Early Childhood Iowa (ECI) has created a thoughtful, comprehensive and inspiring strategic plan. To move the plan from paper to action, the strategic plan needs communication strategies that fit the unique characteristics of the early childhood system, its financial resources, and ongoing need for legislative and community awareness and support.
An effective communications plan will both educate key constituencies and strengthen the early childhood network. It should be widely shared and understood and reflect input (and ownership) from the ECI areas across Iowa.
This communications plan, and the accompanying communications toolkit, is instrumental in the achievement of Strategic Plan Goal 2: Build public will for investing in young children and their families.
Illustrating the need for this communications plan is a comment by one Area Director:
“After having our budgets cut repeatedly, early childhood is suddenly a hot topic. We are asked to build public-private partnerships. That is great, but I need help. I don’t talk (i.e. understand) business and business does not “talk” early childhood.”
The goal of this communications plan is to provide talking points, literature, communication advice and strategies, training and support to the ECI community.
The best message to increase the knowledge about ECI, and its impact on communities, is to emphasize the importance of the first 2,000 days of a child’s life and the role ECI plays in ensuring the proper development of the child by identifying and filling gaps in local areas.
This communications plan was created after;
- meeting with the Technical Assistance Staff,
- review of the ECI strategic plan,
- reviewing literature on child development in the first two thousand days,
- studying the ECI website, and
- meeting with a few of the 38 Area Directors across the state.
We appreciate the input from the Technical Staff and the opportunity to meet with the Area Directors. As they are on the front lines of service delivery and interacting widely with their local communities, Area Directors are key communicators, organizers, and representatives of the ECI community.
This plan has three components. First, there are materials customized to unique audiences, including parents, the business community, elected officials and faith-based communities. These materials addresses the importance of early childhood, connect stakeholders with local resources, and shows them how to engage with ECI locally and statewide.
Second, the plan includes a communications tool kit to assist ECI boards in increasing external engagement throughout the state through traditional forms of outreach and social media, sharing relevant information, and building grassroots support among important constituencies.
Lastly, the plan lays out strategies to be shared with ECI stakeholders, to support message delivery.
While the strategies recommended do not envision Area Directors taking on all the communication work, they are central to the success of the plan. The strategies envision ADs as possible recruiters, coordinators, and managers of an informal “ECI community” including Board members, parents, service providers, and others with a stake in early childhood.
We recommend additional training and support for Area Directors and their Boards to recruit and engage local stakeholders as well as educate them on the importance of the first 2000 days, how ECI functions in their communities, and why its success is important to the goals of other community-based organizations.
Each component is important for ECI to achieve its mission, which includes:
- Supporting parents and families by providing education and connection to resources
- Providing training and resource support to child care providers
- Strengthening transitions between early care and school age education
- Informing the business communities on the value of supporting young children and their families
ECI and its Area Directors serve as community conveners that bring local voices together to identify gaps in early care in their communities. The Boards then provide financial support to fund programs to fill those gaps.
Why this Plan
The strength of the ECI community is its diversity and distributed network of professionals and volunteers with deep roots in the community. The stakeholders include:
- Child care providers (preschools, child care centers, and regulated child development homes)
- School districts
- Faith based organizations
- Health care providers, and
- Elected representatives
The geographical distribution of the Area Directors, the broad reach of the local Boards and the shortage of financial resources suggest a grassroots/grass tops communication plan would be most effective.
Grassroots refers to how a message is delivered; namely word of mouth via community activities. The term also focuses on activating regular Iowans with an interest in early child development.
Grass-tops refers to activities that reach out to influential people in the community (e.g.; elected officials, local political leadership, churches, service-oriented groups like Rotaries, Kiwanis, Elks, Knight of Columbus, Chambers of Commerce and other business-oriented groups) to ensure they know and understand the ECI mission and enlists their support of ECI objectives.
Again, the objectives are: To raise awareness of ECI and what it takes for a child to be successful, connect stakeholders with community resources, and build support for achieving those objectives, especially though public private partnerships in the community.
As mandated by Iowa code, community representatives of the stakeholders make up Iowa’s 38 local area boards. The Boards vary by area, reflecting local needs and resources. Board members are volunteers, recruited by Area Directors, and serve terms determined by the local area board. Local area boards receive annual, legislatively appropriated, funding designated to Early Childhood Iowa through School Ready and Early Childhood funds.
