As foundations adjust their approaches to dealing with the tough economy and changing needs, they often face a big challenge in how to tell grantees that money is about to disappear.
The situation can be even tougher when a grant maker takes a new approach to dealing with some of society’s most vulnerable, as the Annie E. Casey Foundation has learned the hard way in recent weeks.
Casey announced last month that it was getting out of the business of providing direct support to foster-care families to free up $20-million a year for grants to organizations that care for such youngsters and handle other social-service needs.
That news stunned Mark Floegel, a Vermont foster parent, who with his wife has cared for half a dozen children over the years through the foundation’s program. The family is now in the process of adopting a 16-year-old foster daughter, but Mr. Floegel felt Casey had provided too few details about what would happen next or what they and their foster children should expect.
“It leaves the parents and kids in a terrible kind of limbo,” he says.
Mr. Floegel started talking to other foster parents in his state who had ties to Casey Family Services, the unit that helps foster children, and found that many of them were angry that the foundation had told the news media and parents at the same time. They also felt they weren’t being given enough information about what would happen to the children.
So Mr. Floegel, who has a background as an activist (he is a researcher for Greenpeace), began organizing.
He mobilized a group in his home state of Vermont to write a letter to Patrick McCarthy, the foundation’s president, laying out the families’ concerns. Seventeen foster parents signed the letter, Mr. Floegel says, out of 75 Casey parents in the state.
“I understand why Casey is doing this,” says Mr. Floegel. “It may in fact be better to disperse their money through grants. But I guess the nub of what we’re concerned about is, there’s a group of children to whom promises have been made—by parents, by [Casey Family Services] staff, and by the foundation—and all the parents I’ve talked to are going to do their best to keep that promise. It’s just going to become exponentially harder since we’ve lost our partner.”
For its part, Casey says it was trying to be sensitive in disclosing its new approach.
Mr. McCarthy decided it was important to tell workers at Casey Family Services first. Not only were the employees going to lose their jobs, he says, but the foundation wanted them to tell the parents the program was ending. In addition, Casey told the news media on the same day the parents found out.
“If we had waited for several days to release the press release, it would have been on the news in whatever version people had heard, which would not be a service to the children that we care for or for the public,” he says.
But since parents were angered that they heard about this on the same day as the news media, that strategy didn’t work so well in practice.
In the meantime, Mr. McCarthy says, he is trying to reassure parents that Casey plans to make the transition carefully. He wrote back to the parents saying he understood their disappointment and recognized from the start that the “approach would not be embraced by everyone.”
In an interview, he told The Chronicle that Casey would “provide the financial resources to ensure we meet every commitment we’ve made to a child in our care, and in fact we’re working very closely with the [foster families] and the state agencies to make sure that promise is kept.”
Even so, people like Mr. Floegel say the departure of Casey from the foster-care business is devastating for them. Many foster children need psychological counseling, extra educational services, and other assistance, he says. Unlike a lot of foster-care agencies, not only does Casey Family Services help pay for these services but its employees help families cut through much of the bureaucracy involved in getting those additional services.
“It’s hours and hours of time that we don’t have to spend dealing with red tape,” he says, “so we can spend our time with our kid and being as normal a family as possible.”