By Colleen O’Keefe, Sauer Children’s Renew Foundation
When the Sauer family asked me to learn about foster care children and youth as a potential focus area, I decided to go on a listening tour.
I don’t want to say that I “scanned the landscape” because I didn’t want to inventory which organizations did what piece of the work. I wanted to understand everything about it. I wanted to be on the ground, learning about the experiences of children who have been abused and land in foster care; 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.
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 the child protection/child welfare system? This system includes many layers of child protection workers as well as 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?
Finally I decided I simply needed to start talking to whomever would talk to me.
We had previously funded one private foster care provider to teach relationship skills to their foster care youth. They were rebuilding those skills among young people after the relational trauma experienced by removal from their families. This was my starting point. I went to this agency and explained that I wanted to learn more about what the children go through when they enter child protection. They gave me names of people that they felt could tell me how foster care worked in Minnesota. I began making calls and meeting people, and each person would give 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 together.
I began each meeting explaining that I was there to learn from them. I explained that I didn’t want to start funding without understanding the process and the needs clearly so our funding would truly have an impact and not be wasted or somehow do harm. People have been so kind. They have had to step outside of their own agenda in order to help me understand the bigger picture. And most of them have been able to restrain themselves from asking for money for their organization. Everyone I’ve met has thanked me for taking a thoughtful approach to our grantmaking so that we can truly make a difference for children and youth. I am so grateful for their willingness to help me understand.
This journey is not over for me. I wake up each day eager to learn more about the experience of foster care children. I’ve learned that asking good questions is almost as important as having good answers. After several months of learning, I am starting to see a grant structure take shape. I see some small grants that are the easy wins – funds to push a research project forward, funds for extracurricular expenses, etc. And I see medium-range and long-range opportunities. I have learned of new initiatives to watch and others that need to be scaled up. I see opportunity.
I hope we are in this focus area for a long time because there is a lot of work to be done; a lot more learning to be had and relationships to create, so we can all do our best work for the children.
Colleen 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 10 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.