Statuary duties of the Boards include reviewing and determining contract awards as well as providing direction and oversight to the Area Directors. Equally important, the Boards are the eyes and ears to the ECI community and provide access into their constituencies; all impacted by ECI’s work. Area Directors and their boards are responsible for identifying lapses in coverage for many early development programs, convening partners that can address these gaps, and supplying the funding to implement the programs that are needed. Specifically, Area Directors and their boards seek to strengthen programming that improves ECI’s five result areas: healthy children, children ready to succeed in schools, safe and supportive communities, secure and nurturing families, and secure and nurturing early learning environments. Many ECI Boards also serve other community-based groups working on issues like child abuse, substance abuse, and adolescent pregnancy prevention.
ECI area boards, with the partnership of the ECI statewide support staff, have been successful in creating and funding programs in their communities that improve early childhood outcomes for their children. However, a disconnect between the local boards and the ECI statewide initiative still exists for community members who may not be directly engaged in the early childhood community. This communications plan aims to bridge that gap by showing the partnership between local boards and the ECI state initiative, so that more external communities can understand that the programs they benefit from come from ECI as a whole.
The Area Directors staff local ECI boards and provide direct connections between their local community priorities and the state board’s direct connection to the early childhood system at a state level. Their knowledge and networks extend to the ECI community at large. A primary duty of the Area Directors is to manage their contracted service providers. Not all work full time, but all Area Directors are compensated by ECI and are tasked with identifying and organizing responses to community needs on early childhood issues. Area Directors also track legislative issues and are the natural point person for community engagement and information. They recently created an Association of Area Directors to support advocacy, professional development and mutual support.
The Area Directors we talked with expressed deep commitment to their work. While all areas are unique, many are under financial stress. One AD said his ECI area has lost 40% of their pre-recession budget and had to drop 23 of their 30 previous program offerings in the last 12 years. Another indicated they have less than $200 for their total annual office supply budget.
The good news is the increasing attention on the economic impact child care has on the business community. In Iowa, 77% of families with children under the age of six have both parents working. As part of a multi-pronged approach to building a strong work force, elected leaders and employers are making the connection between effective early childhood development and Iowa’s future workforce. One Area Director noted this sudden increase in attention to early childhood issues by commenting on the growing number of bills currently active in the legislature. She also stated that this increase excites and encourages her, but she lacks the proper communications tools to build upon this momentum within her own local area.
How it Works
Our plan has three main strategies:
- Grass-tops: Local board members are asked to identify key community groups (e.g. Chamber of Commerce) and their leaders who are provided talking points and information.
Grass-tops activities include:
- Identifying and reaching out to local groups/individuals that fit into the targeted communities addressed in this communications plan and in the communications toolkit
- Going over the community specific talking points included in the communications toolkit with the identified local groups
- Giving presentations to these local groups about how they can positively impact the first 2,000 days of a child’s life with specific action steps
- Identifying leaders in local groups who could be signatories of op-eds for local newspapers, post on social media and talk to local policy makers and community leaders (see tips and a template for writing op-eds in the communications toolkit)
An Area Director, attending a Chamber of Commerce or City Council meeting learns local employers are experiencing higher employee absenteeism due to recent decrease in available child care. The Area Director and a board member representing the business community, would meet with local Chamber or businesses to discuss child care issues in the community (See the business talking points in the toolkit.) Together they identify short- and long-term solutions. Examples of short-term solution could include an employer designating an employee to help staff the local childcare until additional child care staff are found, or help pay for an additional staff. A long-term solution might include the employers talking to elected officials and/or writing pieces of earned media.
As part of managing the grass tops program the Area Directors should recruit someone to create a master calendar of stakeholder events in their community with a list of community groups and their meeting schedules. The AD should see that an ECI representative attends the meetings to show a presence and report ECI related news and/or a request from the early childhood community. The news can be as significant as the number of parents in need of child care and what is being done to help, or a key vote in the legislature to issues of lesser urgency such as an upcoming fundraiser.
Any of the action steps listed above can be completed by Area Directors, or Area Directors can recruit other interested board members to complete these tasks.
