Changing big systems often starts by working with individuals. Voices for Virginia’s Children executive director Margaret Nimmo Holland learned this early in her nonprofit career.
Shortly after joining Voices (then known as the Action Alliance for Virginia’s Children and Youth) as a policy analyst in January 2000, Margaret was working with parents who were struggling to access resources for their children experiencing severe mental health challenges. Many of these parents had depleted their personal funds in their efforts to get appropriate treatment for their kids.
Because these families and the mental health professionals trying to help them had run out of options, the families were urged to relinquish custody of their children to their local department of social services in order to receive state funding for expensive services, including residential treatment placements.
“We [Voices] worked for several years to fix this issue,” Margaret says. “I partnered with a very articulate mother to share her story with the secretary of health and human resources. The secretary decided on the spot to form a committee to look into the issue. I brought more parents to speak to the committee and worked with the media to highlight the terrible dilemma faced by these families.
“Putting together our data and research with the parents’ personal stories proved very effective in influencing the policymakers. We were able to explain the mechanisms of the system and why it needed to change.”
Legislators changed the law and Margaret discovered the value of relationships in effecting policy change.
“Policy work is all about building strong, long-term relationships with advocates, policymakers, partners, and funders,” she says. “Relationship building drives Voices’ model. It’s not just about the one issue for today–it’s about many issues over the long haul.”
Margaret has continued to build relationships in support of policies that improve children’s mental health services in Virginia. In late 2009, she helped found the Campaign for Children’s Mental Health. She coordinated the campaign, including organizing a children’s mental health coalition of hundreds of partner organizations throughout the state.
The campaign was instrumental in securing new state funds in lean budget times — now totaling more than $8 million per year — for a series of statewide programs that expanded access to emergency mental health services for children and adolescents, including access to more child psychiatrists and crisis stabilization units.
Although she has not always worked in the policy realm, Margaret has always been interested in improving the circumstances of children and families. In high school and college, she volunteered with various human services nonprofits.
In her mid-twenties, she began working for the YWCA of Richmond and soon was writing grants and managing the YWCA’s sexual assault outreach program. She learned about the needs of women and their children who were homeless, abused, or assaulted and about the needs of low-income children and their families served in the preschool.
“I found working in a direct-service, crisis-oriented environment very stressful,” Margaret says. Although she has tremendous appreciation for people who work for direct-service nonprofits, she says she realized her skill set was better suited to policy work.
“I’m a big picture person,” she says. “I can see systems. Writing government grants at the YWCA, I saw how some guidelines made sense and some didn’t. The only way to change this was through policy.
“Once I got into policy work at Voices, I realized you can make a difference for thousands of kids at a time. It may take longer than direct service, but the potential impact is broader.”
Margaret and Voices have evolved together since she first came onboard in January 2000. After leaving Voices in January 2005 following the birth of her daughter, Margaret returned as a policy analyst in September 2008. Since then, she’s served as policy director, acting executive director, and beginning in October 2013, as executive director.
“Over the years, we’ve gotten much clearer about what it means to be a child advocacy organization on a policy level,” Margaret says of Voices. “We’ve learned it’s better to go deep on a handful of issues than to be shallow on many issues. Now the people who work at Voices have expertise on particular issues—early childhood, adoption and foster care, health and well-being, mental health, and family economic security.
“Voices’ mission to champion public policies that improve the lives of Virginia’s children does not change. But we have to be nimble, adaptable, and opportunistic in anticipating and responding to changes around us.”Read More Blog Posts