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The 'Chronicle of Social Change' sits down with president Terri Sorensen

Paid Mentors, Big Plans: Terri Sorensen on Friends of the Children’s Growth Strategy

Paid Mentors, Big Plans: Terri Sorensen on Friends of the Children’s Growth Strategy

by Michael Fitzgerald

February 16, 2018

The Portland-based mentoring nonprofit Friends of the Children (FOTC) is embarking on an ambitious expansion this year, adding five new locations to its current roster of 11 cities.

FOTC pairs vulnerable children — such as foster youth, children of teen parents — with a trained, paid Friends employee for 12 years. Each Friend employee — who are often former teachers, social workers or group home counselors — works with eight kids, spending 16 hours per month on emotional and social development, schoolwork or extracurricular activities with each child.

The organization’s use of professional, paid mentors distinguishes it from Big Brothers, Big Sisters and most of the other 5,000 other mentoring organizations that rely on volunteer mentors.

FOTC recently secured a four-year, $4 million matching grant from the federal government’s Social Innovation Fund, which is administered by the Corporation for National and Community Service. The Ballmer Group, along with some celebrity donors, are contributing to help match the money.*

The funds are part of a planned $25 million campaign FOTC plans to use for a five-city expansion that will increase the number of children it serves by 50 percent. Affiliates are expected to launch in Los Angeles, Central Oregon, Charlotte, Austin and Chicago this year.

The Los Angeles affiliate will focus exclusively on pairing the children of parents who have aged out of foster care without finding a permanent adoptive home with mentors who will also have experience with that system.

To get some insight into Friends of the Children and its expansion plans, The Chronicle of Social Change recently sat down with CEO Terri Sorensen in Los Angeles. What follows are highlights from the conversation, lightly edited for clarity and length.

You’re in the middle of opening five new branches right now — L.A., Austin, Charlotte, Central Oregon and Chicago. How long has this been in the works?

Two years ago we launched a $25 million expansion campaign to take our evidence-based model to more children, and really begin to change systems, particularly the foster care system. Last year we got the Social Innovation Fund grant. That’s really the catalyst. All of our new cities are receiving those funds. That was really exciting in L.A., too, to be able to bring some federal money in to match the local philanthropy.

Tell me about the Los Angeles Friends of the Children affiliate.

This is a unique pilot for Friends of the Children. We’re going to select the 4- to 6-year-old children of youth who have been emancipated out of the foster care system. It’s really exciting for us because it’s an opportunity to support these parents who were in the foster care system and commit to their kids to work alongside them from kindergarten through high school graduation. Each child will be mentored for twelve-and-a-half years, no matter what.

How did you decide to focus on that population? 

Historically, Friends of the Children selects our children in two ways. [The first is] observing kindergarten classrooms and looking for those kids who aren’t coming to school, and then learning more about their risk factors from their teachers and principals.

The other way has been to draw kids directly from the foster care system. Here in L.A., it’s exciting to see both L.A. County and private philanthropy come together to really help solve the foster care issue, which is bigger in Los Angeles than anywhere else in the country.

Where are you in the process in Los Angeles?

Starting in January 2018, we’re looking for an executive director and hiring our leadership team — a program and development director, office manager. Then we’ll hire “friends.” Right now we have $2 million committed for the first three years, from those organizations I mentioned and SIF, the plan right now is to work with 32 children per year. But that number could get much larger.

Is Los Angeles the first place where you are really zeroing in on that population? I know you’ve worked kids in the foster care system before, but the emphasis here seems unique.

It’s the first time we’re taking the children of emancipated foster youth. Most of those kids are not in the foster care system — their parents were, and they’ve aged out. Most of the kids we select anyway were born to teen parents, but that will be especially so here. It’s really getting to kids before they are in the system and breaking that cycle. Some of the kids might be in the system already, though — maybe 25 percent.

And the primary goal is keeping those kid out of foster care, correct?

Exactly. But also the keeping them out of the juvenile justice system, preventing homeless[ness], all of those things. There’s a component of workforce development here, too, for youth who have aged out of the foster care system.

I recently met youth who had aged out of the system. Someone asked, “What’s one thing that you wish was different?” And they said, “Hire us. Hire us.” So that is exactly who we are going to hire as “friends,” which is what we call our professional mentors.

We’ll hire youth who have aged out of the system and have graduated from college and have at least two to three years experience working with vulnerable children. So it’ll really be full circle from the community.

So did the county approach Friends about this initially? Or was it other nonprofit groups and philanthropists?

It was a combination. We had met with David Sanders, with Casey Family Programs in Seattle, and asked him what markets he thought were open to innovative solutions. He was the head of foster care in Los Angeles County, and he suggested L.A. He started the introductions, which led to more introductions, and then the Ballmer Group, who had been funding our Seattle chapter for the last six years, came in with a challenge match. Then others came in, like the Pritzker Foster Care Initiative, and Greg Perlman of the Always Up Foundation, all came in to say they want to see this innovative program here.

Not to mention the Super Bowl-winning quarterback Russell Wilson and his wife, the Grammy-winning singer and Revlon model Ciara, right?

Yes! We are the beneficiaries of Wilson’s clothing line, The Good Man Brand. Both he and Ciara have endorsed our model.

You got to meet them?

Our kids and friends have. We did a documentary with them. It’s been really exciting.

So you’ve got five new cities. What’s after that? Any other cities you are getting ready to launch?

Our goal is to be in 25 cities by 2025. We’ve raised some money in two other cities, Detroit and Cincinnati, so we are very hopeful those are our next two cities, but we are open wherever communities want us to come. We’re really hoping that L.A. with how big the foster care issue is here, we have the potential to take every single child who is a child of emancipated foster youth. If we can do that and change the system, and L.A. tends to lead national efforts.

Is the Social Innovation Fund grant a bigger infusion of federal funding than you’ve gotten in the past?

SIF is unique — we’ve found it’s a model that works. Unfortunately it’s now been eliminated for the future, but we have our four-year commitment. What we were able to do is still hold true to new sites needing to raise three years of capital, $1.5 million upfront and we put up matching funds.

Here in L.A., that’s $500,000 of matching funds, so brought it to $2 million. So we’ve found that’s really effective in getting communities to want to bring a model that works, and make that happen quickly. In Austin, they raised $1.7 million in two months, which was pretty incredible, from 50 individual funders, no foundations even. We are looking to raise more capital to provide matching funds to communities to scale.

I know Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) has been a big proponent, too. Do you hear about more policymakers interested in adapting this more widely within government?

I don’t know how familiar you are with Pay for Success. That is kind of the new name for Social Impact Bonds. Third Sector Capital Partners did a feasibility study on us, and the Sorensen Impact Center at the University of Utah is finishing the second part of the feasibility study and taking us to transaction. We see that as an opportunity to really open up paying for positive outcomes and there’s a lot of interest in that around the country.

The government is spending billions right now on things that don’t necessarily work. So some of that sea change starting to happen is government wanting to only pay for what works. So we’re doing Pay for Success and committing ourselves to that because it has strategies for scaling this model really big. But it might not even take that; government is really starting to change and investing in what works. Ballmer Group has really supported that, too, opening up funding that then governments will invest in and take to scale.

Are you on track for hitting your goal of raising $25 million by 2018?

We’ve raised $13 million, and we’re still looking to close out that fund and are pretty confident we can do that by the end of 2018.

Read full story here.