It started with a cold call from the Advertising Council to the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF). In 1996, the Ad Council, with more than $2 billion a year in donated media for public service advertising, decided to make a ten-year commitment to campaigns on behalf of children as the centerpiece of its work. To launch the initiative, the Ad Council was looking for a partner who could deliver a grassroots network and reinvent fulfillment for the digital age, replacing 800 numbers and brochures with websites to provide information and resources for action. CDF said, That’s not what we do, but you should talk to the Coalition for America’s Children and Larry Kirkman at the Benton Foundation.
Benton’s partnership with the Ad Council would garner more than $300 million in donated media and establish Benton as a pioneer in internet-based public service communications.
The joint press release announcing our partnership proclaimed:
WASHINGTON — A new partnership between business leaders and children’s experts is going to change the way Americans think about children’s issues, combining state-of-the-technologies with traditional and new media. Innovation is badly needed, say those who serve children. Despite the ominous statistics released year after year by children’s groups, children’s issues rarely occupy the top tier of social problems on the national agenda. But what if we could bring together leaders who understand children’s needs and the advertising specialists who know how to get adults to pay attention? What if we added in the promise of new technologies and created a giant electronic back fence to get the conversation started? What if we agreed: here’s the problem, we are badly in need of family-friendly solutions. How do we inspire a nation to be more committed to raising its children and give Americans the tools they need to act?
Why was Benton in a position to embrace this collaboration, with its small staff and small endowment? In order to answer that question, you have to understand the impact of a set of Benton Foundation media guides.
Strategic Communications for Nonprofits
The eight media guides, which I co-edited with Benton associate director, Karen Menichelli, and Benton published in 1992, covered media advocacy, electronic networking and production and distribution. As a package, the media guides made the case that nonprofits and foundations had to embrace a comprehensive approach to communications. Communications practice was dispersed in nonprofit organizations – in departments of policy, membership, media relations and publications. Communications staff were not at the leadership table. The guides set new standards for nonprofit communications and anticipated the emerging digital environment.
Major foundations — including Ford, MacArthur, Robert Wood Johnson, Carnegie, Atlantic and Kellogg — distributed the guides to their grantees. Benton made the investment in research, writing, editing and designing the guides, but the foundation funding for printing and distribution maximized the impact. The foundations used the guides in grantee meetings and began to require communications plans in grant applications. Their endorsements of the guides had enormous influence on the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors.
Benton built the bridge half-way and the big funders completed it, realizing the potential of our project. This model of funding established Benton as both a grant maker and a grant seeker for the next decade. We were advisor, navigator, curator and demonstrator in the new media landscape, where video, cable and satellites, computers and the Internet merged.
Launching a living laboratory of media advocacy on behalf of children
With the support of the CBS Foundation, Benton organized workshops around the country to promote the media guides. We were soon overwhelmed with requests to advise foundations and nonprofits on their communications work, many more than our staff could handle.
I proposed that we select a demonstration project to apply our guides in real world settings, where we could get our hands dirty and take responsibility for our recommendations. I developed a program on child advocacy, building on our work with the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC.)
In 1991, I had been asked by the Food Research and Action Center to help create a national campaign for its network of food banks. We convened a group of strategists and convinced FRAC to focus on children in the Campaign to End Childhood Hunger. I produced a campaign video and worked with children’s author and illustrator Tomie DePaola to create a logo and posters, which were used through the 1990s. The food banks adapted the national campaign for local media relations and advocacy. Benton’s children’s advocacy projects became a living laboratory and test-bed for nonprofit communications techniques and technologies.
The Coalition for America’s Children: Who’s for Kids and Who’s Just Kidding
In January 1992, Benton became a co-founder of the Coalition for America’s Children with the American Academy of Pediatrics, National Association of Children’s Hospitals and Child Welfare League of America. We were soon joined by the Children’s Defense Fund, National Education Association and 200 plus organizations. The Coalition was a communications cooperative comprised of national child-serving and policy organizations and state and local organizations, growing to over 450 members. We launched the Who’s for Kids and Who’s Just Kidding campaign in October 1992.
To get started, as convener of the steering committee, Benton hosted the first conference on public opinion research on children’s issues organized by the head of communication for the children’s hospitals association, Susan Bales who later became director of Benton’s children’s program and editor of the Ad Council campaign website. We convened leading political pollsters, affiliated with both Democrats and Republicans, to help the groups understand the polling around children’s issues.
The Coalition presented a united front, calling for a coherent children’s agenda around four issue areas: health, education, welfare and income security. Together, we invested in research, media relations and production. For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics developed questions for candidates and the National Association of Children’s Hospitals funded public opinion research.
