Mobilize Your Constituencies
The Big Three CEOs displayed a complete failure of leadership during their first visit to Capitol Hill: their arrogance was appalling. There was no vision from any of them of a different, more successful future and any detail about what it would take to get there. They had neither united themselves nor united the many constituencies that rely on them. They did not have the humility to admit they screwed up.
This all reminded me of an effort I participated in to save AmeriCorps in 2003. AmeriCorps had over-enrolled members and, because of a White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) ruling, faced a budget cut of about 80 percent. Such a cut would have effectively killed AmeriCorps and the idea of national service could have died with it.
In response, a few of the biggest grantees came together quickly and began a campaign. Our goal was to get Congress to pass an emergency supplemental spending bill to restore national service. A few of us did not face huge cuts, but we fought as hard as the others because we knew that our ultimate survival and strength relied on a strong field. Larger organizations, especially City Year, put in the most, and smaller organizations putting in what they could. Ultimately, we raised $250,000 for the campaign.
We decided to build constituency so we began by getting all of the CEOs of the businesses and foundations that supported us to sign a letter to the President and Congress. We even got a corporate donor to buy a full-page ad in the New York Times, the Financial Times, and Roll Call. From this starting point, we reached out to the more than 1,000 programs across the country, enlisting the support of 47 Governors, 150 Mayors, and over 100 editorials supporting our call for help. We then went to Congress and got 79 Senators to support a bill.
Before the House considered it, over 700 alumni, partners and supporters from 46 states testified for 100 straight hours about the importance of national service and what it means to our communities. A majority of the House signed a letter of support for the bill, but due to a Rules Committee move by House leadership, the effort failed in the short-term. Our efforts led, however, to a major increase - about 60% above where it was originally before the cuts - the next year. We lost the battle, but won the war.
Now this is how a small group of very small non-profit organizations with limited capacity and budgets organized a campaign to get Congress to act. If we had had the external relations, public relations, and government relations capacities of the Big Three, not to mention the scale of employees, dealers, suppliers, and customers they have across the country. They failed to lead these groups and their internal capacity to make this about supporting a new, better vision that would support millions of Americans' well-being and quality of life in the future.
We did not think we were doing anything that innovative, but perhaps, to paraphrase Voltaire, "common sense is not that common anymore."
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