Ever wonder what it's like to be a grassroots advocate?
I never did. Until I became one.
Do you have any idea what a grassroots advocate does? I didn't. Honestly, I'm pretty sure I've made it up as I go along. At least for my cause. Maybe that's what all advocates do.
Now, in my 11th year as a child safety and tip-over prevention advocate, I can tell you, it's not a job description most people would covet. It's not something the average person would say they want to be when they grow up. Who wants a job where you earn $0 and spend your own money and free time to sustain your cause?
I guess that's why most of us who do this sort of work have suffered some sort of tragedy or crisis in our lives before we ventured down this road. It's more of a calling, a choice born of love, grief, and a passionate desire to help others, than it is a career choice.
As most of you know, it took my daughter's tragic death to send me down this path. It's not a path I ever would have chosen to go down. Yet, here I am. Juggling advocacy and all that goes with it with full time parenting, being a ballroom dancing wife with a tremendously supportive husband, working part time, and holding several teaching positions. I really never imagined when I began Meghan's Hope it would be what it has become, or how incredibly challenging and difficult it is to get what seems to be such a simple message, out there.
Now, I can't imagine not doing it. I have a much bigger vision for it yet I now know how difficult, time consuming, and expensive it will be to accomplish the goals I've set for my awareness campaign.
I'd estimate I spend an average 6-10 hours a week on Meghan's Hope. Sometimes less, sometimes more. I know it doesn't sound like much, but it means that after working a "real" job and taking care of my family, instead of watching a TV show, reading a book, or perhaps just doing whatever it is most people do with their evenings and weekends, I choose to devote a good deal of my "free" time to raising awareness about the dangers of furniture and TV tip-over. I choose to try to educate people how they can make their homes and their kids safer. I try to save lives.
Time is but one of the costs of being a grassroots advocate. There are dollar costs, too. It costs me several hundreds of dollars every year to print brochures, business cards, posters, exhibiting supplies, and for web site fees. If I am exhibiting or presenting at a conference, that adds exhibiting fees and/or conference registrations, travel, sometimes hotel reservations, food, and so forth, and that sends costs into the thousands of dollars. The time spent creating and editing those documents, power point presentations and related materials, and corresponding with others adds up to weeks every year. Then if I add in the blogging and writing I do or time spent granting interviews or pursuing them, along with teaching and preparing for those classes, well, it's a time consuming passion. It also costs time to prepare, travel, to present, and to network.
It's rare to receive payment for anything I write or for speaking, or even getting waived conference fees, even at large national conferences, when doing this kind of work. I still have to pay to attend the conference I've been invited to speak at the vast majority of the time. Not having non-profit status can hurt me sometimes, especially when exhibiting, although most venues will grant me the discounts they give non-profits if I ask and explain what I do. Even local safety fairs often charge a fee to have a table at the fair!
I bet you are wondering why Meghan's Hope is not a non-profit. It was, initially. The funds that were donated did help to offset the costs of running the organization, but even then, it wasn't enough to cover all of them and certainly did not pay me for the hours I put into it every day. Unfortunately, I needed to have a job that provided an income to support my family, especially once I was a single mom again.
The reality is that with a legal organization comes requirements, and those are a lot harder to keep up with in a small organization like mine than you would think. Especially when the BOD is composed at least in part, of family members or friends, which many of these educational and advocacy ventures are. In theory, it sounds great, in reality, it can be an incredible challenge.
It's tremendously difficult to find BOD members who are willing to be active and involved consistently and can all attend meetings regularly. They need to be as passionate as you are. There were many after Meg died who wanted to help, but they quickly faded away. People are busy with their own lives and as I've previously stated, this is a time consuming effort. You need officers who are responsible and take their role seriously. You need enough people to do the fundraising and work that your mission outlines. You must file taxes and annual reports, you must track income and expenses. It's too much for one person, legally it can't be one person, and it's difficult to find enough people to fill all those roles and devote the time and energy to it that the organization needs to be successful. Especially since they are volunteers. I've sat on several boards over the years, they are time consuming, especially for those who lead busy lives, which most of us do.
It's great for larger charity organizations, but for education and awareness, it's a challenge. Especially when you do not have the time to devote to it, and honestly, it is a full time job if you want it to really succeed. The greatest benefit of a non-profit is the ability to fund-raise and provide those who donate to your cause a tax deduction. I found that those who donated to Meghan's Hope really did not care about the tax deduction, they donated because they wanted to help the cause. I feel the same way when I donate to a cause. I have never once donated to any organization or cause thinking, "I need to do this for the tax deduction."
I found I could just as easily do most of what I'd like to do without non-profit status. With social media the way it is today, that is certainly a lot easier than it was to reach large amounts of people quickly. I still offer classes, speak, and exhibit when I can. I'm sure there are events I'd love to attend that I just don't even know about. If you know of one, let me know!
That said, I was surprised to find out how much of a challenge it is to partner with other organizations when you are not a non-profit. Especially with larger non-profits or big National organizations. It's been frustrating that in some cases, a beautiful partnership was jeopardized because Meghan's Hope is not a 501 C3 non-profit organization!
Advocacy is not for everyone, especially the grassroots parent advocacy I do. I do not have non-profit status. I do not have a Board of Directors. I do not have anyone donating time or money to my cause. I have no one helping me. It's just me. I'm a one mama organization. It's been that way for 8 years.
I incur all the expenses. I put in all the time, often early in the morning and late at night or on weekends. I am the only one who has to drop everything (and do so willingly) and clear my often very busy schedule when the opportunity for a TV or news media interview presents itself.
I am the one who teaches and markets the classes, keeps up with the latest information and resources, maintains the Facebook page and website, and answers all the messages I receive (and there are several every single day). I am the one who needs to seek information that I can share so that others can learn what they need to know to keep their kids safe. I do it very willingly, because I believe in it and because I can't imagine not doing it. I have to do it.