The results of a poll commissioned by Susan Bales framed the Coalition’s first national campaign, which was used by hundreds of organizations to get candidates for political office to articulate a children’s platform. Further Coalition polls, including “Kids’ Clout” and “Great Expectations,” showed how the American Public viewed children’s issues. Both of these studies showed, as Susan Bales wrote, that “Americans want to do more to address the problems facing children and families, but feel overwhelmed and bombarded by negative messages in the media, and don’t know where to start.”
Benton organized a brainstorming session with Democratic and Republican strategists, which gave us the slogan Who’s for Kids and Who’s Just Kidding. The campaign challenged every political candidate from city council to President to publish their plans for children. Children’s issues became a major focus of the elections in 1992 and 1994 with newspapers across the country exposing candidates’ policy promises. I produced a Who’s for Kids and Who’s Just Kidding television ad reporting on the results of the Coalition poll: “85% of Americans want candidates to do more for children.” Coalition members across the country got the ad accepted by their local stations as a PSA.
AARP was a key member of the Coalition. It had commissioned extensive polling to explore seniors’ support of government funding for children’s programs. It found that the return on investment argument, that the next generation was going to have to pay for social security — we need a healthy younger generation — was not as effective as expected. Their research showed that a legacy argument resonated much more with seniors — the obligation to provide for the next generation. It was this higher vision that led AARP to embrace the Coalition for America’s Children.
AARP had just completed a state of the art television studio and we became the first to use it for national teleconferences. Benton produced Coalition programs for a network of children’s hospitals, which, as anchor institutions in their communities, served as hubs for local participation in the campaign. The teleconference to launch Who’s for Kids and Who’s Just Kidding combined local meetings and a national convening involving thousands of children’s activists across the four issue areas, setting agendas, promoting materials and sharing information.
In 1995, the Coalition collaborated with ABC-TV on its national campaign, Children First. PSAs aired in prime-time featuring ABC News on-air talent. Lisa Tate, head of communications for the Washington office of the Academy of Pediatrics and chair of the Coalition, worked with me to help shape ABC’s messages and connect Coalition members to their local ABC stations.
KidsCampaigns and the Ad Council – Reinventing public service advertising
By the time I got the call from the Ad Council, Benton was ready to be an effective partner for the Ad Council’s signature campaign: we could imagine using the Internet for public service advertising and we could produce it.
From 1996-2001, I developed and managed the partnership with The Advertising Council to help fulfill its commitment to PSAs on children and families. The press announcement explained that “It was the first time in the 50-year history of the Advertising Council that it is focusing the majority of its resources on one beneficiary – children.” The Ad Council described the Benton partnership as the “centerpiece of its efforts.”
It was an enormous commitment, as the press release claimed: “The Ad Council is one of the top ten advertisers in the nation, and it will work in partnership with the Benton Foundation to create a high-tech fulfillment system to actually engage and equip Americans to act on behalf of kids.”
In the early negotiations, I insisted on two major principles: that the campaign would be about acting on behalf of kids from volunteering to voting — with a focus on both individual behavior and social solutions — and that Benton’s work would be as fully resourced as advertising production and distribution. The result was a three-year agreement between Benton and the Ad Council to create the website and the ads to support it.
In the past, Ad Council campaign fulfillment had consisted of an 800 number and a brochure, usually funded at about 10% of the campaign budget. Half of the AT&T Foundation’s $3 million grant to launch the campaign came to Benton to create pioneering digital strategies for public service advertising. The Kellogg, Atlantic and Packard foundations provided additional funding to launch the website as a hub of information and action.
KidsCampaigns.org was launched at the end of 1996 with a first wave of spots asking the question, Whose Side Are You On? The purpose of the advertising was to drive people to the website, which promised, under the banner KidsCampaigns published by the Benton Foundation: “One stop. No waiting. Right now. Act on behalf of kids. Here’s how.”
The credits read: “The Whose Side Are You On? advertising campaign is a joint project of the Advertising Council, Inc. and the Benton Foundation, in collaboration with the Coalition for America’s Children.”
As publisher of KidsCampaigns, I saw the value of nonprofit organizations as trusted information providers and the potential for tapping into their networks. KidsCampaigns and Connect for Kids demonstrated a new form of journalism, providing context to the issues and a solutions-oriented approach that engaged, informed and equipped our users. Editorial content was informed by communications research and the latest studies and reports on the status of children.
The press release for the launch of the campaign stated:
“Children’s experts at the local, state and national level know hundreds of ways that people can support children’s well-being,” explains Benton Foundation Executive Director Larry Kirkman. “And there are hundreds of stories that ordinary citizens can tell of how they rallied their communities to make children a priority. Now, for the first time, you can find this information in one place and you can share your story or your request for information with people all across America. KidsCampaigns captures this information and makes it easy for people to get smart about helping kids and to get connected to groups that need their help.”
The site was organized in three sections: Get Started Get Smart Get Connected. And, it was searchable as a resource targeted to wide set of users: parents • grandparents • policymakers • media • volunteers and mentors • community leaders •businesses • educators • religious leaders •children’s advocates • service providers.
