Over the weekend, Eduflack and his far better half ventured out to the Jimmy Buffett concert. It was indeed time for the “Labor Day weekend show.” The perfect opportunity to check out from the real world for a few hours, putting concerns about education reform out of mind for a short period of time and instead focusing on great music and modern-day pirates.
Imagine my surprise, then, that amid the shark fins, Parrotheads, and rivers of margaritas, I stumble across a sign welcoming me “to the education revolution,” a promotional booth for EPIC, or Educators for Progressive Instructional Change. Sure, it stood out from among the grass skirts, leis, and tequila, but it nonetheless caught my eye (and what exactly does that say about me?).
EPIC is a non-profit “focused on empowering teachers to impact the process of education reform.” Its goal seems simple enough, to provide teachers the information and professional development so that they can get involved in the policy process. The mission is similar to many others “to create education reform that will empower teachers. Our efforts aim to connect, inspire, and motivate teachers to become the focus of education reform. The primary goal is to unite teachers as an indomitable force for education reform.”
How? At first blush, much of the same old, same old. A brochure that looks like so many that have come before it. LiveStrong style bracelets that have long lost their power. And promotion of a march on DC later this fall, as a show of support by and for area teachers.
Talking with EPIC’s founder and president, Myra Sawyers, Eduflack learned that EPIC (www.epicreform.org) is focusing on the DC area first, with plans to roll out activities in other cities (Charlotte, NC was mentioned) down the road. Sawyers is quick to note that the group is not a PAC, but instead is a non-profit organization with no political mandate.
This mission, indeed, is a noble one, one that is desperately needed in 21st century public education. We do need to treat good teachers with more professionalism and respect. Teachers should be involved in the policy process, at the local, state, and federal levels. And teachers must be empowered to be self-advocates, voices in the schools and the community that not only trigger reform, but bring about meaningful improvement.
Many things must be done, though, to move from well-intentioned to impactful. There are scores of organizations like EPIC that are created each and every year. And each and every year, even more organizations like it fail. They fail for many of the same reasons, and many of them focus on communications.
So how does EPIC learn those lessons and continue to build a strong non-profit organization dedicated to teacher empowerment? By following five simple steps:
* Have a plan — A NFP is no different than a corporation or a political campaign. The first step to success is having a clear business plan you can follow. What are your goals? Who are you trying to reach? How will you measure success? What resources (human and financial) are available to you? In the words of baseball philosopher Yogi Berra, if you don’t know where you are going, you are never going to get there. The plan helps you see where you are going.
* Know your audience — We all want to be everything to everyone. But success requires clear identification of your target audience. More importantly, it means understanding the stakeholders who can make the most difference in the shortest period of time. Who’s in a position to call for change? Who can implement change? Who has the resources to bring about change?
* Have a clear ask — Too many start-up not-for-profits see themselves as information-sharing organizations only. They believe that if they get the information out, their work is done. Success comes when you drive your audience to take a specific action. And that only comes from a clear ask. If EPIC is targeting teachers, what exactly do they want them to do? Speak at school boards? Visit state legislatures? Write letters to the editor? Figure out what actions are needed to bring change, then ask for those actions (and those actions only).
* Don’t go alone — It is hard to have lasting impact if you are a singular voice trying to break through the white noise. Education reform success often comes through relationships, partnerships, and advocates. Find those groups and individuals that share a common vision and common goals. Use their communications channels. Build on their membership and recognition. Establish a network of champions and advocates that can carry your message well beyond your own resources.
* Evaluate, adjust, repeat — Yes, it is essential to set clear, measurable goals from the beginning. A good reform organization knows to constantly evaluate its efforts, establishing ongoing benchmarks of effectiveness. A truly successful reform group knows to take that evaluation and use it to adjust its communications and advocacy efforts, constantly improving and strengthening its activities. Such an ongoing feedback loop only strengthens the organization and ensures the maximization of resources.
And one final piece of advice for Ms. Sawyers and the education reformers like her. PACs aren’t the only groups that advocate. Under the law, not-for-profits and 501(c)(3)s can be effective policy advocates at all levels of government. Yes, there is a fine line between lobbying and advocacy. But for groups like EPIC to be successful, they must become successful policy advocates. Simply spotlighting the importance of teachers is no longer good enough. Those organizations that leave a lasting impact are ones that guide us to improvement. They are groups that make specific policy recommendations to improve the power of the teaching profession. And then they leave it up to the legislators to codify and fund it.