Celebrities Tina Fey and Jane Krakowski walked the paparazzi-lined red carpet. Lights flashed. Hundreds of well-dressed attendees filled the auditorium.
Voices for the Voiceless: Stars For Foster Kids, a 2015 Broadway event created to raise money for the foster youth organization You Gotta Believe, was a star-studded success, light years away from the financial turmoil that had rocked the storied New York City nonprofit only a few months earlier.
You Gotta Believe, a nonprofit that focuses on finding permanent homes for older foster youth, mainly ages 16 to 21, faced a severe financial shift in early 2015 after New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) ended the almost $700,000-per-year contract the city had with You Gotta Believe for 13 years.
“Our funding structure completely changed last year when there were changes with ACS contracts,” said Amber Williams, family recruiter and media liaison at You Gotta Believe.
Looking for a silver lining is easier said than done. But for You Gotta Believe, the predicament led to an opportunity to reinvent the organization’s funding structure and refocus its mission.
When ACS canceled its contractual grants with You Gotta Believe, it cost the organization about 40 percent of its budget. Today it only gets about 10 percent of its budget from a combination of ACS and government funds, according to Williams.
“There was new leadership in the city … the contacts we were doing were overextended,” said Susan Grundberg, executive director and CEO of You Gotta Believe. “They were taking a hard look at the city.”
The news of the budget cuts for You Gotta Believe and other service organizations led to impassioned responses from local citizens.
“A lot of people who saw what was happening were very vocal about this being a very necessary service,” Grundberg said.
You Gotta Believe was founded in 1995 squarely focused on older foster children. As a society, “we don’t really think about what happens to kid when they age out, and they reality is they don’t do so well,” Williams said. Many studies have shown the negative life outcomes of foster care.
The idea of independent living, where foster youth are removed from child welfare system supports once reaching a certain age, typically 18 or 21, is “not a helpful policy. We learn independent living from our family,” Williams said.
Grundberg said that is was “absurd” to expect 18 and 21-year-olds “to just manage on their own.”
The organization carries out its mission through a range of direct services for parents and youth by providing training, programs and planning assistance to many foster care agencies funded by New York City’s welfare system.
While the concerns surrounding the ACS contract termination with You Gotta Believe were complex, compassion in the community for the work of You Gotta Believe and similar organizations remained, leading the organization into new partnerships and relationships with public officials and private citizens alike.
“One thing that was incredibly powerful … two men who were not clients of You Gotta Believe, they were affected by a difference agency because of their own contract, started a petition,” Grundberg said.
The agency was the New York Council on Adoptable Children, which recruits and supports parents who want to adopt children in the foster care system. Broadway actor and Sirius XM radio host Seth Rudetsky and playwright James Wesley started an online petition on Change.org to restore funding to the organizations.
You Gotta Believe publicly responded with a letter, “You Gotta Believe! Response to Change.org petition to Restore Funding for Critical Permanency Services,” citing its appreciation for the support and reaffirming its dedication to improving the lives of older foster youth.
Citizen action arose from the petition, jumpstarting You Gotta Believe’s transition into new opportunities through a benefit concert.
The petition creators orchestrated the concert with You Gotta Believe and other NYC organizations. “They had power to do something, and they arranged a Broadway show,” Grundberg said.
The June 2015 Voices for Voiceless event gathered singers and supporters alike for a night of awareness and fundraising for the city’s foster children. “We raised half a million dollars and that kept us afloat,” Grundberg said. “We are starting to see more traction in city council because we got awareness and exposure.”
“It was good because every system needs a hard look, but [the lost contracts] created a big gap financially. But it really created an opportunity for us. The contracts weren’t in sync with our mission, and it allowed us to get back to our mission,” Grundberg said.
When it came to fundraising specifics, the organization changed its approach. “Our board, staff, and funders all got together and came up with a plan that would allow us to be true to our mission, and to create a greater diversity in our funding,” Grundberg said.
The organization turned to the influence of crowdfunding and private sector investment. “We raised money by raising awareness and enthusiasm about this. We got press and it really kind of jump started our work. That helped us get individual people interested, and corporations,” Grundberg said.
Direct fundraising through new avenues has yielded other opportunities.
“It allowed us to partner with foster care agencies that were able to deep dive into adoption and permanency for older youth, and really rally around our champions and supporters and focus on our work,” Grundberg said.
New strategies also include a fee-for-service model for some of the agency’s programs and encouraging other foster care agencies to invest in partnerships with You Gotta Believe.
“We just got more aggressive in institutional outreach for funding. People are interested in funding something that has a transformational goal, and that is our goal,” Grundberg said.
The financial setback generated by the loss of New York City’s welfare contracts has enabled You Gotta Believe to focus on building change and capacity.
“It’s not just about the funding change,” Williams added. “We are working with different people we haven’t worked with before. We really have been able to change how we work with city council.”
For other non-profits in similar situations, Grundberg offers the advice, “It’s a complete possibility to turn a crisis into a great opportunity. To use it as a chance to look at your mission and where you are and use it as an opportunity to articulate your work in a new way.”
A second Voices for the Voiceless event is planned for September 12 on Broadway.