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Collaboration Done Right

A public-private coalition of adoption services in Texas is getting many more kids into homes and saving money in the process.

The Lodestar Foundation, founded in 1999 and based in Phoenix, has set for itself what many may consider a quixotic journey: to foster, encourage, and celebrate collaborative partnerships among nonprofit and public-sector enterprises that advance social good.

I'm an advocate for collaboration in the delivery of services, but quick to admit—as I did in this column in May—that collaborations often end in a puddle of frustrations and ambiguous results.

Thus, I welcomed the opportunity to serve on the Lodestar Award selection panel this year, and was pleasantly surprised and inspired by the accomplishments of the nominated organizations. What especially drew my attention were those which reflected the roles that nonprofits play in the delivery of public services.

This year's winner, the Adoption Coalition of Texas, is a case in point. The coalition is a multiagency, public-private partnership that has reduced costs while increasing the number of adoptions occurring in the central Texas region by 75 percent. It has made stunning progress in adoptions of hard-to-place children who are often left languishing in foster care.

Its creation was a positive adaptation by state child welfare agencies and providers to changing federal requirements. In 1997, the Adoption and Safe Families Act for the first time set rigorous timelines for a decision on whether a child in foster care can be returned safely to his or her home, and if not, to terminate parental rights and identify a "forever family" for that child.

Previously, a significant portion of children in out-of-home care—often hard-to-place older children, minorities, and sibling groups—literally grew to adulthood in foster settings that changed from year to year, if not more often. A disturbing majority of teens who "age out" of the foster care system end up homeless, pregnant or in other vulnerable situations; so both short- and long-term public interest is squarely on tackling this problem.

The federal mandate put unfamiliar pressure on state and local adoption systems. Permanency is an unquestioned benefit for the child, but misaligned financial incentives worked against hard-to-place children. Payments to adoption agencies rewarded volume and fast placements that tended to make some children "unadoptable" because the resources weren't there to find the right family. Agencies prioritized infants and toddlers that were more cost effective placements.

For many smaller adoption agencies, an even more challenging problem was scale. The pool of prospective families for eligible, hard-to-place children was simply too small. Overhead costs were high. Little money was available for outreach, and the time taken to qualify prospective families discouraged participation.

After some false starts, four agencies in Austin secured philanthropic support to bring in an outside facilitator to work with them and the Texas State Department of Family and Protective Services. Their goal: a child-centered system that gave every child an opportunity to have a permanent placement. The result: the Adoption Coalition of Texas.

The coalition, the hub of a partnership among adoptions agencies and the state, confirms the essential ingredients for successful collaborations that I recounted in a story about Philadelphia dropouts in my May column.

Common agenda: The partners have prioritized the placement of waiting children and organized their agencies to identify the most effective ways to make those placements happen. For example, rather than broad recruiting of families who ultimately have little interest in hard-to-place children, the partners put resources into targeted outreach and education that has successfully identified families willing to consider these children.

A backbone support organization: The coalition itself, an independent 501(c)(3) holding operating agreements with the adoption agencies, performs work that the agencies do not or cannot perform effectively because of scale. It sees itself as a neutral advocate for children rather than as a service arm of the agencies. It has been able to attract volunteers, launch outreach through pro bono services of media outlets, and organize fundraising and "matchmaking" events.

Shared measurement systems: The coalition taps state records to accurately track placements. It keeps coalition-wide data that tracks trends in the process continuum from initial inquiry through training and adoption. The coalition was expecting able to celebrate, for example, a reduction in the time needed for families to be certified from nine months to three , a big factor in retaining interested families. The rising number of teen adoptions has marked the coalition as a national leader in a challenging field.

Mutually reinforcing activities: The agencies continue to do what they do best: licensing families to adopt. The coalition has assumed responsibilities for activities that work better at scale: recruitment of families, training, public education and fundraising.

Continuous communication: The coalition partners have developed a culture of openness and frank discussion that works to short-circuit what could become long-simmering tensions. By using regularly scheduled meetings to review progress against goals and share information and successes, they are able to keep the focus on waiting children.

The Adoption Coalition may be on the side of the angels and the kids, but it has good collaboration practice undergirding its success.

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