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Q&A: Community-Foundation Official Touts New Coalition on Children

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Under a three-year, $1.5-million grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, 32 community foundations joined with the United Way of America in a coalition to advance children's causes. The group hopes eventually to draw in more than 400 community foundations and more than 2300 United Way affiliates nationwide.

John F. Ramsey, the vice president for external affairs of the Boston Foundation and a co-chairman of the coalition, discussed it with Assistant Editor Deborah L. Cohen.

Q. How did the coalition come about?

A. In the fall of 1989, Hugh Price of the Rockefeller Foundation ... issued a challenge to community foundations to establish a more coherent and visible presence for children's issues across the country. That challenge was followed up by a series of meetings... which culminated in a conference in Indianapolis this past fall where the operating principles and organizational structure of the coalition were endorsed by community foundation executives and United Way officials.

Q. What are the coalition's goals?

A. To encourage individual and collective reform efforts involving public-policy research, education, advocacy, community organizing, marketing and media campaigns, and ... integrated-service delivery for programs for children.

One of the beauties of the coalition is that [it] will customize its efforts in each locality by determining which agenda item has highest priority and the potential for the greatest impact. [Its] importance lies in activating key leaders and institutional players in any given community, whether it is around immunization, affordable housing, early-childhood education, or child care... so that we can make more than token gains for kids.

Q. Why are nonprofit organizations rallying around children's causes?

A. What the formation of the coalition signifies is a recognition that we have truly reached a crisis moment in the social and economic history of this country. Child poverty, births to unmarried teens, and teenage violent deaths have all increased dramatically over the past 10 years--that's just three indicators that children are neglected to their great peril and the great peril of a society attempting to update itself as a viable economic force.

Q. What kinds of children's issues is the Boston Foundation involved in?

A. Our president chairs the city's maternal-health commission, which is working to bring about a significant reduction in low-birthweight babies and infant deaths. We have also been active in teenage pregnancy prevention and have taken a lead role in structuring youth and community service initiatives and [in] developing a youth-led commission organizing around substance abuse and violence prevention. The foundation has also convened over the past two years a seminar on child care that involved 75 community leaders drawn from business, universities, government, and the nonprofit world to map out a decade-long program for the reform and strengthening of child care in Boston.

Q. What strengths can community foundations bring to child advocacy?

A. [We] take the long view of community need and are focused on gathering accurate information and adapting to current challenges and future issues [and engaging] a cross section of leaders in their communities to do strategic planning and candid problem-solving.

Q. What is the best strategy to secure funding for children's programs in these recessionary times?

A. One that carefully documents the magnitude of the issues facing children and communicates those needs through the media effectively. [Too often], we have given the impression that only a small segment of abjectly poor kids are at risk, when, in fact, the majority of children--extending from those in extreme poverty to the working poor, even into lower- and middle-class families are jeopardized by a failing public education system, health system, and lack of affordable housing.

Our charge is to do a far more effective job of framing the nature of those issues.

The coalition is enlisting people like Jay Winston of the Harvard University School of Public Health, who was responsible for designing the "designated driver campaign, to help prepare a similar campaign around children's issues.

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