High school graduation rates for foster care youths in Florida in 2004 were abysmal. Eckerd Family Foundation, a private family foundation investing in Florida, North Carolina, and Delaware that helps foster care youth reach adulthood successfully, started asking what could be done. The foundation decided to tackle the problem in a unique way: by funding a nonprofit organization called Connected by 25 (Cby25) to conduct focus groups and surveys with foster youth beneficiaries—its “customers”—and involve them in designing a solution.

What the foundation learned was eye opening and transformed its approach to grantmaking.

To open the first focus group, Diane Zambito, executive director of Cby25, wrote on a white board: “Sixty percent of you drop out.” She then waited to hear the reaction of the 25 young people—all foster youth—in the room.

The responses were immediate: “No, we don't drop out, they don’t let us back in school after we have to change our placement.” “We get so far behind that it is hopeless to stay in school.”

One student said that her change in foster care placement meant she had to change schools. She got good grades, and was a leader socially and in sports, but the new high school had a different scheduling system, and to stay on track for graduation, she would have to attend night and summer classes.

Other stories followed. The depth of disruption in their lives every time they changed foster placements and schools was alarming. “Nobody even talked to me about my placement or school move,” said one student. On average, the kids said that they changed schools three times during their teen years.

When Diane asked them what would help them graduate from high school, they said that they would need someone in the school system, a guidance counselor, to help them overcome the issues getting in the way of finishing high school.

Cby25 and the foundation successfully pitched the idea to the Hillsborough school system in 2005. A high school guidance counselor for all Hillsborough County high school students in foster care was hired and the position was paid for by the foundation. Within 2 years, high school graduation rates among young people in foster care increased by more than 50 percent. Students who performed at or above grade level increased from 33 percent to 63 percent, and promotion rates rose from 75 percent to 87 percent. Hillsborough County school system has since then decided to fund the guidance counselor position, as well as a middle-school guidance counselor on special assignment to kids in foster care.

The voice of youth and systemic change

Central to Eckerd Family Foundation’s theory of change is the model of youth empowerment embodied in the phrase “Nothing About Us Without Us.” The organization sees the foster youth as its customers, listens to their feedback, and involves them in devising solutions to problems they face. Both the foundation and Cby25 agree that to understand the needs of foster youth, they need to understand the young people’s vision for themselves and what barriers they see to their success.

This approach was, in part, necessitated by the lack of data about the problem in Hillsborough County, Florida. Cby 25 had completed a county-wide scan to determine the outcomes for youth in foster care and found aggregate data on the dismal outcomes for this group of kids. However, there was overall little data to sink their teeth into, and doing formal research would take years to complete.

Cby25 started by developing a self-report survey, which asked foster care youth about their housing, employment, transportation, and health care, as well as anything else they wanted to share. Designed to appeal to young people, it used conversational instead of formal language. It also included questions that the youth developed and thought were important to ask, such as, “Do you have your eye glasses?”, “Do you have enough food to eat in your foster care placement?”, “Do you have clothes in your size to wear?”, and “Who attended your last parent/teacher conference?”

These apparently simple questions elicited answers with deep implications:

“If my glasses broke or I lost them, I was told I had to wait until the next insurance period.”

“We get a clothing allowance two times a year. Do you know how much I grow in a year? But that’s it—I get clothes when the system says it time, not based on when I need them.”

“School is hard to navigate—especially when you get to high school … there are classes to pick and your future to chart—college, technical school, maybe even the military—but no one is there to help me. No one is there to know what is going on.”

The young people—the ones who actually lived “in the system”—helped us ask the right questions and thereby elicit relevant answers.

While other groups have struggled to bring young people to focus groups, this project had no such problem. As with focus groups in other sectors, Eckerd Family Foundation paid participants for their time, transportation, and food, and showed the same respect for the young people’s time and ideas. 

The importance of youth voice in driving practice and quality

As a next phase, Cby25 and the foundation asked, “If we can identify the systemic barriers and solutions from foster care youth, and provide self-report youth data to child welfare providers throughout the state of Florida, could we improve practice, provider accountability, and quality assurance?”

Eckerd Family Foundation awarded a grant to Cby25 to create the Cby25 Initiative, a technical assistance and training organization, and to develop an online youth survey data system called My Services, which launched in 2010 and now collects data from 1,600 young people. This successful survey tool tells us from their perspective about the services they receive, and that data has changed the practices of foster care agencies in Florida. Funders have a better sense of what on-the-ground issues are, and can put dollars toward solutions and system change. The data is also used as a quality assurance tool. Cby25 Initiative has become the “youth voice” provider for Florida, and Cby25 hopes to bring this tool to other states.

These successes were possible because Cby25 and Eckerd Family Foundation saw each other as partners in the listening and learning process. Diane explains, “I never felt that I had to have all the answers at the beginning of the grant year. Here’s where we are, here’s what we are seeing, and here’s what our intentions are. So we had a flexible working plan. Let’s take the data, now let’s see where we go. A lot of times with a government or private funder, once you write it down in black and white, that’s it; that will never work if the funder is not flexible.”

No foundation or nonprofit has a quick systemic fix for foster care kids—or any beneficiary group. We have to observe what symptoms our customers perceive, what they think works and doesn’t work, and then marshal resources to provide them with the programs they want. Foundations and nonprofits cannot effectively change beneficiary attitudes or behavior without listening and integrating their insights, input, and feedback.