Listening In on a System - Exponent Philanthropy
A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Listening In on a System

Executive Director Colleen O’Keefe of the Sauer Children’s Renew Foundation in St. Paul, Minnesota, embarked on a listening tour to inform the foundation’s work on behalf of the state’s foster care children and youth. Colleen blogged about the tour, and, recently, our Senior Program Director Sara Beggs interviewed her to learn even more, including what happened afterward.

You’ve been funding in and around the child welfare system for a number of years. Why a listening tour at this point?

First, I wanted an understanding of our grantees’ realities, not just a show they felt they had to put on for me. I wanted to come alongside them so I could make better decisions, to get around the typical grantor–grantee power dynamics and create authentic relationships.

Equally powerful was the desire to be on the ground, learning about the experiences of children who land in foster care—both what happens when they grow up in care and what happens when they age out of the system. I wanted to see the whole picture, from the inside, before we created our funding strategies.

And, maybe most important, I knew our current strategies weren’t changing children’s outcomes. I felt desperate to figure out how to be more effective, and I knew I didn’t have the answers.

Where did you start?

At the beginning of this journey, I felt intimidated. I work for a very small family foundation. How do I begin to understand a system as large as Minnesota’s child protection/child welfare system? It includes many layers of workers, foster homes licensed by the county, and different foster homes licensed by private agencies. There are also lawyers, guardians ad litem, judges, police officers, and possibly adoption agencies. And what is the role of the state’s Department of Human Services in all this?

I finally decided to simply start talking to whomever would talk to me.

We had previously funded a private foster care provider to teach relationship skills to its foster care youth. This was my starting point. From there, they gave me names of others who could expand my understanding of how foster care worked in our state. I began making calls and meeting people, and each person gave me more information and a new name, saying, “This person will be able to tell you more.”

At this point, I’ve met with social workers, lawyers, judges, state workers, county workers, and the school district’s fostering connections staff. One person even drew me a picture of how our state-supported, county-led system works.

People have been so kind. They’ve had to step outside their own agendas to help me understand the bigger picture. Everyone I’ve met has thanked me for our thoughtful approach to grantmaking, and I feel so thankful for their willingness to help me understand.

What did you learn about your current grantmaking?

Along the way, I met so many wonderful, caring people who truly care about healthy children and families. But, as I once heard the Annie E. Casey Foundation president say, “A bad system will trump good programs every time.” It became clear that many well-intentioned people are stuck in a broken system with too many barriers.

The listening tour confirmed my sense that, if we wanted to have impact, we must stop funding isolated programs from a stack of disconnected grant proposals. We have to approach things from a system perspective, with each grant complementing the other and working toward change at the system level.

After several months of learning about the system, I am starting to see a grant structure take shape. I see some small grants that are the easy wins—funding a research project, funding extracurricular expenses—and I see medium-range and long-range opportunities that will complement one another. I have learned of new initiatives to watch and others that need to be scaled up.

Above all, I see opportunity.

What did you learn about the field?

I learned so many things—many of them at play in other fields, I’m sure.

  • I learned that shared definitions are lacking. People don’t agree on what abuse and neglect are, nor is there a single definition of child well-being. Without these shared definitions, how do we measure progress?
  • I appreciate how cyclical social problems can be, and how important it is—both in dollars and quality of lives—to address root causes. Many children in the current system had parents who were previously in the system. Unless we deal with the root cause—unhealed trauma—the cycle is sure to continue. Yet these types of services are rare, because they cost more upfront and often take longer; right now, for every $6 spent on children in foster care, just $1 is spent on services to families to prevent foster care placements.
  • I see how often and easily people are assumed to be at fault, when, in fact, the system is broken. Workers can be demonized, for example, and sometimes families are blamed and shamed. The overwhelming majority of workers, in fact, are trying to good work. Yet we’re not doing enough to support them and keep them healthy. 

What steps did you take after the listening tour?

The listening tour gave me a sense of how the system works and who the players are, but I still needed a sense of where to focus our efforts for the greatest impact. I hired a consultant to model the system and inform our next steps.

He interviewed 32 people in various roles in the system, mapping their goals and how they are trying to achieve them. He integrated the models into one, then analyzed it mathematically and with a complex systems lens. A complementary quantitative model simulated what will happen in the next 5 years if certain aspects of the system are targeted. In the end, he determined that seven levers must be addressed, some simultaneously, to impact the system overall.

I am now showing the levers to everyone—from county commissioners to senators and legislators. Each time I show the map to someone, they tell me who needs to see it next. We are also building work groups around certain levers and getting a group of funders ready to fund small, 90-day pilot projects to test new ideas.

What are your hopes for the future?

Honestly, at times, I’m overwhelmed. Our child protective/child welfare system has been operating in a certain way for a very long time, and the outcomes just aren’t good. In the past, changes have been made to small parts, with unintended consequences for other parts.

It takes time and hard work to change the way a system functions, and I hope we stay the course. To do our best for children and families, there is a lot of work to be done, a lot more learning to be had, and many more relationships to create.

Sara BeggsSenior Program Director Sara Beggs focuses her time and energy on equipping philanthropists with the information and inspiration to achieve greater impact over time. Her greatest philanthropic joy is participation in Blooming Kids for Kindness, a group of ten families who encourage their children to care about their communities and recognize that each can make a difference through local and international volunteer and fundraising activities.

Colleen O'KeefeColleen O’Keefe is executive director of the Minnesota-based Sauer Children’s Renew Foundation, whose mission is to improve the lives of disadvantaged children. Previously, Colleen served as executive director of the White Bear Lake Area Educational Foundation. Colleen has more than 15 years of experience developing and working with grant and scholarship programs for foundations, and she has had the pleasure of working with both family and community boards of directors. Colleen was a teacher prior to beginning her career in philanthropy.

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