Ask anyone who works in social services and they will tell you they have always relied on community networks to get people the help they need. Many of these network connections are informal. (For example, an individual caseworker at a housing agency refers a client needing dental work to a program she knows about at the local dental hygienist training program for free teeth cleanings.) But with increasing needs and tighter funding than ever, nonprofit agencies are getting more formal about these networks and organizing their work into “collective impact initiatives.”
The Fostering Hope Initiative (FHI) is one such approach. It is a neighborhood-based collective impact initiative that sees a future when every kid in every neighborhood grows up in a safe, stable, nurturing home, enjoys good health, succeeds in school and eventually becomes a financially stable adult.
It began in 2008, when a 60 percent jump in the number of Marion County children in foster care caught the attention of Governor Ted Kulongoski. Alarmed, he and Supreme Court Justice Paul DeMuniz issued a statewide challenge to safely and equitably reduce the number of kids in foster care. In Marion County, a community-based coalition known as the Family Preservation Action Team (FPAT) was formed. They asked the nonprofit organization Catholic Community Services (CCS) to take the lead and reach out to residents of high-poverty neighborhoods. CCS also pulled together various other nonprofit and governmental organizations to collaborate on strengthening families and building more resilient neighborhoods. This collaboration later became the Fostering Hope Initiative.
In the course of their work, FHI identified that 80 percent of kids in foster care came from 20 percent of neighborhoods. It was no surprise that these neighborhoods had high rates of poverty and associated hardships including lower grades in school, unemployment, poor health and lack of a strong community support system. The result: toxic stress.
Individual experiences of adversity, as well as family and community circumstances that create a sense of serious threat or chaos, cause toxic stress. It can result in a wide range of negative outcomes for individuals and communities – including child abuse. In fact, beyond the obvious harm of abuse, toxic stress can have far-reaching effects on the physical, mental, social and emotional development of children.
“The good news is that safe, stable, nurturing relationships among family, friends and neighbors is the most important factor in combating toxic stress – and the one we are most capable of addressing,” says Jim Seymour, executive director of Catholic Community Services.
FHI focuses on helping families build skills and connections based on the Center for the Study of Social Policy’s “Strengthening Families Protective Factors Framework,” or the “Five Factors,” for short. They are: strong parents; social connections; reliable support in times of need; knowledge of parenting and child development; and social and emotional skills of children.
“If we can reduce toxic stress to at least tolerable levels,” adds Seymour, “families will be in a better position to learn how to protect and nurture their children, and we can break the cycle.”
Of course, no single organization can do that alone. That is why CCS took a collective impact approach to bring together neighborhood residents and various professional service agencies.
The concept behind collective impact is that to make significant, lasting improvements, collaboration is necessary. It allows each participant to focus on what they know best, keeping costs low and quality of service high. The collaborative actions of those involved in a collective impact initiative must be organized around a common agenda for solving a specific problem. In addition, the initiative should have a “centralized infrastructure, a dedicated staff, and a structured process that leads to a common agenda, shared measurement, continuous communication, and mutually reinforcing activities among all participants.”[i] Simply stated, if multiple partners align resources, share leadership for planning and results, and engage families in a multigenerational approach, they can improve the lives of children and families in that community.
If you’re a regular reader and this sounds familiar, it should. Elements of the collective impact structure are very similar to the kind of complex adaptive networks Curandi seeks to enable. And, they have the same goal: to improve individuals’ lives, strengthen communities and reduce the cost of care.
Which is why, when presented with the opportunity for Curandi to participate in the FHI, I happily agreed. In upcoming articles, I will look further at the philosophies and strategies that have made FHI successful so far. I also will explore how Curandi’s involvement can improve collaboration, track the contributions of the partner agencies, and make performance-based payment possible for those agencies so that the project can become a sustainable model for the long-term.
Special thanks to Catholic Community Services and Fostering Hope Initiative staff for their input and feedback for this article series.