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At Funders Together, we make it a goal to share the work of funders across the country so you can learn what's working and adapt these strategies to your own community. One way we do that is through our Featured Members. Some are featured because of their innovative grantmaking. Others are featured because they are making connections and bringing new people into the conversation about ending and preventing homelessness. Still others are featured because they are challenging the very systems that allow homelessness to persist. In each case, our Featured Members are an integral part of the solution to homelessness.
In 1963, the Wilson Foundation was established by Joseph C. Wilson, then Chair of the Board of Xerox Corporation, and his wife, Peggy. Always on the quest for innovative approaches and implementing best practices, the Wilson Foundation recently supported the SHIFT Study, a longitudinal study that seeks to gain a better understanding of the effectiveness of local programs for the needs of homeless families. In this interview, Megan Bell, Executive Director of the Wilson Foundation, highlights some of the foundation’s important work.
Q: Why did The Wilson Foundation first start working on family homelessness?
Megan Bell (MB): Since the Foundation’s founding in 1963, we have always been committed to families in our community. Joe Wilson and his wife, Peggy, developed reputations as thoughtful community leaders committed to addressing problems head-on. They brought this dedication to the foundation when it first started, and it’s really a guiding force for the foundation to this day. In 1991, the Marie C. and Joseph C. Wilson Foundation, as we were known at the time, created Wilson Commencement Park to help women and children move to a place where they could thrive in the Rochester community. That was a pretty special moment for the foundation and the board because it was one of the first transitional programs of its kind for women and children in Rochester.
Q: The Wilson Foundation has supported some cutting edge work on the link between trauma and homelessness? How did you decide on this focus area? What have you learned?
MB: After Wilson Commencement Park opened, the foundation’s board wanted to learn more about homelessness across the state before replicating the model elsewhere. The idea for the SHIFT Study was then born. The Service and Housing Interventions for Families in Transition, or SHIFT, Study took a longitudinal approach to 1) document the needs and characteristics of women experiencing homelessness; and to 2) understand the effectiveness of different housing programs and related services in addressing housing stability and self-sufficiency. The study focused on single parent households across New York state and was conducted by the National Center on Family Homelessness.
The findings have been pretty incredible. 93% of women in the study experienced at least one instance of trauma. 81% had experienced multiple and more severe trauma in their lives. The study indicated that trauma symptom severity and low self-esteem predict long-term residential instability. The study also found that untreated maternal mental health conditions have implications for the long-term emotional and physical well-being of their children. In other words, we have to break the cycle.
We have our work cut out for us moving forward. Trauma-informed care is a difficult topic to understand because it’s not programmatic, but a way of delivering services. It involves everyone in an organization and requires connections across organizations and systems. Yet trauma-informed care is crucial for residential stability. We have to move the needle on this to ensure that we are meeting the needs of women and children.
Q: As you said, trauma and homelessness are two incredibly complex issues to tackle, especially if you look at cycles of trauma and homelessness over generations. What kinds of outcomes are you looking for? How do you measure success?
MB: Well, the first step is encouraging organizations to adopt a trauma-informed model. Organizations have to understand that this concept is an important one, and encouraging them to implement a trauma-informed approach is a process. It requires a cultural change, a lot of training, and frankly, humility. We have supported a number of organizations to go through training and then design an implementation plan. These are big steps.
One of the serious challenges we face as a foundation is the lack of data. We want to implement best practices and an approach that works. But we can’t wait for the data to start working at it. Sometimes as a foundation you have to take a leap of faith. You have to take risks to find success. The key is thoughtfully approaching the work and evaluating as you go. We don’t just fund an idea and walk away.
For us, it’s also been helpful to look at the ways in which we can evaluate without adding a lot of extra work on providers who are already capped. We use existing structures like HMIS. What does the HMIS data look like over the long-term for residents coming out of a facility that is trauma-informed? Do they come back into the system down the road? For us, it’s about achieving that long-term impact.
Q: One theme we’ve heard from our members is that no foundation can achieving that kind of change alone. What is your relationship with other funders? Can you speak to the ways in which these relationships are important for your work?
MB: Absolutely. We want to know what’s going on in other communities. These kinds of conversations happen a little less frequently, but being about to talk about systems thinking and trauma-informed care across communities is incredible valuable.
Locally we are the only foundation that focuses on homelessness. Now, our paths do cross with other local funders that, for example, support programs at shelters. We do get together to talk about best practices and programmatic investments that can make a difference. We want to invest wisely and that means that foundations have to make connections. Homelessness doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and so we have to recognize the linkages to the education system and mental health system and others. Trauma-informed care isn’t only applicable in the context of homelessness and we want to make connections to the bigger picture. We have to talk about these things openly. It’s incredibly important to share ideas and insights with other funders.
Q: How can groups like Funders Together support the work of family foundations?
MB: When you look at our assets, we are a small foundation. But we have many family members serving on the board. Because families have diverse passions, interests, opinions, and grantmaking preferences, it’s so helpful to have information on best practices for programs as well as advocacy and policy. We have to have a balance of both. Being able to present the way we can improve our community and connect that to the bigger systems change work is critical.
Q: What advice would you offer to other family foundations who are just starting to focus on homelessness? Where can they start?
MB: I actually just advised a family foundation that wanted to focus on homelessness in their strategic planning process. The first step is educating yourself about the issue. One of the greatest things about Joe Wilson was that he wanted to be at the table for community conversations. He didn’t just want to give money to an issue; he wanted to understand it and hear from the people experiencing it. Staff and board at family foundations should consider taking the same approach. Go and talk to providers. Don’t just have coffee or lunch with them, but go to the facility, meet the staff, and talk to residents. It’s so important to understand what’s happening in that environment. Beyond that, go to conferences hosted by Funders Together and the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Learn about best practices. Hear what other funders are doing.
I would also say that family foundations, especially foundations that issue smaller grants, have to think bigger than you are. When Joe Wilson was trying to build up Xerox and push the copy machine, everyone told him it was a bad idea. But he never gave up. That spirit really embodies the work of our foundation. We don’t think in terms of our assets. We think about how we can best impact systems change.
Interested in past featured member profiles? Check out our archive here.
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