Innovation. The word has become almost cliché at this point. It’s been co-opted and attributed to everything from smart phones to microwave pizza. At the risk of perpetuating the hyperbole, human services is starved for innovation.
I’m a social worker by training, and have spent my career in human services, specifically child welfare. I lead HopeWell, the largest nonprofit provider of comprehensive foster care in Massachusetts. While innovation is inescapable in our daily lives with the proliferation of technology representing the clearest example, I work in an analog world. If you could step into a time machine and walk through the doors of a child welfare organization in 1998, aside from baggy jeans and pagers, you’d likely not see much of a difference in practice.
Our ‘modern’ child welfare system is essentially the same today as it was when I was a graduate intern, with the exception of small shifts at the margins of practice. And let me be clear, this is no indictment on the thousands of people who work in child welfare every day ensuring the safety of children is preserved and upheld. These are unheralded first responders doing thankless work in the face of tremendous obstacles. In fact, I’d argue it’s us, our society writ large, who’s complicit in failing to provide the resources they need to be effective. Just follow the money.
While there are of course many factors, the most inescapable reason we see static, staid institutions that struggle to serve millions of families across our nation, is that large county and state child welfare institutions can’t (or won’t) fund innovation. Systems are conservative, and I don’t mean in the political sense. They are risk averse and self-actualizing. The very nature of entrepreneurship assumes high rates of failure, something taxpayers generally don’t endorse. It would be considered a frivolous use of limited resources, irresponsible spending. Layer onto that child welfare systems that are often besieged by headlines of a child fatality. ‘Risk taking’ in this context seems the last thing to try. ‘Safe’ efforts that don’t move the needle or revolutionize the work become the default, indeed seemingly the only, option. As a result, human service organizations are left in a time capsule of unachieved potential where our communities suffer and we misappropriate downstream solutions to upstream problems. Round and round we go.
I walked away from a career working for the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families because I believed the creativity, and quite frankly courage, to reimagine our child welfare system lived in the nexus between the private nonprofit sector and philanthropy. So I joined HopeWell (then Dare Family Services) in 2016.
At the time, 99.9 percent of the funding for our $25,000,000 budget came from state contracts. The rates set for these contracts were outdated before the ink had dried, resulting in human services organizations like ours living in a perpetual state of scarcity. Since DCF couldn’t be an effective partner for initial stages of innovation for all the reasons outlined, we explored partnerships with philanthropy, to seed innovative ideas that the state would eventually purchase and scale once we had ‘proven concept,’ providing the cover needed in a politicized environment.
Moving into fundraising for the first time, I learned very quickly that donors, foundations in particular, were not generally interested in funding something, ‘that was the responsibility of the state.’
Timing is everything in life, though, and thankfully we began seeking philanthropic investment pointed towards innovation at a moment when philanthropy began to experience an awakening which has only accelerated since. CEP’s new report, State of Nonprofits 2023: What Funders Need to Know, yields many critical findings, notably, that we are seeing an increase in trust between foundations and nonprofits. This has translated to streamlined reporting requirements, multi-year investments for general operating support and increased collaboration between foundations and their grantees.
In short, what we are beginning to see today is partnership — less transaction and more transformation. I believe a lot of this stems from foundations making the intentional push to hire program officers, executive leadership and in some cases even top leadership/CEO’s who have experience leading nonprofits. Bryan Stevenson talks about the necessity of being proximate to human suffering in order to heal it. Foundations are slowly but surely beginning to reflect the communities they are charged to serve and this is something that gives me great hope.
The reasons families become involved with child welfare systems are deeply rooted in poverty and institutional racism. We conflate poverty with parenting capacity and punish families for being crushed by zero sum capitalism. Mental illness, interpersonal violence, and substance misuse are all contributors and represent dynamic challenges that evade technical solutions. To generate transformational change we need to partner across difference. To tap into the creative. To mind the gaps in order to source ‘exceptions’ that we can then grow and amplify. That is innovation. And we need partnership and trust between state systems, human service organizations, and philanthropy in order to achieve that.
We recently launched RISE, our nation’s first model to increase 3rd grade reading proficiency for youth experiencing foster care. RISE was seeded by philanthropy, partners in the work who understand that innovation requires courage, risk-taking, experimentation, and failure — ‘crazy’ ideas and ‘outside the box thinking.’ It’s only been 18 months but we’re seeing very promising results that are having real world impact on the lives of youth experiencing foster care. With this initial success, we are now well positioned to seek a state contract that would provide sustainable funding to scale RISE across Massachusetts and potentially beyond. But none of this would have been possible without the trust of philanthropic partners working in collaboration with people proximate to the work.
What does this mean? We don’t yet know, but our goal is to close the academic opportunity gap for over 400,000 youth experiencing foster care nationally. We may not achieve this in my lifetime, but I know that the innovation developed by many caring people and stakeholders represents a formula that we must invest in. Our communities deserve more than the status quo, and it’s encouraging to see philanthropy step more fully into its potential as a supportive partner in this work.