Congress’s failure to provide Zika funding as the latest disconcerting example).

            Should such a “unity Administration” come to pass, it wouldn’t last forever, that’s just not the way of the world,  but there could be a window early on in which some big things could get done – especially on behalf of those who engender bipartisanship in the first place: America’s kids.  Such a scenario – admittedly only one of many that could unfold between now and election day including the possibility of quite the opposite -  adds urgency to our own efforts to develop, and work with others on, a bold and broad policy agenda that addresses childhood hunger and the child poverty that underlies it.  Ever the optimist….

Monday, August 1, 2016

Presidential politics and nonprofit "rules for relevance"

      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 @ 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.