Kids can’t vote. They can’t buy ads on television. They can’t form a political action committee to get what they need. They can’t speak up for themselves, and as a result they often disappear from the crowded list of political priorities competing for attention. To combat this invisibility, the Annie E. Casey Foundation has been building a project known as KIDS COUNT for more than a quarter century.
The foundation was created by UPS founder Jim Casey in honor of his widowed mother, who kept his family together through hard times. He cared passionately about kids and their families. As his foundation grew, those tasked with carrying out Casey’s mission saw that advocates for children had trouble making their case for change, in part because they lacked objective, accurate, consistent data. How could they argue for a better future when the present state of things for young people wasn’t clear?
Out of that need, KIDS COUNT was born. It began in 1990 as a single product: a national data book comparing 10 indicators on children (including infant mortality, education expenditures, and the teenage employment rate) across the United States. The theory behind the book was that if we created an accurate, comprehensive picture of what children need, change would follow. With its ranking of outcomes by state, the foundation hoped to draw attention from the media, as well as from local, state, and national policymakers, by capitalizing on the human impulse to compete.
Even though this first effort and its promotion were modest, the strategy began to work. Leaders of states that weren’t doing well by kids were on the hook to explain why and take action to improve their policies. States where children fared best had an opportunity to build buy-in for what was working and share their success. Buoyed by the initial traction the data book achieved, the foundation sought applications for organizations to create their own state-level data books. Steady investment and learning generated a network of data providers and advocates in every state.
It has been said that we often confuse information and communication—that information is getting a message out, while communication is getting a message through. KIDS COUNT—as a nonpartisan effort that collects, analyzes, disseminates, and uses data to elevate the importance of children’s well-being across all 50 states, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico—has leveraged the power of both. Here are a few of the insights we’ve gained by assessing our work through grantees, journalists, and policymakers along the way:
Don’t be afraid to expand the brand. While the initial 10 indicators of child well-being were a standard data book feature for many years, we realized we needed an update to reflect the latest research and data. Working with a panel of researchers and data partners, in 2012 we expanded the KIDS COUNT index to 16 indicators, grouped into four domains: economic well-being, health, education, and family and community. We also learned that by focusing our energy on just one annual data book, we were missing opportunities to go deeper and give voice to more issues, more often. So we created policy reports, which include policy recommendations on specific subjects, along with data snapshots—brief updates on important trends. We also created an interactive online data center that houses data, provides continuous updates, and enables visitors to create their own data charts and graphics. Today, the media cites KIDS COUNT data almost daily, and policymakers use our data in support of their policy proposals.
A network can be your most powerful communications vehicle. While the project has expanded its communications platforms to keep pace with the rapidly evolving digital landscape, we have learned that building the communications capacity of our grantees is more effective than any single outreach tactic. These KIDS COUNT leaders are experts on the political climate in their states and the issues affecting children there. KIDS COUNT products the foundation publishes and local data books the organizations publish help drive hundreds of media stories and op-eds every year, amplifying these leaders’ influential voices and positioning them to respond rapidly to policy developments in their states. To build that capacity, the foundation created an annual Communications Institute for grantees to learn about communications planning, social media, videography, and other practices, and has encouraged creative, skill-building use of the KIDS COUNT Data Center. We also developed an assessment and online resource center, the Advocacy Learning Lab, which gives grantees access to resources for running strong organizations, analyzing data, and developing policy recommendations, as well as tools to continually rate and improve their communications capacity and advocacy skills. A separate online, peer-networking platform also facilitates continuous communication and learning among grantees.
Keep it local and focus on solutions. While we seek and receive national media coverage, our assessments (including an in-depth examination of the media efforts of six KIDS COUNT grantees in 2008) have found that locally relevant information is most likely to appeal to journalists. Media outlets are also more likely to run stories and op-eds when recommendations for solutions accompany the data. They’re also more likely to consider information from credible, local sources with whom they can maintain sustained relationships. The data book’s ranking of states, along with local data books produced by grantees, fuel media attention, position grantees as experts, and encourage leaders to improve their rankings over time.
In 2014 alone, KIDS COUNT grantees realized policy wins in 33 states, resulting in $8.3 billion in public investments for children and families. This kind of success has proven that data and sustained, strategic communications can play a central role in improving public policy and practice on a wide scale.
Maintaining the same investment for 25 years isn’t easy for a foundation. But these policy gains show that such efforts have an incredible payoff for our country’s future—and that our combined voices can create a powerful voice for kids.