State Policy Network
Announcing the 2021 SPN Communications Excellence Awards Finalists
Cast your vote for the winners in each award category.

The SPN Communications Excellence Awards recognize and encourage outstanding achievements in marketing, communications, and media across the state think tank Network. Winners will receive a grant to pursue future projects, as well as a trophy to honor their effort and results.

SPN is proud to highlight these finalists and to share their success with the Network. All nominees and finalists will be highlighted on SPN’s website and channels in more detailed stories to celebrate their success and share strategies across the Network.

Voting is now closed for the 2021 Communications Excellence Awards.

Winners will be announced at a special communications reception at SPN’s 29th Annual Meeting in Orlando.

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Bold Brand Boost Award

A powerful brand means your organization has a seat at the policy-making table. Citizens look to your organization for information and guidance on important policy issues. Lawmakers and media see you a trusted resource for quality research and information. This award recognizes the influence of a powerful brand boost.

Center of the American Experiment — Think About It Campaign

The Center of the American Experiment’s Think About It campaign is an ongoing series of radio ads that all begin with the phrase “Think about it” and then raise questions about current public policy topics. For example: Think about it: Black and Hispanic students in Mississippi perform better in reading and math than black and Hispanic students in Minnesota…Think about it: In just 10 years, the Minnesota state budget grew from 14 billion dollars to 26 billion dollars…The campaign started with five different ads that rotated during Minnesota’s 2021 legislative session. Three of the radio ads promoted a website that featured a specific call to action, applying pressure on legislators and/or signing a petition. The radio ads that included calls to action contributed to thousands of emails sent to state lawmakers, including 834 emails sent to each member of a conference committee as they were deliberating Green New Deal provisions (which were eventually dropped). These ads were heard millions of times by hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans—helping American Experiment build its brand in the The Gopher State. See the full story.

Illinois Policy Institute — Protecting the Flat Tax for Future Illinoisans

Illinois’ constitution guarantees a flat income tax, which means all income is taxed at the same rate. In early 2020, some groups in the state, including the Illinois Governor, wanted to enact a constitutional amendment that would move Illinois’ tax structure from a flat income tax to a progressive income tax—where people with higher incomes are taxed more than people with lower incomes. If this passed in Illinois, it would give Illinois lawmakers the power to divide taxpayers into smaller groups and tax as they saw fit. After Illinois politicians mislead the public on the implications of the progressive tax, the Illinois Policy Institute launched a campaign to make sure Illinoisans knew its true effects. Illinois Policy released reliable research, earned media placements throughout the state and in every news station in Chicago, and broke several of their own records for email open rates and other audience-reach metrics. Not only did this contribute to the amendment’s failure in the 2020 election, but it also positioned Illinois Policy as a powerful grassroots messenger in the state. See the full story.

The Buckeye Institute — Increasing Safety, Liberty, and Justice: Comprehensive Criminal Justice Reform in Ohio

Since 2014, The Buckeye Institute has built one of the most successful criminal justice reform efforts in the nation. In just six years, they’ve passed more significant criminal justice reforms than any other state. The Institute has helped Ohio better protect the rights of the accused, rehabilitate offenders, and lower the cost to taxpayers. This year, the organization used its credibility to help bridge partisan gaps and to boldly boost its own brand as the go-to resource for all things criminal justice—with both Democrats and Republicans. Ohio lawmakers from both parties now know that if they’re pursuing a criminal justice reform issue, they’ll need Buckeye’s stamp of approval to move the ball. See the full story.

Washington Policy Center — Free Markets Destroy Campaign

1.2 million. That’s how many people have watched a video from the Free Markets Destroy campaign, less than a year after launching. Free Markets Destroy, a project of the Washington Policy Center, is an innovative, bold effort to explain the power of the free market to the next generation. WPC launched this project in response to a growing fascination with socialism among young Americans. WPC wanted to show young people how markets can help us build a better world. The effort includes informative, interactive videos, a campaign website, a merchandise line, live engagement events and much more. The project specifically targeted 18-40-year-olds, engaging more than 11 million social media accounts across North America. More than one million users have actively engaged in the campaign—the majority of them in Washington state. In less than a year, the campaign has been liked on social media by more than 20,000 Generation Z’s and Millennials across every corner of the United States. See the full story.


Powerful Storytelling Award

Storytelling is the most fundamental element of communication. In marketing, storytelling can inform and persuade. An organization that tells powerful stories will boost its brand, spread the message of policy impact, and change public sentiment. This award recognizes the storytelling that truly impacted an organization’s brand image and policy impact.

Cardinal Institute of West Virginia — Sharing School Choice Stories to Help Pass the Most Expansive and Inclusive Parental Choice Program in the Nation

With powerful storytelling, the Cardinal Institute of West Virginia was able to bring education opportunity to thousands of children in West Virginia. The Institute collected stories from across the state to highlight the diversity in education needs, and to show the value that programs like Education Savings Accounts (in the form of the Hope Scholarship) could bring to people’s lives. Cardinal also worked with teachers to help shift the narrative that school choice reforms are somehow “anti-teacher,” which helped them gain new allies in their push to improve the state’s education offerings. Through their efforts to share the stories of parents, teachers, and students, the Institute secured a massive win for education freedom. See the full story.

