In 2016, the Potts Family Foundation created a statewide collaborative called the Oklahoma Early Childhood Initiative, later dubbed OK25by25. Our stated goal is to move Oklahoma into the top 25 of all states by 2025 in key early childhood metrics.
Our key demographic is families with children, pre-birth to five. Through listening sessions with key community leaders, we identified four focus areas: evidence-based literacy/numeracy programs; evidence-based family support programs; access to preventive physical and brain health services; and access to affordable, high quality childcare. The research is very compelling that, if conditions improve in these four areas, the outcomes for our demographic will also improve.
Most funding for the four focus areas comes from state and/or federal dollars, with state dollars being appropriated by the legislature. State agencies receive appropriated state dollars to either provide direct services or contract to nonprofit or private organizations to deliver those services.
Either way, the legislature is a major financial lifeline for our demographic.
We saw it necessary, therefore, to ensure that our legislators were aware of the critically important pre-birth to five time period for brain and social-emotional development. We decided to create an Early Childhood Legislative Caucus.
You might be wondering: Can a private foundation create a state legislative caucus? And is a small foundation with $7.2 million in assets and 4 staff capable of doing this?
Although the IRS has made it clear that private foundations cannot engage in or directly support lobbying, we can educate and advocate on behalf of a broad range of issues.
We leveraged the reputation of the foundation’s co-founder, Pat Potts, a leader and advocate for children in Oklahoma. Pat and I scheduled in-person meetings with as many legislators as we could during the 4-month legislative session. We met in their offices to introduce the statewide initiative and its specific focus areas, most which received direct state dollars.
Our appeal to them was, if cuts were necessary, that they consider leaving all evidence-based programs alone vs. those programs for which no data and outcomes are collected. Conversely, if additional dollars were available, the evidence-based programs should receive a top priority. This was our “ask.” In all likelihood, they would do what their leadership and caucus decided, but our “ask” and the rationale behind it were essential to growing the Legislative Caucus.
Building the caucus
The Oklahoma Legislature has 149 members. When we started in February, we had no caucus members. By the time we unveiled the OK25by25 Initiative at a press conference in the Blue Room of the State Capitol on May 10, 2016, we had 25 members, and several spoke at the press conference.
We continued to make appointments after the session adjourned, as many legislators come back to the State Capitol for interim studies or constituency meetings. By the end of the summer, we were up to 45. We felt very successful, but there were some challenges.
A legislative caucus can be a moving target, especially among the representatives who serve a 2-year term, before having to run for re-election. Keeping the caucus intact in light of their losing re-election, departing for personal reasons, or term limits is an ongoing challenge. With turnover comes the need to identify replacements, which means additional one-on-one appointments with new legislators.
Our strategy to educate and advocate included breakfast and/or luncheon sessions near or at the State Capitol. We held these sessions once a month, where food was served and speakers were present to talk on one of the four focus areas. With four focus areas and a 4-month legislative session, each topic could be addressed.
Not only were the legislators being educated by subject matter experts (SMEs), but they now had access to SMEs should they need language for bills they might want to carry. We also sought legislators who would be willing to hold interim studies after the session concluded, and provided SMEs for those as well. To date, we have been deeply involved with the implementation of two interim studies, one on the House side and one on the Senate side.
Because of our involvement in the areas of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and the resilience movement, we were also, through our community advocacy, instrumental in the passage of a bill that created the state’s first trauma-informed task force. Again, we could not “lobby” the legislators for passage, but we could educate our legislative caucus on the importance of having such a task force in place. We were invited by the Governor to attend the bill signing ceremony after its passage from the legislature.
To supplement these efforts, we have amassed a group of over 60 like-minded organizations—from foundations and nonprofits to chambers and educational entities—that we also educate. They are sent summaries of each of our monthly legislative caucus events, our bi-monthly newsletter, and op-eds we develop for statewide distribution. By knowing what’s going on at the State Capitol, they are better informed about the pressing issues that might be impacting their missions as well.
By engaging diverse members of the for- and nonprofit communities, our foundation’s mission is strengthened and our constituents are better served, which we consider a win-win for the state of Oklahoma.
Craig Knutson is currently president/CEO of the Potts Family Foundation, dual missioned in nonprofit capacity building and sustainable early childhood initiatives. His previous positions include president/principal with Growing Global LLC and eConographic Consulting Services; chief of staff at Oklahoma City University and The Oklahoma Insurance Department; and chief economist at Southwestern Bell/SBC.