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A glimmer of unity rather than division: political lessons from No Kid Hungry

Today’s headlines report the retirement of Maine’s Republican Senator Olympia Snowe, widely seen as one of the last of the moderates. The various analyses describe how moderation is being squeezed out of politics. But it still exists in the civic sector and I’m convinced that the more discouraged people are by the dysfunction of our political system, the more encouraged and inspired they are by efforts like ours.

Accordingly I wanted to see what political lessons might be drawn from our experience with No Kid Hungry. Such lessons could help guide our future endeavors, may be of use to state partners as we progress, and might have applicability to other nonprofit seeking to intersect with public policy to advance social change. In most cases the lessons underscore the value of steering away from conventional political thinking and “politics as usual” and instead toward the less traveled path. I think there are at least five such lessons to consider:

Governors Are More Pragmatic and Less Ideological: Governors are chief executives responsible for getting things done. They tend to be more pragmatic and less ideological than members of Congress. And unlike members of the House and Senate they are not fighting to gain or maintain majority status and all of the powers and perks that go with it. While they are political, they are under less pressure to remain faithful to party at all costs. Our focus on governors, overlooked by many of our colleague organizations, is one of the reasons we’ve been as successful as we have. The NGA meeting in DC last week, and the strong personal testimonials by many governors about the importance of No Kid Hungry, was solid evidence of the above.

Children Represent Common Ground: and perhaps the last patch of turf that Democrats and Republicans can share together and that has not been torn apart by the relentless partisan divide. Children are the most vulnerable and the least responsible for the situation they are in, they are not only vulnerable but voiceless, and that makes it hard not to join our campaign. There is a moral case and a strategic case for putting children first.

Not Trying to Be All things to All People. Politicians get a bad rap, and deservedly so, when they are so eager to please everyone that what they really stand for becomes so watered down as to be undetectable. It takes some courage and discipline to pick and choose rather than check “all of the above.” We picked and chose. As we once did, many of our colleagues focus on hunger in general. Some day we might do so again too. But our sharp focus on child hunger conveys that we don’t just give lip service to every need and interest but that we authentically care about and are committed to this one.

No One to Blame But Ourselves. Politicians play the blame game, quick to take credit for victories and quick to blame the opposition in defeat. Like the all-thing-to-all-people syndrome above it turns people off. But we’ve offered to hold ourselves accountable for solving the problem of childhood hunger. We won’t be pointing the finger at any one else. We will own our successes and our failures. And our stakeholders know where to look for results and accountability.

The Power of Ideas. Politics at its best is not about money, or endorsements, or great press or political muscle, it is about the power of ideas to motivate and move people to action. We have kept our focus on a powerful idea: ending childhood hunger. While we are not a political organization, at its best politics is about persuasion and our efforts to persuade are clearly succeeding.

When we are successful in ending childhood hunger, and we will be, a wonderful byproduct may be that we also created an example of what politics at is best can achieve.

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