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5 Questions for...Frances Sykes, President and CEO, Pascale Sykes Foundation

April 27, 2021

For much of its existence, the New Jersey-based Pascale Sykes Foundation has worked to strengthen low-income working families in the New Jersey/New York region through what it calls the Whole Family Approach, a preventive (as opposed to crisis-driven) strategy that helps family members, both adults and children, support one another in achieving their long-term goals. With the understanding that financial stability, healthy relationships, and physical well-being are linked, families are matched with a coach who works alongside family members to identify and set their goals; ensure they have the resources and tools needed to achieve those goals; and connect them to a network of agencies able to deliver holistic, coordinated support. The approach has been applied in various settings and with immigrant families, foster youth, and families dealing with members who are re-entering society from the criminal justice system.

The foundation's work extends into other areas as well. After rural families in southern New Jersey identified transportation as a major challenge, the foundation supported an initiative known as Transportation Plus, which provides residents of the region with connections to NJ Transit. And through its Economic Initiative, a partnership with a community development financial institution, the foundation invests in a series of low-interest loan funds for small businesses and nonprofits in the region.

Frances P. Sykes has led the foundation since its founding in 1992. In 1995, Pascale Sykes trustees voted to sunset the foundation by 2022. PND spoke with Sykes about the foundation's Whole Family Approach, where things stand with the spend-down process, and her hopes for the field.

Headshot_frances_sykesPhilanthropy News Digest: You've said you created the Pascale Sykes Foundation with two intentions: to serve working low-income families that aren't eligible for many safety-net services, and to help reshape the way social services in the United States are delivered. How did you come to settle on those two objectives?

Frances Sykes: When I was teaching, I witnessed a working family struggle to get help for their eleven-year-old, who was in danger of going down the wrong path. The family made too much to qualify for free supportive services, and under a sliding scale they would have been asked to pay more than they could afford. They were stuck, whereas a middle-class family in the same situation more than likely would've been able to afford to pay out of pocket for counseling and other services for their child. It wasn't fair that the issue the child was experiencing wasn't severe enough, or that the family wasn't poor enough, to allow them to access the resources they needed. Far too many families are in that same position — living one step above the poverty line and lacking access to the kinds of support they need. I wanted my work to be a part of the solution to that challenge — to help build a bridge between what families need and the agencies that have the resources to empower them.

The Whole Family Approach evolved over ten years. By working alongside grantees, Pascale Sykes trustees, staff, and grantees could see what made a lasting difference in families' long-term well-being. And we also came to realize that families know what they want and are capable of achieving it if they are taught how to navigate the system. It's not complicated. Adults in charge. Financial stability, relationships, and physical/social/emotional health reinforcing each other. What happens to one person affects the entire family, and what happens to the family affects each individual within it. Root causes must be addressed or problems recur.

The approach turns traditional social work on its head. In our approach, social workers are no longer expected to fix problems or work with individuals in isolation or address isolated issues. Instead, coaches work to build trust and walk alongside every member of the family as they work to achieve their self-defined goals.

PND: A critical component of the Whole Family Approach is the requirement that two "dependable adult caregivers are actively engaged with the children in the family." Why is it important that two adults be involved?

FS: All families look different. But every adult needs someone to call or turn to in an emergency, or just to share good news with. The second adult not only supports the primary caregiver but is an additional support system for children in the family as well. And that's a win-win for everyone. The stronger the support system, the healthier the family and the more likely its members will reach their shared goals.

PND: A July 2020 report that examined the results achieved by eight collaboratives using the Whole Family Approach found that participating families were in a better position to handle the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis because of the stronger familial ties they had forged and the access they had to support networks, even though they still experienced anxiety and mental health issues in addition to the stressors they were facing pre-pandemic. Are you seeing any evidence that the field in general is shifting toward this type of strategy? And looking down the road five to ten years, where do you see challenges to more widespread adoption of the approach?

FS: The field has been shifting for a few years. You see variations of the Whole Family Approach promoted by larger funders like Kellogg, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and other high-profile organizations under names like "2Gen" or "Intergenerational Approach."

I really see no challenges to its adoption by others in the field — even if others give it another name and make it their own. It's a proven approach that we know works better for families. Our research has shown that adults have less financial stress, that ties between adults in a family are strengthened, that children's health and educational achievement improve, and that the academic aspirations of both adults and children are raised. In the time remaining before we officially sunset later this year, the foundation is on a mission to raise awareness of the approach and to get others to embrace it. We believe it can advance the field and put more of our working families on a path to stability.

PND: The foundation's approach emphasizes collaboration — among family members, nonprofits, and human services agencies, and between the foundation and its partners. In a 2019 post for our blog, you urged funders to shift their grantmaking so as to foster more collaboration and less competition among grantees. What are your thoughts about the state of collaboration in the social sector today?

FS: The competition for limited resources has resulted in a fragmented approach to service provision that undermines the value of those services for families in need. Too often, families are forced to start from scratch in their efforts to access services, filling out the same form multiple times for multiple agencies, then receiving a separate set of recommendations from each of those agencies. What's more, different agencies often will offer differing and/or conflicting advice. Families become overwhelmed. Parents become frustrated, unable to prioritize and plan their next steps. Children feel the lack of stability and bear the brunt of its effects. It's also difficult for busy family members to build solid, trusting relationships with representatives from multiple agencies.

We believe collaboration is key. That's what the Whole Family Approach is all about. To maximize their effectiveness, funders, nonprofits, and agencies that have bought into the approach capture and share information about their clients' goals, progress, and life changes in a centralized database, enabling partner agencies to see families as holistic entities with their own unique challenges, vulnerabilities, and strengths. Instead of operating individually, agencies begin to see other nonprofits in the collaboration not as competitors but as teammates they can lean on to organize priorities, share resources, and advance their mutual goals and objectives.

The more foundations see the benefits of the Whole Family Approach, the greater the chances we'll be able to change the system so that it is more efficient and effective in helping families thrive.

PND: In 1996, your board voted to sunset the foundation within thirty years, and in 2009 a non-trustee workgroup researched and set up plans for the spend-down process. How much of an impact has your status as a limited-life foundation had on your grantmaking strategies? And would you recommend the approach to others who may be thinking about establishing a private foundation?

FS: Being a limited-life foundation is necessary for any small foundation that wants to create real change. Change requires the flexibility to respond to unexpected situations. This can only happen if a funder is focused on making change, not preserving the corpus.

The decision to sunset was based on two key factors. First, the decision to make a large impact was critical, and distributing 5 percent to 6 percent of our investment income each year simply would not accomplish that goal. And second, when we started, the Whole Family Approach was not well known. Thirty years later, we're proud of the fact that more foundations and organizations are implementing a version of the approach, and that it is leading to greater impact. I have no doubt the approach will be accepted more broadly. And when it is, instead of shifting into a new focus area or something less relevant to us, we'll be able to say we accomplished our mission.

We look forward to more funders picking up the mantle and moving this work forward in their own way. And I highly recommend our grantmaking strategy and the Whole Family Approach as a way forward for others who want to make a big impact in a particular way.

Kyoko Uchida

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