Illinois Policy Institute — Elevating Voices to Save Tax Credit Scholarships

In 2017, the Illinois Policy Institute (IPI) helped secure a win for education freedom through the Invest in Kids Scholarship Tax Program. But the governor’s 2022 budget proposed slashing this program by removing the incentive for people to donate to the scholarship program. To help thousands of Illinois students and their families, Illinois Policy got back to work, this time to save a program that had been helping low-income students receive better education for the last three years. To demonstrate the value the program had already created, Illinois Policy collected and shared powerful stories from seven different low-income families. Their efforts highlighted the variety of families that benefit from the scholarships, and ultimately saved the program’s donation incentives. See the full story.

Palmetto Promise Institute — The #MySAFEGrantStory Campaign

In July 2020, Palmetto Promise Institute worked with the South Carolina Governor to launch the Safe Access to Flexible Education (SAFE) Grants program using one-time CARES Act funding. The program dedicated $32 million to low- and middle-income students to attend independent schools of their choice. A few weeks later, the program was challenged in court. Determined to demonstrate to families across the state—as well as lawmakers—how the program benefits students, the Institute began to tell the stories of parents who would be helped by SAFE Grants. More than 550 parents told stories of job loss, financial difficulties, and learning struggles. Palmetto shared their stories on their website and social media. The Institute even provided media training for a few of the families so they could speak with TV reporters when SAFE grants were in the news. See the full story.

The James Madison Institute — Showing the power of greater learning flexibility

The James Madison Institute told the story of Talethia Edwards, an African-American mother who believes expanding the flexibility of school choice scholarships would make them more useful to many families, including the growing number of African American families now embracing innovative micro education options. Talethia has a gifted preteen son who scored 159 on an IQ test. A scholar at Florida State University’s famous “mag lab” is interested in helping mentor this boy’s academic development, and Talethia wishes she could use an Education Savings Account (ESA) to fund her son’s mentorship. JMI promoted Talethia’s story on social media, in ads, media, newsletters, and even cited it in legislative testimony. The Institute also referenced it in speeches, interviews, and panel discussions on education choice. Talethia’s story help make the case for advancing Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) in Florida, and helped lawmakers see the need for expanding education choice opportunities in the state. See the full story.


Expanding Your Audience

No matter how just your cause, or how impeccable your research, none of what you say matters if it’s to an empty room. Only slightly more useful is talking to an echo chamber of the same audience again and again. After pouring through the nominations from our exceptional Network, it was clear a new category of award was needed for the folks who expanded the reach of their message to achieve new heights and build new coalitions. This award recognizes the organizations whose efforts led to expanded audiences and increased capacity and infrastructure for educating and mobilizing their states.

Commonwealth Foundation for Public Policy Alternatives — Unanimous: Executive Overreach Violates Civil Rights

Since March 2020, the Pennsylvania Governor extended his disaster declaration five times, circumventing natural checks on his power and enabling the unprecedented shutdown of the economy. To counter this overreach, two separate ballot initiatives were proposed that would restore power to the Legislature. The Commonwealth Foundation launched a campaign to educate voters on the importance of reining in the governor’s powers. While conservative audiences were likely to support these initiatives from the beginning, Commonwealth realized a larger coalition would be needed for these initiatives to pass. The Commonwealth Foundation worked tirelessly to expand their audience to reach Pennsylvanians across the political spectrum. By highlighting the governor’s violations of both liberty and equality, they were able to rally both left-leaning and right-leaning audiences, and eventually secure victory for both ballot initiatives. See the full story.

Kansas Policy Institute — Giving Kids a Fighting Chance

The Kansas Policy Institute created a 35-minute documentary that contrasted the K-12 academic performance reforms the state of Florida made over the last 20 years with the flat-lined progress Kansas has made during this same time. Kansas Policy’s goal was to not just increase the views of the film, but to grow and expand an educated audience that is passionate about effective K-12 education. They wanted to reach both sides of the political spectrum, registered voters, school boards, and teachers. However, their primary audience was concerned parents and caretakers that had school-aged children. Through an acquisition campaign, SMS texting, and other outreach, the documentary enabled Kansas Policy to grow their owned audience by 38 percent. See the full story.

Pelican Institute — District-Specific Targeting in Louisiana

The Pelican Institute partnered with the marketing firm Iron Light to grow specific audiences across Louisiana in order to help achieve future legislative goals. Louisiana has a smaller-than-average population, but Pelican wanted to narrow that considerably and focus on adding quality audience members who would help apply the political vice on a district-by-district level. In total, the target audience universe was 1.6 million people. Pelican ran 63 ads in five months and used a combination of GetEmails, traffic ads on Google AdWords, Facebook and Instagram, Facebook petition ads, and a robust email strategy to obtain, engage, and retain new audience members. One of Pelican’s biggest priorities during the legislative session, tax reform, passed—due in part to the organization’s audience building.

Texas Public Policy Foundation — Building a Grassroots Army

It can be hard to reach anyone new during the election cycle, which is why the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) set a goal to expand its audience reach well before election season came around. TPPF had originally set a goal of reaching 50,000 active citizens, but by November 2020 they had grown their activist audience to more than 112,000 members. Through message testing, creative cross-platform content sharing, and a rigorous commitment to reaching the most persuadable groups in the state, TPPF was able to expand their audience and build a grassroots army of actively engaged citizens in Texas. TPPF then drove the election narratives around many important issues to Texans, while earning credibility for the future. See the fully story.

Organization: State Policy Network