The purpose in attending these meetings is twofold: share relevant news from the ECI community AND have a regular presence in front of a group that is, whether they appreciate it or not, a stakeholder in the success of ECI. An ECI presence and update at Chamber of Commerce meetings or at City Council meetings increases knowledge and understanding of the importance of early childhood and the role ECI has in strengthening programs.
“Reasonable” numerical goals should be established (e.g. meetings attended, times presented, money raised, in kind partnerships created, etc.) with each Board in the context of its community and resources. What is reasonable will vary by area and is something individual boards can decide as part of customizing the plan to its community and achieving ownership in its success.
Grassroots activities include:
- Board members, or other stakeholders – parents for example - could be enlisted to work on a public education campaign. That effort might consist of letters to the editor, strong social media presence, literature at hospitals and care providers, and tables at area events where parents and stakeholders will be present. Volunteers should be trained on advocacy (not lobbying) including the idea that advocacy can and should be done in their community (not just the State House) and that it is not a full-time job. Advocacy at this level can look like:
- Sharing information with neighbors, friends, funders, elected officials, etc.
- Growing your social media presence
- Sharing relevant content on social media a few times a week
- Sharing the general one-pager from the communications toolkit with families, friends, coworkers, schools, and local community organizations.
An Area Director has identified a board member interested in advocacy and with an affinity for social media. The AD should work with the board member on a social media schedule, on creating, sharing and boosting weekly themes. (See the social media ideas from the communications toolkit.) The weekly/monthly social media posts could be coordinated by the State to keep messaging consistent and persistent.
The effectiveness of local grassroots advocacy is that it’s organic and authentic, not staged. It also relies on neighbors meeting neighbors at the store, local schools, community meetings, and sporting events where conversations beyond advocacy occur BUT, when organized properly, advocacy occurs.
Area Directors are key to the grassroots efforts. They are the recruiters, organizers, and encouragers. Area Directors should not be the primary “doers.” They should leverage their knowledge of the ECI networks and their experience to recruit others to perform smaller projects.
The ADs will create a calendar of events, places to advocate, and key stakeholders to reach and track the progress. They will be partners and facilitators with the State in training local advocates of parents, child care providers, and other stakeholders.
The State ECI Community and Technical Staff have important roles to play.
First, local ownership in the plan is critical to its success. Area Directors and Boards should understand this plan provides a proven framework for grassroots communications. It also allows flexibility to accommodate local concerns and resources.
The State should organize regional or small group presentations of the communications plan where the grassroots and grass tops strategies and the roles of the Boards, Directors and State, would be explained. The Directors and Boards should understand how grass tops and grassroots fit within their legacy of independence and need for targeted outreach.
If a community agrees to participate the State should assist in seeing that local volunteers are recognized for their efforts. An award or a title for local participants would be helpful.
A second role of the State is to support the local boards through training, organizational assistance, and resources for the Boards and Area Directors. It could be a train the trainer program for Area Directors and Board members or a web-based training program that could also train volunteers on the plan. Training should include volunteer recruitment, understanding advocacy, how to communicate in public (especially with the business community), where to find resources, and how to be effective on social media.
A third role for the state is to provide subject matter expertise and new and relevant content for presentations, letters to the editor and social media content. Once a month, the State could send articles or information to be shared via the Monthly Musings.
Early Childhood Iowa at both the state and local levels is made up of well-connected and passionate people. The power of this network could be amplified if they coalesce around a strategic message and plan for outreach. This communications plan aims to deliver all of the resources needed to achieve that goal. By providing area directors with the guidance and tools they need through ECI state support and the communications toolkit, they are empowered with the knowledge they need to communicate and collaborate with new members of their community they have not reached before. The grassroots and grass tops communication plan offers strategies to put this information into action through a variety of outreach activities such as social media, earned media, community meetings, and more. All of these approaches and activities can be customized at the local level to accommodate the expertise of the local Area Directors and Boards who have an intimate understanding of their community’s unique needs.
If ECI regions across the state focus on implementing this communications plan, the way Iowans think about early childhood will transform. New audiences such as businesses, faith-based organizations, and policymakers will understand how critical the first 2,000 days of life are for young Iowans and they will recognize that Early Childhood Iowa is leading the charge to support these children and their families. With this newfound support statewide, opportunities would be abundant for Early Childhood to expand its programming and reach more children than ever. This vision could be attained if every member of the ECI community does their part. The tools are now in place—let’s get to work!