Now comes the demise of the Washington-based Connect for Kids.
CFK was born in 1991 as a communications arm of the now-defunct Coalition for America’s Children. The coalition, led by Susan Nall Bales, operated under the aegis of the Benton Foundation, which specializes in communications issues. CFK was cut loose from Benton to begin its own corporate life in 2003, “informing the public,” it said, “about children’s status … by offering a place on the Internet for adults – parents … and others” seeking to advance the best interests of kids and families.
From its earliest days, CFK quickly became an information magnet for earnest, do-right-by-kids types, and drew a respectable amount of support from national foundations.
As cyberspace evolved, however, CFK’s unique offerings became not so unique. In a departure missive posted in August, CFK Editor Susan Phillips noted “the explosion in the quantity and quality of information that is becoming available on the well-being of children, most of it accessible through the Web.”
In the optimistic Clinton-era child advocacy world of the 1990s, it was posited that if you put kid-friendly information on the Internet, then support for pro-child public policies would grow. But the next decade produced not just a few key sites with many users, but countless sites, and – in the nonprofit children and youth field, at least – a relative paucity of users for each. As Phillips wrote, “Even small nonprofits operating on shoe-string budgets are often able to maintain Web sites that offer a window on their work to the entire world – sharing their ideas, insights, and hard-earned lessons on how to be effective.”
Says Steve Trippe, president of New Ways to Work and coordinator of the 21-member Intermediary Network – including Boston Private Industries Council, DC Children and Youth Investment Trust Corp., and the Philadelphia Youth Network – “A lot of organizations blast out the same or similar stuff” as CFK.
As the uniqueness of CFK’s mission declined, its staff, led by Cecilia Garcia, and its seven-member board of directors (including Garcia and Advocacy Director Jan Richter) weren’t just sitting there looking at screen-savers of frolicking children.
In 2003, the 38-member National Foster Care Coalition and its staff of one, Robin Nixon, came under the CFK fiscal umbrella, bringing along about $250,000 annually, or one-quarter of CFK’s $964,634 in spending in 2005. Now Nixon has scooted from CFK to Kidsave.org, a Washington-based NGO led by Terry Baugh, that aids orphans in Russia and other countries. When Nixon’s coalition went its separate way, so did its funding from three of the five members of the Casey Quintet (Annie E. in Baltimore, Family Services in New Haven and Family Programs in Seattle), as did funding from the Freddie Mac Foundation.
Also supporting CFK’s budget was the Youth Transition Funders Group, a collaboration of 28 foundations. YTFG – staffed by Chicago-based consultant Lisa McGill, formerly with the New Haven Community Foundation – is perceived by its supporters as a key coordinator of effective philanthropic funding. CFK was hired to use polling and focus groups to develop effective language for advocacy on behalf of disconnected youth.
CFK, says YTFG co-chairwoman Chris Sturgis, did a good job, including “excellent message testing.” Richter, who worked extensively with YTFG on pro-kid themes, says one of CFK’s greatest successes was persuading the field that “how you frame a message [about disadvantaged youth] is important.” That persuasion was paid for by two California foundations, Omidyar and Hewlett.
Another CFK endeavor was to serve as a communication vehicle for those – at least those left of center – working on the reauthorization of the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. The renewal of welfare reform laws dragged out in Congress for four years; what emerged this year for President George W. Bush’s signature reads more like what Assistant Health and Human Services Secretary Wade Horn had in mind than what Deborah Weinstein, executive director of the 104-member Coalition on Human Needs, wanted. The TANF reauthorization effectively put CFK out of the welfare reform business.
Just what was CFK’s business anyway? Was it a business-to-business communications enterprise (like Youth Today) aimed at people drawing a paycheck in the children and youth field? Or was it a website designed, as Richter says, to “draw people beyond the choir” to support pro-kids policies?
Aim your business at the trade audience, and the reward is an organizational vow of perpetual poverty. Aim at the concerned parents of America, and look for your rewards not from foundations but in life after organizational death. CFK could never quite make up its mind just who its target audience was. As they say in Texas, the only thing in the middle of the road is a dead armadillo.
While no for-profit or nonprofit groups set out to undercut CFK’s niche, indirect, diffused competition is at the heart of the American marketplace. Thad Ferber, program director at the Forum for Youth Investment, points to overall declining philanthropic support, not competition, as one factor in CFK’s troubles. He ought to know. He’s the chairman of the low-overhead Youth Policy Action Center (YPAC), a 94-member collaboration that works to connect the youth and youth worker grassroots with Congress and executive branch officials via the Internet. The effort runs on cybernet fumes and the good offices of Sherri Stanley Whitworth, CEO of Capitol Advantage, which powers YPAC at an uncompensated cost of $15,000 per year. Stanley Whitworth’s pro bono work won her an Essence of Leadership award in September from the National Human Services Assembly.
