Voices from the Field

Finding Our Voice

I’m a millennial. It’s a characterization I balk against for all its negative connotations, but thanks to Mom, Dad, and 1983, I am one. And for all the challenging characteristics of millennials, there’s one I find particularly true of us on the older end of the spectrum—an ingrained belief that the bright-eyed, emerging from college versions of ourselves espoused: we were supposed to do our part in healing the world.

I was lucky enough to find myself in a year-long volunteer service opportunity at a Children’s Advocacy Center in rural West Virginia shortly after college, which gave me a great place to channel those energies. But here’s the thing: when I first learned about the job opening, I had never heard of a CAC. And I certainly didn’t have familiarity with the stark realities 1-in-10 children experience in our country. I was a clued-in-social-justice-loving-mega-volunteering young human, but nobody around me was talking about child abuse.

Millennials care about the world, but we are also bombarded with advertising, imagery, and the internet’s weekly zeitgeist telling us what to care about. We know the uphill battle we face in the CAC movement when it comes to telling our story. We ethically can’t have a “poster child.” We get confused with other children’s advocacy organizations. People find the issue of child sexual abuse incredibly uncomfortable. And yet, if we’re going to change realities for children in this country, it’s time for us to all think deeply about our communications strategies. We help kids find their voice every day at our centers—it’s time we now find ours.

Companies from tiny startups to global giants invest early and often in branding and communications. Why? A good brand should tell the company’s story in a way that breaks through the white noise and sticks with the audience. In the world of nonprofits, I think there’s a constant tension between investing in service provision and in all the other things that help our organizations run successfully. And that’s a healthy tension, because we need to continue to be mission-driven, authentic organizations. But when branding and communications becomes the last thing we invest in and we continue to wonder why we’re struggling with community identity and funding, perhaps it’s time to rethink our approach.

In West Virginia, we faced the same issues many of you do: limited resources and an unclear organizational identity. This is why we decided to recruit PR professionals to join our board, and we learned our ‘brand’ was not clear or consistent. Our next strategic plan included a communications and branding component. Our two goals were this: 1) Establish brand consistency for CACs in West Virginia so people know us when they see us, and 2) Engage our audience in a deeper conversation about child abuse and the incredible work of CACs.

We engaged with a branding firm that helped us distill our branding from an outside perspective (one that would make sense to the general public). With their help, we developed a new logo, tagline, and core messaging strategies. They developed a website template we could offer to our 20 member centers, some of whom didn’t even have a website yet. We had an individual donate her professional photography services to create a core set of images that would be used on all our materials and could also be used by local centers. And we created an adaptable but consistent logo that our centers could use adopt. Ultimately 15 of our 20 centers implemented the website, and 11 adopted the logo.

The branding firm also helped us get serious about our communications strategies, and we were able to add half a staff position to support it. Through that position, we have engaged in a proactive communication strategy that involves social media, creation of multiple content series, proactive engagement with the press, and the launch of a blog. Since the launch of our new branding and communications strategy last year, we have seen a 719% increase in visitors to our website, a 74% increase in Facebook followers, and a 30% increase in Twitter followers. And we’re still learning. We use our communications platforms to help make our supporters champions. We select audience-specific blogs and send them along (with a personal message) to the Secretary who oversees our funding, to the Legislator who fought for our bill on the floor, or to the funder who is beginning to engage seriously in our issues.

Here’s the reality the millennial me discovered once I engaged in this work: what we do is complicated. It’s difficult to distill to a sound bite (as is any important work, I believe). I’m thrilled that we are figuring out a way to tell our broader story in all its complexity and that people are beginning to engage. The work of social change is hard and takes years, but we have to start now by engaging our broader communities in sharing in our mission. And we start small: what is it we need to say? We start there.


Emily Chittenden-Laird is Executive Director of West Virginia Child Advocacy Network. She came to the CAC movement as an AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers In Service to America) in rural West Virginia as a forensic interviewer, and was involved in local and statewide development issues. Emily provides leadership in every aspect of the movement in West Virginia—from training to developing public policy. Her recognition as one of the State Journal’s 2013 40 Under 40, and for multiple child advocacy honors, is a nod to her continued commitment toward changing the Mountain State, for its children, and for the better.