People think I must have help or I must be getting donations because Meghan's Hope must be a non-profit. Nope. Hell, it's like pulling teeth trying to get some of my friends and family to share Meghan's story, website, and Facebook page most of the time, let alone complete strangers who don't have a personal connection to me and have no idea of what our family has been through!
With regard to TV and news interviews... I've done several over the years. This post was actually inspired by one I did yesterday. A friend said, "Oh, that's so exciting. I know someone famous!" I know she meant it partially in jest and it was a sort of backwards compliment, but I did not want this "fame." It's not really exciting, it's actually quite stressful. Not the talking part, the rest of it.
Let me tell you a few things I've learned about TV interviews... It's NOT glamorous. It's not easy. It can be crazy time consuming (a 15 minute TV interview can take 2 hours by the time they set everything up, do the interview, and take it down). It usually needs to be done NOW or at least today, so you have little notice and either you answer the phone when they call and agree to do it or they ask someone else (the "scoop" is still very important). If your house is a disaster and they will arrive in an hour, good luck with that! It can be invasive in terms of time and personal space as they are often done in your home. They are usually requested with a mere few hours of lead time, maybe a day if you are fortunate. Today's news is forgotten tomorrow. Sadly, because of what I do, I'm usually only newsworthy if another tragic death has occurred. The news media definitely subscribes to the concept of Carpe Diem!
You can certainly say yes or no to things or refuse to answer questions, but they often decide where the interview will take place within your home due to lighting and other factors. Much to my dismay, my kitchen is usually used.
I've done interviews with local cable TV stations, local network television stations, national news programs like Inside Edition, the CBS Morning Show and NBC's Today show. Sometimes they contact me. Sometimes, I write to or call them to suggest a story. Sometimes I get to suggest questions or get a list of questions that will be asked ahead of time, but that's rare. Despite all the time and effort of the interview, not all of them actually make it to air. Some other story can easily knock mine out of the rotation. Maybe what I said was not what they were looking for. Maybe the audio or video was bad. Maybe someone else they interviewed for the same story was "better" in some way. I never know why the ones that don't air, don't. Just try to get a producer or journalist to answer your email or calls when they have no vested interest in you or your story anymore.
None of them ever show all or the key sound bytes I'd like them to. I'm not always as articulate as I'd like to be. Okay, I'm never as articulate as I'd like to be. I've learned the hard way that I need to be careful with what I say, how I say it, and think about how my words could be used out of context. Most media outlets have a "slant" for their story. Once that camera is rolling or I start speaking, it's all fair game for their story. I've learned to ask what their "angle" is. It helps. If they are truthful.
Often, the person doing the interview with me has very little information about why they are even here to interview me. Those with young children, especially young daughters, are often thrown for an emotional loop when I tell them the story. Some moved to tears - men and women alike, and both veteran and green journalists and TV personalities. Many don't know what to ask unless they are familiar with the story, and I'm shocked at how few of the journalists do the research ahead of time even though when I have the opportunity, I send them links to all sorts of valuable information about Meghan's Hope and tip-overs.
Thus, I have to answer the questions to give the information I want the world to hear based on their vague or leading questions that are going down a path different than the one I want to go down. Sometimes they don't ask questions that even allow for that to make any sense! It's all easier said than done when a 10-20 minute taped interview ends up being 15-30 seconds of spliced tape on a show, sometimes taken out of context or without hearing the complete sentence, question, or response. I've even been blindsided by my husband's 911 call in a story, and the producers did not even think to warn us they were using it in the story! This was shortly after Meghan died and it was a HUGE trigger!
Interviews with newspapers or magazines are easier. They are usually scheduled and over the phone. We often exchange information and links via email prior. These journalists have usually done their homework, already know the story, have seen the Website and Facebook page, and know about what I do, but they also have a 'slant' and you need to know what it is if possible. They often have more time to write their story, whereas TV media is pushing to meet a deadline for the next major newscast.
I have no say in how any of the media outlets will use the information I provide, and it's sometimes misquoted in print media or used piecemeal, in a way that is not what I intended or in the order that I said it, but it's closer to the information I want to convey and more of what I say is often conveyed in print media than it is in TV media.
Then there are the articles and stories I write. Those I have complete control over content-wise. Of course, I have no control over who reads them or agrees to print them and it's much harder for me to reach the same audience as a story in a major newspaper or magazine or on a network TV news station does.
It all takes a tremendous amount of time, energy, and money. Yet I love it. I love Meghan. I do it out of love. I do it so no other parent ever knows my pain. I do it so no other child every has to die the way Meghan did.
I get no reward, other than the messages from parents who thank me for waking them up to this danger and saving their child from Meghan's fate.
That makes it all worth it. THAT is why I do it.
Meghan's Story is saving lives. Yet its not saving enough of them, because 71 children every single day are still injured by a fallen piece of furniture, TV, or an appliance and every 2 weeks a child loses their life to a tip-over accident. Until those numbers are zero, Meghan's Hope must continue. Her hope is to see a day when children are no longer injured or dying from these easily preventable accidents. We're getting closer, but we still have a long, long, way to go.
All in all, I'd say the grassroots movement has been successful for me. It takes a passionate and determined person, with a relatively strong backbone (never read the comments!) It takes someone who has the know-how to figure out how to build a website (that took a long time!) or find someone who can, to develop and design and print marketing supplies. Someone who is willing and able to talk about her tragedy and deal with the people who can't cope with the story even when they are the members of the news media interviewing you! Someone who can educate, explain, and reach people on a personal level.
Someone who cares.
It's a love story.
So that's what it's like to be a parent advocate. At least today.