Reaching Beyond the Usual Networks Strengthening Fragile Families Initiative

The following story is based on the experience of a grantmaker working with a new set of partners to develop a national program in the field of children, youth, and families in the United States. Grantmakers working in other fields or geographic areas will appreciate insights on issues such as:

  • Building alliances across differences
  • Connecting with grassroots grantees
  • Bringing yourself to the role

This case is based on a transcript of "Reaching Beyond Usual Networks" in our Reflection on Practice video series.

Ron Mincy
Program Officer (1993-2000) The Ford Foundation:

In the United States, we have had a rapid growth in births out of wedlock. We’ve found ways to nurture children without the presence of their fathers, particularly in low-income minority communities. My sense of it was that that isn’t necessarily the desire of low-income people, and we could try to do some things to draw the father back into the picture.

In 1992, President Clinton argued that we needed to establish paternity for all children who were born out of wedlock. States were required to establish paternity for 90 percent of children born out of wedlock. The large government agency responsible for child support enforcement was the window of opportunity for this initiative.

We convinced the Office of Child Support that it couldn’t do its job — namely, establish paternity for these children and collect child support — unless it had an agency in the community willing to help. We also convinced the community agencies that they could no longer effectively do their job without getting connected to the Office of Child Support Enforcement. We wanted them to encourage low-income couples to establish paternity for their children but, in turn, we also wanted the government to pay for that service. We wanted the government agency to help them to help the family manage the financial obligation and the relational obligation that is assumed when paternity is established.

We introduced some strange parties to one another — child support and community based agencies — and we were going to give them some money to sit down for six months and plan how they were going to work together. If they came out of that process having made some progress on a collaborative relationship, then we’d consider making some grants for them to implement their plan. It was, essentially, a very attractive offer for both sides.

The foundation basically played the role of a convener. The thing about this initiative is that it really tries to blend actors who are acting in different pieces of the puzzle. Two-thirds of what we do is research, but another piece of it is moving public policy, programs, and people. It really takes a set of ideas to influence a wider community of people and motivate people to do something. What the initiative did was it created a framework for thinking about a problem in a different way. Then you had to motivate people.

Bringing in a Grantee

Wallace McLaughlin, a well-recognized minister in a low-income community in Indianapolis, had a fathers program for many years. I had been talking with Wallace for a number of years about this work and he was involved in becoming educated, but he was still something of a holdout — and a vocal holdout at that. We thought that it was important to get him involved with the program because he could actually go out in the community and encourage couples to come in. If such a skeptic could be persuaded that this was a good thing to do, then others who were on the fence might come over as well.

I had a meeting in Indianapolis and I was actually praying one day, and it came to me that I should go reach out to Wallace. I knew exactly where he was, but I didn’t know what kind of day he had. I picked up the telephone in the morning and made an appointment to see him. He was very happy to hear from me. In addition to agreeing to sit down and have lunch, he also invited me to go to church with him. I said I’d love to do that, so it ended up being a rather hectic time because I was there for a meeting, but this was an important part of what I had to do. I actually spent every free moment I had during the next three days forming a personal relationship with Wallace. In the past, we had been in conferences, we had been in the same arena a lot-but I had not spent any one-on-one time with him.

Over those few days we got to know one another a little bit better. We also began to see that we really didn’t differ a great deal in terms of what we wanted to accomplish. We wanted to see families stronger, and fathers involved with their children. We wanted to see consistent funding to these programs and he was able to move from being the skeptic to being a qualified supporter. He was on board and it ended up being a very successful few days.

I learned something from that experience, and that is that grant making is about competence and relationships. You need to work with people who are competent to pull off whatever the assignment is, but you also have to develop relationships with people so that you can understand what it is that that person needs, and that person can understand what it is that you need. It’s out of that competence and relationship that things get done. It’s been the sort of signature lesson in my five years at the foundation. When you’re managing your own passion you’re not going to get by on the competence alone because you are engaged in it too much — you spend nights thinking about this and you have to form a moving, organic relationship in some sense with whole groups of grantees. Things change and in order to enable people to adjust to those changes you have to have a relationship to mediate some of the surprises and sparks in those changes.

I came into grant making as a researcher and policy analyst. I regard it in some sense as a challenge in terms of developing a different skill set. The question is when do you get movement on a set of things? That required coming out of that intellectual exercise and combining it with leadership. That, in turn, requires developing a relationship with people so that we can move something. That’s what it was about.