Yet of all YPAC’s mighty members, only three – the National Youth Employment Coalition, the National Association of Service and Conservation Corps, and Students for Sensible Drug Policy – have put any cash on the table to support it. That support totals $6,000, or an average of $64 per YPAC member. That’s not a whole lot of action.
Speaking of a lack of action, CFK board Chairwoman Kate Mattos, the communication counsel for the National Education Association, agrees with Ferber that foundation support for national infrastructure efforts is declining. “It’s lean for everybody,” she says.
Everybody that is, except Bridgespan, the Boston-based, grant-gobbling “nonprofit” consulting shop that provides strategic planning advice at a hefty fee to groups fortunate enough to find a foundation willing to pick up the tab – usually the New York-based Edna McConnell Clark Foundattion or Atlantic Philanthropies. With funding from Atlantic Philanthropies, Bridgespan began assisting CFK in its strategic planning in early 2006.
Alas, the bridge over CFK’s troubled waters had the same missing link as ever: no viable plan to generate earned income to sustain CFK in perpetuity. The entire Bridgespan effort, says one who was there, “went for naught.”
CFK chairwoman Mattos continues to be “confident that the value was there” for CFK’s services. But Mattos and CFK’s board weren’t that confident in Bridgespan or that the planning effort would bring a major grant from Atlantic Philanthropies. To some, Mattos and the board just lost their nerve and decided not to gamble on the future and on CFK going into debt.
One CFK source, seeking assurances of anonymity worthy of a CIA operative in Baghdad, noted bitterly the “millions” spent by Atlantic Philanthropies on America’s Promise’s First Focus fiasco, while CFK – with 15 years of accomplishment and forward momentum – crashed. In 2005, America’s Promise received $14.5 million from Atlantic Philanthropies through three grants, including $6 million over three years for First Focus – an undertaking, like CKF, designed to build public and political support for pro-kids public polices. (See “Never Focused,” Nose Knows, September.)
An estimated 25,000 people signed up to receive CFK’s Monday update, “Celebrating Families.” But they provided very little income. CFK, following in the grand American know-nothing tradition, declined to provide enough business specifics to Nose Knows to completely assess its failure to thrive. An effort to get recipients to pay $100 a year for CFK was too much, too unrealistic and too late to save the nonprofit. (By comparison, Youth Today charges $29.50 for 10 issues per year; after seven years of aggressive and expensive marketing, it has fewer than 10,000 paid subscribers, who produced about $175,000 in revenue in fiscal 2006.) Given the survival of the fittest, pauper-thy-neighbor culture of service provider and infrastructure groups, even a safe-cracker couldn’t pry $100 out of CFK’s most devoted users. CFK’s 2005 federal tax returns show fee-for-service and other revenue of $142,433, or roughly 16 percent of its income.
One measure of a website’s impact is offered by Internet search engine Alexa (www.alexa.com), which uses data captured by its popular search toolbar to rank the traffic on millions of sites. Alexa’s traffic ranking is a combined measure of page views and “reach” – the number of Alexa toolbar users who visit a particular site, per million Internet users.
According to Alexa, www.connectforkids.org was enjoying a reach of as high as 333,000 users per million in early 2002. But after four years of steady declines, the site attracted only about 25,000 users per million during the week of Sept. 17, 2006. Likewise, the site of the Youth Policy Action Center (www.youthpolicyactioncdenter.org) had a sustained reach of approximately 50,000 per million for the last half of 2005. After an erratic showing in 2006, however, that site’s reach during the week of Sept. 17 had dropped to as little as 1,500 per million.
In comparison, the websites of Youth Today (www.youthtoday.org) and the Youth Transition Funders Group (www.ytfg.org) are visited by so few Alexa users that the company maintains no statistics on them. Alexa posts data on only the top-performing 100,000 sites visited by its users.
Former CFK staffer Richter is proud that the nonprofit “always looked for ways to support the field.” That professional generosity of spirit was reciprocated in words, if not in cash, by its many supporters. YPAC’s Ferber calls the demise of CFK “a real tragedy.” Weinstein, of the Coalition on Human Needs, worked closely with CFK and “greatly regrets” its loss.
CFK – RIP.