Philanthropy and Foster Care


September 13, 2012
By John McDonald

How can philanthropic resources be used to improve outcomes for children and families in foster care?

That was the guiding question of the recent Conversations on Philanthropy event presented by The Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy at the USC Price School of Public Policy. The discussion brought together more than 60 philanthropic leaders and child welfare experts to examine the issues confronting the foster care system and explore ways that philanthropy might catalyze effective change.

The event featured a conversation with Andrew Bridge, executive director of the Child Welfare Initiative, which seeks fundamental reform of the nation’s child welfare systems. Fred Ali, President and CEO of the Weingart Foundation and the chair of Center’s Board of Advisors moderated the conversation.  Ali began by pointing out that despite significant investment of federal, state and philanthropic resources the outcomes for children in foster care are poor. He asked Bridge about the causes and what can be done about it.

Bridge replied that in looking at the system it’s easy to answer that question harshly and negatively, but said that leaves little place to go, and makes it very easy to walk away.  He said he hoped that if anything came from the day’s conversation, it’s that we shouldn’t walk away, and that “there is a great deal of help and good and improvement we can do.”

In looking at the problem’s Bridge pointed to three main issues.

  • Programs that are locked or calcified, where program staff and leadership may think it’s risky to make changes, and that don’t meet the needs of children.
  • Incremental practices that may be in conflict and that have evolved to “wring out risk,” but may also wring out opportunities for kids. Bridge specifically pointed out limits to opportunities in employment, education and foster care families.
  • Policies that may be well intentioned, but that are terribly uninformed. They may respond to individual events or newspaper stories, but often do not reflect the needs of children.
  • Bridge also pointed out that the system is very poor at recognizing funding stream opportunities and that millions of dollars are left on the table that could be used to help kids.

Bridge specifically pointed to examples in employment, where millions of dollars may be available but that local systems may not know how to access in a way that is going to be meaningful.  He also suggested that efforts are needed to improve the quality of the caregiver pool and to strengthen its capacity.

In discussing impact philanthropy can have, Bridge used the example of a grant focused on transitional housing that “catalyzed a whole series of reforms in policy and practice at all levels of government.”

“That would not have been possible without philanthropy,” Bridge said.

Fred Ali, who was involved with the housing grant in his role at the Weingart Foundation, cautioned audience members “it was not easy, but the lesson we learned is that you have to stay with something overtime because change comes slowly and there are many obstacles.”

Such resolve was a common theme of the conversation. Bridge, who grew up in foster care and went on graduate from Harvard Law School and become a Fulbright scholar acknowledged that his own resolve played a part, but wondered “why would we ever create a system that demands such a level of resiliency from a child.”

As for his own case he said that “maybe it was more of a case where “resiliency met opportunity.”

“These conversations are part of the Center’s continuing effort to bring together different segments of the philanthropic community to bridge fragmentation within the sector and leverage its power to solve problems,” said James M. Ferris, director of The Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy, at the conclusion of the discussion.