Introducing The Skillman Visionary Awards

Family service agencies create a net for neighbors in need

Five leaders of local family service agencies joined us in conversation to share what stands in their way to reaching more community members in need, and what funders can do to help. On the call was Brad Coulter of Matrix Human Services, Deborah Matthews of the Children’s Center, Kenyatta Stephens of Black Family Development Inc., Louis Piszker of Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency, and Sean de Four of Southwest Solutions.

The organizations they represent provide vital services to Detroit kids and families including economic and employment support, physical and mental wellness, and assistance for young people involved in the juvenile justice system.

Here’s what they lifted:

Barriers to Access

While these leaders are among many agencies are offering critical family services, Detroiters face barriers to access. Sometimes the barriers are geographical. The physical distance between one’s home and service locations and a lack of reliable transportation prevents many Detroiters—especially young ones—from getting the help they need to stabilize and flourish. Barriers can also be informational. Generating awareness of programs available is not an easy or inexpensive undertaking. It’s a challenge to spread awareness into households and across neighborhoods, and referral systems to connect individuals to programs are often underdeveloped and strained.

Gaps in capacity

Our attendees and their respective organizations work diligently to provide an array of important services, but while this network is strong, it is challenged by several factors.

For one, family service agencies struggle to recruit and retain staff. They explained that a narrow pipeline of young talent is part of the issue. Youth need more job training programs to help prepare them for the workforce and fill specific roles within it. For those who have earned their professional accreditation, student debt can outweigh income. This leads some family service practitioners to leave for higher paying jobs.

Funding is also a determinant of organizational capacity. Some participants noted that obtaining funding for programs targeting kids aged six to 10 is particularly difficult.

How they’re solving problems

Our attendees shared that their organizations have been working in survival mode since the start of the pandemic. They’ve been working to keep the doors open, offer COVID-safe environments, and meet a rising public need. This has meant finding new and creative ways to address gaps. They lifted that collaboration has been key, including pooling resources and services with other agencies.

They also stressed the importance of trust. Trusting relationships between family service organizations, and most of all, trust between agencies and the families they serve. It takes trust for individuals to seek out help. The conversations that community members have with family service practitioners are personal, delicate, and complex.

What’s needed from funders

When asked what funders can do to be better partners, we heard: Offer more funding and flexible funding. They said that larger organizations, like those they represent, are often overlooked as funders tend to be attracted to new programs and disregard longstanding ones. These leaders also noted a need for more general operating support. They are looking for investment in already existing programs to deepen their impact and serve more people in need. They seek funding over multiple years to better sustain successful programs. And they want funders to trust them to do the work that is of greatest demand.

Beyond dollars, they asked that funders help convene more opportunities to connect and collaborate with other family service agencies. They also lifted that facilitating data sharing across organizations that serve Detroit children and youth could amplify collaboration, reach, and impact.

They ended with talking about the importance of partnerships. Of combining information, ideas, resources, and impact. Of holding hands, reaching out, and extending a wide embrace around the people in our communities.

The Skillman Foundation

The Skillman Foundation is a grantmaking organization established in 1960 by Rose Skillman. We have granted out more than $730 million and have served as a vocal advocate to strengthen K-12 education, afterschool programming, child-centered neighborhoods, youth and community leadership, and racial equity and justice.

We are in the process of developing a new strategic framework, co-designed with Detroit youth and their champions.

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