Even when Family Support America (FSA) was flush with $24 million from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, its leaders knew trouble lurked around the corner.
It was a trouble that many a nonprofit knows: When the big benefactor stops sending checks, can the group survive?
For FSA, the answer was no. The Chicago-based association shut down on July 31, several months after celebrating its silver anniversary.
You’d think that a group that cites a constituency of 25,000 organizations – FSA’s estimated number of family resource and support centers – would be financially viable. But after helping to spur and support family services across the country, the FSA fell victim to ills that commonly afflict national associations: difficulty in diversifying its funding, an increasing emphasis by foundations on local and state programs, and not enough conviction among observers that it was necessary anymore.
“That was very much a topic of discussion: How can we diversify, and what is the mission of Family Support America?” says Charlie Bruner, who served as a board member for seven years, until the early 2000s.
The shutdown follows by one month the closing of the 40-year-old National Center for Community Education, which supported community schools and after-school programs. The National Community Building Network has suspended operations.
“The closing [of FSA] is part of a national pattern,” says Jeanne Jehl, the FSA board chairman. “With the devolution of policy funding to the state and local jurisdictions, there has been a growth in state and local organizations, and national nonprofits are having difficulty getting funding.”
Bernice Weissbourd was teaching pre-schoolers in Chicago public housing 30 years ago when she was struck by the near hopelessness of youngsters with virtually no parental presence in their lives. She founded a group called Family Focus to promote and support parental involvement.
With similar groups popping up around the country, in 1981 Weissbourd organized a national meeting of family support groups.
“It was a very exciting meeting, because people had a lot of energy about starting a new movement,” says Weissbourd, 83. “There needed to be one national organization to serve the needs of these organizations as far as communication, networking, technical training and best practices.”
From that Chicago meeting was born the Family Resource Coalition (FRC) of North America, covering the United States and Canada. It set out to promote the integration of family support into youth and social services through direct service and education. The FRC organized networks and conferences, advocated for family-oriented public policies and published a newsletter and other materials.
“They were a critical source of information for all of us little people out there,” says Jessica Strauss, who attended the association’s conferences when she ran a Baltimore program, The Family Place. Rather than focusing on one or two programs, Strauss’ agency provided an array of services, including support for young mothers and their babies, after-school activities, summer camp, pregnancy prevention and adult literacy.
Providing that array of services, she says, “was really radical work” in the early 1990s.
Along the way, the association changed its name twice: first in 1997, when it became the Family Resource Coalition of America, and again in 2000 when it switched to Family Support America. The second change was made largely to avoid confusion with another group that had become nationally well-known – the conservative Family Research Council, which also used the acronym FRC and had nabbed the Internet address “frc.org.”
All this was funded by philanthropic partners and revenues from conferences, publications and membership. The group’s big break came in 1994, when the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) began what became a 10-year commitment of $24.2 million. That funding was used primarily to help states establish networks of family support centers, advance the family support movement nationwide, and develop indicators to evaluate family support programs.
“Funding a national program that focused on community issues rather than health or health care was a departure for RWJF,” noted a 2005 RWJF summary of its work with FSA. But “RWJF understood that better health for children is directly related to families’ ability to support their children and adequate community resources to support families.”
That support, however, brought a risk.
Lack of Support
The RWJF funding allowed FSA to grow, but the board and staff knew that “RWJ was too big a part of the budget,” says former board member Bruner, now director of the Child and Family Policy Center in Des Moines, Iowa. From 2001-03, when the foundation’s grants to FSA averaged more than $3 million a year, the association’s annual revenues ranged from $6.2 million to $3.8 million, according to its federal tax returns.
Board Chairman Jehl and President Virginia Mason (who declined to comment) tried to diversify FSA’s revenues. Consulting and fee-for-service work proved unstable. A contract with the Family Resource Program in Canada was short-lived. Membership drives weren’t sustained. Grants from national funders were hard to come by.
Then, as funding got tighter at foundations and as RWJF shifted its leadership and funding philosophy, it stopped supplying grants to FSA after 2004. “The decision was partially financial and partly because many people at RWJF did not understand the value of this investment,” Judith Stavisky, an RWJF program officer, said in the RWJF summary. The Edna McConnell Clark and the Ford foundations, two early FSA funders, had also shifted away from child welfare.
When it came to finding other grants, the FSA’s mission appeared too broad or ill-defined, especially since it wasn’t providing direct service. Foundations tend to prefer categories more specific than “family strength” or “family support,” notes Irv Katz, CEO of the Washington-based National Human Services Assembly.
One common topic of discussion at FSA was whether “family support” is a program or a philosophy of service. “It’s hard to get big funding for a philosophy,” Bruner says. “I think national funders weren’t quite sure what niche or role Family Support America was playing.”
Katz says FSA was “a movement of people without a strong institutional base, so there wasn’t strong support to keep it alive.”
Hitting up the members was no solution: FSA’s constituency of social service organizations wasn’t rich enough “to contribute the kind of membership dollars that are going to sustain an organization,” Bruner notes.
FSA collected $83,000 in dues in 2003, out of $3.8 million in revenue, according to its latest available tax returns. That didn’t cover even half of Mason’s salary – which rose from $135,000 in 2001 to $177,000 in 2003, even as revenues dropped.
Ironically, the association might have rendered itself less necessary by helping to build family support services and networks in more than a dozen states through the RWJF funding. There appears to be no loud outcry to recreate the association.
Weissbourd says she is “not mourning. … Family support has become so much a part of our social structure that I think the organization has been successful.”
Strauss in Baltimore agrees, saying, “By getting family support concepts and practices into the water supply, the fields of social work, community development, health care, education – just about everywhere – in a way it kind of did what it came to the Earth to do, and didn’t have to be there anymore.”