Fair Futures: A Cross-Sector Partnership Transforming How New York City Supports Young People Impacted by Foster Care

Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Fair Futures: A Cross-Sector Partnership Transforming How New York City Supports Young People Impacted by Foster Care
By: Sarah Kroon Chiles, Executive Director, the Redlich Horwitz Foundation, and Natasha Lifton, Director of Government Relations, Trinity Church Wall Street.

How it Began 

Impact. Scale. Financial Sustainability. These are the objectives that drive strategic philanthropy, but many of us funders lack a clear roadmap for how to achieve these goals. Fair Futures, with the active support of the Foster Care Excellence Fund, is a valuable case study of how a well-funded, cross-sector partnership can achieve results on a large scale. It took collaboration among philanthropy, non-profit providers, governmental agencies, elected officials, and youth advocates to achieve ground-breaking, long-term change for thousands of young people who have experienced foster care. 

The story starts in 2018 when the New York City Interagency Foster Care Task Force, led by then Commissioner of the City’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), David Hansell and with philanthropic support, released its initial report, which presented 16 recommendations to improve outcomes for youth in and aging out of care. Several recommendations pointed to the need to develop new supportive services so impacted youth aged 16-25 are better positioned to achieve their career, educational, and housing goals. Members of the Foster Care Excellence Fund (now renamed Youth + Families Forward), a philanthropic collaborative that invests in foster system transformation and public-private partnerships, were excited to see alignment with their existing priorities. 

Foster Care Excellence funders were already supporting several foster care agencies that had developed and implemented model programs to address these needs. They included Graham Windham’s SLAM program (individualized coaching from 9th grade through age 26), The New York Foundling’s Road to Success program (robust middle school academic supports and tutoring), and HeartShare St. Vincent’s The American Dream program (educational, emotional, and career advancement programming for older youth), among others. 

The alignment of this individual grantmaking and the task force’s recommendations, combined with her deep knowledge of and experience supporting foster youth, inspired Katie Napolitano, then a program officer at the Tiger Foundation, a member of the funder collaborative, to approach the other funders with a brilliant idea: create a large-scale model to support young people up to the age of 26 that incorporates best practices from the programs described above as well as others across the country. The Fair Futures model would provide one-to one, long-term coaching and other academic, career development, and housing supports to young people ages 11 to 26 so they can attain stability and reach their potential. With input from impacted young people, the plan was to propose the model to ACS as a way to implement the task force recommendations. In addition, the collaborative pledged philanthropic funds to develop a youth-led advocacy campaign, and key infrastructure components including technical assistance and training for foster care agencies, a technology platform to guide service delivery and track outcomes, and other resources. 

Later that year, the funders hosted an event at Philanthropy New York with the ACS commissioner and others to discuss the model and generate buy-in. ACS agreed to partner and over the course of the following 4 years, Fair Futures has achieved remarkable success. Leveraging about $4 million in philanthropic investments and much more in sweat equity, this youth-led advocacy movement and coalition of 100+ organizations secured $30.7 million in permanent, annual funding to make New York City the first in the nation to provide support to young people who have experienced foster care up to age 26. 

The fund’s investments in the infrastructure led to the creation of the Center for Fair Futures, housed at the Fund for the City of New York. The Center is supported by a wide range of sources, including ACS, and has a team of 15 who provide ongoing technical assistance and professional development support to nearly 500 staff across 37 organizations serving approximately 4,000 young people ages 11 to 26. 

Lessons Learned 

What were the critical elements of success that could be used to support similar efforts fueled by other funder collaboratives? We’ve identified five factors that we believe drove the scaling and sustainability of Fair Futures: 

  1. Centering youth leaders: The perspectives of young people informed the model development, and their voices and leadership drove the advocacy. The FF Youth Advisory Board (YAB) engaged and mobilized young people with foster care experience and built a strong community of supportive peers. Through virtual and in-person rallies, protests and youth actions, a youth-led social media campaign, and innumerable meetings with elected and appointed officials, they were successful in not only persuading city officials to make the first $10 million investment, but to invest $30.7M in the full-scale implementation of the model. The Excellence Fund provided funding for a full-time youth coordinator and stipends for participants. 
  2. Highly engaged foundation leaders: The co-chairs of the Foster Care Excellence Fund, Natasha Lifton, then of the NY Community Trust and Sarah Chiles of Redlich Horwitz Foundation, were involved in every aspect from the development of the model to public partnerships, coalition-building, and advocacy and communications strategies. As active members of the steering committee, the funders worked to be nimble and responsive to be able to fund urgent priorities; recruit grantees and others to the coalition; engage deeply with government partners; and leverage relationships for elevated responsiveness from public officials. 
  3. Cross-sector coalition and steering committee: The committee and coalition included senior leadership from foster care agencies, human services providers, advocacy organizations, foundations, and youth groups. The committee met weekly to devise priorities, strategy and tactics and operated with a roll-up-your-sleeves and leverage-all-you-got culture. The committee coordinated regularly with ACS leadership to share information and align messaging. 
  4. Professional services: Fortunately, because community foundations are designated as public charities they can fund lobbying, and so the committee engaged a prominent government relations firm, Capalino and Co, as well as Berlin Rosen, a top-tier public relations firm. They provided coaching and training to YAB advocates in strategic sharing and tailoring their communications approach and messages to various audiences. These efforts resulted in hundreds of meetings with elected officials, and a total of 22 stories and opinion pieces. The campaign reached an estimated 100,000 New Yorkers, creating an awareness campaign that shifted the narrative on foster youth from a negative to a positive, optimistic, and hopeful one. 
  5. Proof points and model infrastructure: Private funding expanded pilot programs at foster care agencies; invested in data collection and technology infrastructure; supported the youth leadership; and developed new models for staff training and coaching. These strategic grants bypassed lengthy government procurement process and created the proof points and impact reports needed to communicate the track record of success for government officials, leading them to fully invest in the model, ensuring its institutionalization into the foster care system. Lastly, the Fund and ACS supported an evaluation, conducted by Chapin Hall, on the implementation and impact of Fair Futures. The report commends the quality and speed of implementation during the pandemic, the Center’s continuous improvement model, breadth and depth of training and technical assistance, and its strong youth-centered culture. 

What could we have done better? While youth leadership came to be a core component of the advocacy campaign and continues to support ongoing implementation and advocacy, this did not happen until year two of the campaign. The Fair Futures advocacy committee is working to be even more authentically led by young leaders. To that end, the new YAB coordinator, Tony Turner, is the co-chair and young people’s experiences and voices permeates decision making. 

Another challenge is New York City’s housing crisis, resulting in a shift in advocacy priorities. The YAB, with support from a consultant and an advocacy committee made up of young people, service providers and funders, is now fully focused on how to ensure youth who leave care can access high quality, affordable housing in neighborhoods of their choice. 

So, what’s next?

The Center for Fair Futures continues to expand. Under ACS commissioner Dannhauser’s leadership, Fair Futures is now serving young people with experience in the youth justice system and is exploring ways to serve other system-involved youth. The Center also launched an Innovation Lab to develop youth-driven programming to support mental health, entrepreneurship, and other areas. And Youth + Families Forward, continues to support the general operating needs of Fair Futures, while shifting its funding priorities to community-driven solutions that ensure youth, families, and communities are well-resourced and supported. You can learn more here