Going Out of Business

SARA ENGRAM

February 16, 1992|By SARA ENGRAM | SARA ENGRAM,Sara Engram is editorial page director of The Evening Sun.

Three cheers for Peggy Charren.

First, she had the vision to gather some friends in her Massachusetts living room in 1968 in order to start a nationwide effort to improve children's television.

Second, as the president and founder -- the heart and soul -- of Action for Children's Television (ACT), she had the endurance and skill to persist in a long, uphill battle, which culminated in the passage last fall of the Children's Television Act of 1990.

Third, she had the guts to claim her victory and quit.

Last month Ms. Charren announced that ACT would go out of business at the end of this year. Its assets, amounting to about $125,000, will go to Harvard University's Graduate School of Education to finance an annual lecture series and a fellowship for research on children's television.

A few days after her announcement, a new group emerged to announce that, once ACT folds, it will take over the cause of fighting for quality television programming for children. No doubt it will do so with energy and commitment, and perhaps even a fresh vision of what steps come next.

Peggy Charren won't mind. She doesn't claim to have won the war; she's happy to have won a major battle. The speed with which her cause was taken up by others is a tribute in itself. It also suggests that her example may be one other advocacy groups could learn from.

How many groups come together with an important cause and concrete goals, only to accomplish them; then, instead of closing up shop, they turn into self-perpetuating bureaucracies? Having won most of what they set out to do, they find it more and more difficult to get the public's attention, which means that more effort and money must be put into the fund-raising campaigns that keep the organization alive.

This is not to fault the thousands of Americans who dedicate themselves to worthy causes. Rather it's a plug for the often-overlooked virtue of quitting when you're ahead.

For instance, now that the Cold War is over, what is to become of SANE/FREEZE: Campaign for Global Security, with a $4 million budget, 23 state organizations and 250 local groups? The organization, a merger of several anti-nuclear groups, sought a comprehensive U.S.-Soviet test ban treaty, a bilateral halt to the nuclear arms race, deep reductions in nuclear weapons and an end to U.S. military intervention abroad. Has it simply gotten too big to quit?

Sometimes, the causes produce ever-smaller goals, leaving the advocacy group with less access to media attention and less a claim on public sympathy. For instance, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) has succeeded in significantly tightening drunk driving laws and producing a measurable drop in alcohol-related traffic fatalities.

This is great news for the public, but it leaves MADD with a less compelling mission. In Maryland this year, MADD's legislative goals -- outlawing open containers of alcohol in passenger compartments and mandatory alcohol testing after accidents involving serious bodily injury -- aren't likely to create much public interest one way or the other. Would MADD draw more attention to its cause by simply quitting while it's ahead?

Mention outdated causes and one that springs to many lips is the March of Dimes. Organized in 1938 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the March of Dimes had a compelling cause -- to eradicate polio, and a compelling representative -- a president who himself was a victim of the disease.

At its height, the March of Dimes had 3,000 chapters, virtually one in every county, as well as a staff that included an army of physicians, nurses and physical therapists.

The great triumph for the March of Dimes came in the early 1950s when the polio vaccine became widely available and helped to rid the country of a much-feared scourge. But victory left the organization with a problem: What to do with its network of volunteers, its enviable fund-raising abilities and its valuable links to the scientific and medical communities?

The decision was to shift the focus to other pressing needs. The first was birth defects, a cause which may lack the urgency of polio, but still had the ability to tug at donors' heartstrings. From birth defects, the organization moved on to genetic counseling. Its current focus is a campaign for healthier babies, aimed at reducing the country's high rate of infant mortality and low birth weight. That's a worthy cause indeed -- but it's definitely a harder sell. The picture of a healthy baby doesn't grab the public's attention the way a young polio victim could.

Should the March of Dimes close shop? Perhaps, but then every rule can have an exception.

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