The press release described the information “hub” as an “electronic back fence” for “people who care about children, but may not know what they can do to help children succeed.”
The pre-production campaign research revealed that “even though 80 percent of people said kids’ issues needed more attention, if you looked closely at their attitudes, you found that most people believed it is the responsibility of parents to deal with kids’ problems, whatever they are – health, education, safety or financial security.” The message of the advertising was framed by the finding that people were “extremely sympathetic to hard working parents whom they perceive are doing everything they can to help their kids.”
This first wave of advertising portrayed adults actively engaged in helping children succeed. As explained in the press advisory, “The ads-and the KidsCampaigns communications hub-shift the blame away from individual problems to environmental forces beyond individuals’ control.” The ads made the case that “it’s only fair that we do all we do all we can to help those parents and children who are struggling hard to help themselves under circumstances that would wear down the rest of us.”
In Spring of 1997, the next major wave of advertising featured the Toughest Job spot, with President and Mrs. Clinton — the first time that a PSA featured both a President and a First Lady. The message of the Clintons was that being a parent was the toughest job, tougher than being President. Whose Side Are You On? was the #1 public service campaign in 1997, receiving more than $100 million in donated media, of which $60 million was for the Clintons’ spot. In total, KidsCampaigns and Connect for Kids benefited from more than $300 million in donated TV, radio, print, outdoor and Web-banner advertising.
Benton’s role as innovator in the emerging digital landscape
After AT&T’s initial grant for KidsCampaigns, we were able to go to funders that had supported Benton’s programs on nonprofit capacity building and communications policy. Over five yeas, the Kellogg, Packard, Atlantic and Knight foundations provided major grants to Benton for Internet production and outreach to children’s organizations.
Our profile was at its height because of our 1995 Public Interest Summit on the rewrite of the Communications Act, which was produced in collaboration with the White House and featured Vice President Gore as a keynote speaker. 700 leaders addressed the policy framework for the future of communications, carried live on CSPAN and fully reported by NPR.
The Child Advocacy program gave Benton the standing to take on other ambitious web-based projects, including the U.S. Center for OneWorld, a global network of non-governmental organizations providing news and information on development, and the Digital Divide Network, a resource to promote access to the benefits of the digital revolution.
Benton became recognized as a leader and promoter of innovation in the nonprofit sector, producing knowledge networks, mapping public interest applications and publishing case studies that encouraged foundations to incorporate communications into capacity-building programs. Benton grew to a staff of 30 with an annual $5-6 million in external funding.
From the personal to the political, from volunteering to voting
Benton challenged the Ad Council’s traditional approaches to fulfillment and audience engagement. Prior to our collaboration, Ad Council campaigns were focused on changes in individual behavior and on volunteering. But, we saw that in an Internet environment people were easily moving between personal interests, volunteering, movement building and political action.
During the 1996 and 1998 elections, building on the successes of the Coalition for America’s Children Who’s for Kids and Who’s Just Kidding? campaign, child advocates used materials from our website to brief candidates and educate voters.
In 1999, Susan Bales and I spoke at the Connect for Kids launch at the Museum of Television and Radio in New York City (now named The Paley Center.) There, I said, “Connect for Kids is one-stop shopping on the Internet for people who want to act on behalf of kids. This virtual community is delivering value to real-time communities that want to do better for kids, to:
- get the tools they need to make their communities work for kids;
- get connected to groups that equip adults to act together for kids;
- learn how well children are doing in their community, state, or nation;
- become a better citizen by representing children who can’t vote; and
- give time or money to improve the lives of children.”
Guidance for Grown-ups was the new round of ads to bring users to Connect for Kids. Our research showed that some were turned off by the word “campaigns,” and that the primary messages of connecting and using the website were more effective. The tagline was “When adults run out of ideas for helping children, they can feel as frustrated as kids.”
The press release announced that we were getting “1 million hits per month,” and providing “links to over 1,200 children’s issue sites and 1,500 organizations.” We were a “virtual encyclopedia” where you could “Learn 10 simple things you can for kids in your community, ways to make your workplace more family-friendly and more!”
Before the Web, you were pressed to either mount a campaign to advocate for policy change or a campaign to change individual behaviors, recruit volunteers or ask for donations. In this new medium, we could see people migrating from the personal to the political.
For example, someone would come to the site to get some help on finding childcare. They would get connected to services, but at the same time they would find a checklist for an employer friendly workplace. And, once their interest was sparked, they could find and join organizations advocating for early childhood education funding, and for setting higher expectations than warehousing and safety.
The curated site, mixing original reporting with annotated resources, was light, layered and linked, a model for a knowledge network. Our research showed that users found the site inspirational and empowering. They were surprised at how much people like them could know and do.