Keeping Members Informed and Connected: A Case Study of YTFG's Communications Work

Hershel Sarbin and Harvey Chipkin
June 30, 2010

Keeping Leading Funders Connected and Tracking Progress

Today in America, more than three million young adults ages 14 to 24 have become disconnected from schools, the workforce, communities and their families.

The Youth Transition Funders Group (YTFG) is a collaboration of more than 30 national and regional foundations working to improve the lives of these young people who are transitioning out of foster care, entangled in the juvenile justice system, or at risk of dropping out of school. While YTFG is not a grantmaking organization, its individual members do offer funding to ensure that young people in transition are connected by age 25 to the services and support systems that will enable them to be productive adults. Its signature initiatives are: Multiple Pathways to Graduation and Connected by 25.

YTFG’s work and influence is notable—but we at Child Advocacy 360 were no less impressed by its excellence in the area of communications. The Group’s leadership is responsible for the most sensitive and essential messaging in child/youth advocacy: keeping your own members and supporters enthusiastic, engaged and making a difference. 

Lisa McGillFor this reason, we give YTFG a top score in our (informal) assessment of best communications practices in the child and youth field.

In June 2010, Child Advocacy 360’s senior editor Harvey Chipkin interviewed Lisa McGill, director of YTFG to find out how a small staff get the job done, using a disciplined but informal process of Work Group meetings, monthly telephone conferences, and common sense messaging. Here are some highlights on YTFG’s communications approach:

Work groups: Twice a year, YTFG’s three work groups (education, foster care and juvenile justice) gather to hear presentations from outside experts. There are also full-day Action Group meetings, where all of the work groups convene together for learning and dialogue; it’s here that the internal communication fires up. Co-chairs of the organization’s work groups provide updates on the progress of their investments – and what they’re learning. The members focus on identifying how grantmaking strategies for one public system of care might have implications on others.

The co-chairs also offer updates on struggling initiatives because, as McGill says, “You have to fail to succeed.”

Other funders have the opportunity to ask questions and to offer their own perspectives and advice. Says McGill, “We need to share our challenges because somebody might say, ‘Have you thought of doing this?’” 

Monthly work group telephone conferences: Lasting about an hour, these events vary by month. Sometimes, there is a speaker, other times a strategy session. McGill or a member of the YTFG Steering Committee sits in on the call to take note of what is being developed, and later shares summaries and insights with members of the other work groups. 

Ongoing communications: McGill presides over a flow of communication and interactions that includes quarterly newsletters, reports, e-mails, and more.

Social media: YTFG has taken its first steps into social media through Facebook, Twitter and other channels. McGill and YTFG’s strategic advisor Chris Sturgis co-manage the social media work.

“Our primary focus has always been on keeping funders connected. The new social media provide a way to create an online conversation with people and organizations working on similar topics,” says McGill.

Cooperative Programs: Multiple Pathways to Graduation

YTFG’s education work group and its Multiple Pathways to Graduation initiative—which seeks to improve dropout rates nationwide—together offer an example of how YTFG funders cooperate through pooled or collaborative funding.

Originally, funders granted money to a common pool, which was then distributed to participating cities like New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Portland. The program no longer uses pooled funding, but coordinates and runs parallel funding.

Each city uses data about students to drive their decision making process. Data segmentation can accurately identify which groups of students are most likely to fall off track to graduation, and how and why it happens. With that knowledge, districts can begin to shape effective plans and policies (and target funding) to increase graduation rates.

According to McGill, “These efforts are often seen as models of what other communities can do. The Department of Labor used the work group’s Connected by 25 framework as a template for its own Multiple Pathways program.”

Below are in-a-nutshell overviews of the programs in specific cities, with links to fuller reports:

  • New York: The city established the Office of Multiple Pathways to Graduation to analyze the city’s dropout crisis. That resulted in the development of a differentiated portfolio of educational models designed to bring these students to graduation standards and prepare them for meaningful post-secondary opportunities. According to the most recent report, transfer schools designed for under-credited students significantly improved graduation rates.
  • Philadelphia: With support from the William Penn Foundation, the Philadelphia Youth Transitions Collaborative created Project U-Turn. The collaborative haw been working to set the stage for reform.
  • Portland: The city’s Connected by 25 program involves a coalition of more than 35 community groups, educators, business leaders and policy makers; it’s dedicated to ensuring that every young Portlander is connected to school, work and community by the age of 25.
  • Boston: Despite overall school improvement, dropout rates worsened. A study was commissioned under a Multiple Pathways to Graduation program and the resulting report provide valuable data. (What more specifics? Contact Hershel Sarbin.)

Initiatives: Youth Aging Out of Foster Care

The following YTFG programs demonstrate how pairing funders of different sizes, resources and proficiencies can make for positive outcomes:

  • In Florida, the Connected by 25 initiative evolved from acting primarily as the manager of the Hillsborough County site to a statewide and national capacity builder and provider of technical assistance. The initiative’s main funder is the Eckerd Foundation, but other YTFG foundations contributing funds and/or assistance included the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, Lumina Foundation for Education, and the Annie E. Case Foundation. YTFG members also have coordinated initiatives for youth aging out of foster care across communities in California and in Indianapolis, Indiana. (You can find more in-depth reviews of this program at
  • Another example of a funder’s success: The Connecticut-based Tow Foundation is a founder and Steering Committee member of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance, a coalition that was launched in 2001 to advocate for statewide juvenile justice reform. According to Diane Sierpina, senior program manager for the foundation, “We take a very hands-on role in juvenile justice reform and probably commit 50 percent or more of my staff time to research and advocacy efforts.”

    One positive example of The Tow Foundation’s advocacy is its involvement since 2001 with the  Greater Bridgeport Juvenile Justice Task Force. Here, more than 30 community leaders meet monthly to learn about state and local policies and practices, identify issues impacting youth and families, and share information about effective interventions. Relationships initiated and strengthened within the task force have resulted in collaborative services for youth and helped to attracted sizeable private, state and federal funding to Bridgeport.

    The task force became successful by acting with one strong and united voice, says Sierpina.  It was the model used this past year by the state to create 13 Local Interagency Service Teams throughout Connecticut that it hopes will serve as partners at the community level in implementing system reform for the benefit of vulnerable youth.


Hershel Sarbin is the founder and publisher and Harvey Chipkin the senior editor of Child Advocacy 360, which sponsors the Communications as Catalyst materials in SparkAction's Improve Communications section.