A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Philanthropy Lessons: We Are Part of a Whole

Our foundation’s work in the child welfare system has shown me, once again, that life is powered by relationships and connections.

Today, Exponent Philanthropy released the latest video in its Philanthropy Lessons series: Philanthropy Lessons: Working Collaboratively. It echoes how I feel about our foundation’s efforts to improve the child welfare system: We all need to come to the table. Funders, nonprofits, recipients, government entities. We all hold one aspect of the bigger picture, and, until we put the whole picture together, we cannot solve the puzzle. We need one another; we need our different perspectives.

Sitting in my foundation office trying to get my head around the complexity of the child welfare system, I sometimes feel insignificant. It can be easy to forget that we are part of something much larger than our small organizations.

When I began my work with the child welfare system, I gathered input from people in all different aspects of the system: judges, lawyers, foster youth, foster parents, social workers, birth parents. I wanted the broadest view I could hold, because I realized early on that there is both mythology and reality in any system. The system’s negative outcomes had led me to assume it is broken, but I quickly saw that the system is doing exactly what it is set up to do: It is structured around workers’ performance metrics, and it is getting terrible outcomes for children.

“Bad systems will trump good programs every time,” I remember hearing from Annie E. Casey Foundation President and CEO Patrick McCarthy.

We need movements working to improve our systems.

To start, I’ve come to believe our systems have to be restructured into networks of relationships where people feel supported, learn from one another, and hold knowledge in the network. I’ve been stunned by the isolation I see in the child welfare system.

Talking to foster parents, for example, I realized they are initially praised for being foster parents but end up feeling alone in their struggles. Foster children are often not easy children to raise, and friends start to peel away. Who supports these parents? These loving, brave souls need networks of other foster parents to share information and offer support. 

In conducting focus groups with adults who grew up in foster care, now in their 30s and 40s, I found a similar sense of aloneness. How could anyone else understand what they had been through? With whom would they feel comfortable sharing that information? Especially when teens and young adults, desperately trying to fit into the status quo, in whom would they possibly confide?

I have begun looking for opportunities to create networks. We have started an Alumni Foster Care Network for alums to support one another and also support children and youth currently in the system. In a recent meeting with the start-up board, I heard them refer to one another as a new family. Coming from a family with 12 siblings, my heart filled with joy for them.

We also are in early conversations to start networks for foster parents. Social workers too need networks to discuss decisions and feel supported in their difficult work, but I haven’t figured out how to go there yet.

I urge my fellow funders to look for ways to bring people together to reduce isolation, strengthen systems, and work toward that magical whole.

We can’t do the work of life well doing it alone.

Watch other videos in the 9-part Philanthropy Lessons series and share your philanthropy lessons >>

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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