Inside the Expanding Universe of Wendy’s Wonderful Kids

In February of 2016, the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption (DTFA) found out it was in line to become part of one of the biggest philanthropic investments in the history of youth services.

After more than a year of planning, the organization is poised to begin what it hopes will be a national expansion of its adoptive parent recruitment program.

Dave Thomas, center, founder of Wendy’s and The Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption. Photo: The Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption

DTFA’s Wendy’s Wonderful Kids (WWK), a public-private partnership aimed at finding permanency for those foster youth who are statistically the hardest to connect with adoptive parents, already has some presence in each of the 50 states.

The goal now is to embed the program in every child welfare system in the country by 2028. This dramatic scaling is backed by a long-term commitment of up to $200 million from Blue Meridian Partners, a capital aggregation project led by the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation that has also made initial investments in five additional youth-serving nonprofits.

It will require DTFA, a relatively small national outfit, to dramatically grow its capacity.

“The last thing we want to do is build a robust program in multiple states and not have a qualified staff here to manage that,” said foundation CEO Rita Soronen.

How it Works

Based in Columbus, Ohio, DTFA began Wendy’s Wonderful Kids in 2004. The goal is to find adoptive homes for youth who are most at-risk of languishing in foster care: children older than 9, sibling groups and children with serious disabilities.

WWK works with child welfare agencies to train adoption recruiters to specialize in this population using an eight-point model, which stresses intensive family finding followed by community recruitment.

DTFA defrays a portion of these recruiter’s salaries. Currently, there are about 270 WWK recruiters scattered in jurisdictions across the country. Accountability is ensured through a performance management system that recruiters update monthly.

About a third of the youth served by WWK recruiters have experienced six or more placements, according to DTFA, and more than half have been in foster care for more than four years.

In 2011, Child Trends published a controlled-impact study of WWK that found:

Overall, the likelihood of adoption is substantially and significantly higher for children who received the WWK intervention than for those who received services as usual. Further, the difference in the likelihood of adoption for the intervention and comparison groups (i.e., the impact) is largest for older children and for children with clinically diagnosed mental health disorders, both of which are groups for whom child welfare agencies have traditionally experienced difficulty finding adoptive homes.

Game-Changing Grants

In February of 2016, the Blue Meridian Partners initiative was announced by the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation (EMCF), a longtime investor in the youth work sector. It is spun together with commitments of between $10 million and $50 million from several prominent foundations, including the Ballmer Foundation, the Samberg Family Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Blue Meridian’s intention was to choose a handful of organizations and invest up to $200 million to bring them to scale over a ten-year period. The goal, EMCF CEO Nancy Roob said in 2016, is­ to “expand their impact directly, by allowing them to strengthen their work, grow and serve greater numbers of youth, as well as indirectly, by helping them increase their influence.”

Later that month, Blue Meridian indicated the early candidates for these game-changing grants by announcing small funds to develop a scaling plan. Among the recipients was Wendy’s Wonderful Kids, which spent the next year preparing a phased plan for national expansion that was recently approved by Blue Meridian.

The Plan

Soronen recently described the two-phased plan during a presentation at the Adoption Exchange Association conference. The plan targets hiring 2,600 WWK recruiters by 2028, leading to the adoption of 58,000 children from the groups that WWK focuses on. That, Soronen presented, would be 70 percent more adoptions than would be expected without the expansion.

The first phase of the WWK expansion is a three-year effort to bring the program toward full scale in five states: Kentucky, Louisiana, New York, North Carolina and Washington. This is projected to more than double the overall number of WWK recruiters to 654.

DTFA has a state-wide model to build on. In its home state of Ohio, DTFA funded seven WWK recruiters from 2004 to 2011. After the Child Trends study was published, the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services agreed to partner on a gradual expansion of the program.

In 2014, Ohio made a two-year, $3.4 million commitment to fund 50 sites in the state. In 2016, it renewed the commitment with a two-year continuing contract. The state’s funding is mostly a split of funds from its federal Title IV-E allocation and general fund dollars, according to DTFA.

Soronen said the hope, in Ohio and elsewhere, is to eventually move away from short-term state commitments and toward situations where WWK is “truly embedded.”

“There is uncertainty in that model,” Soronen said. “We also want the commitment that it’s fully taken over by the state.”

The second phase is a seven-year push that begins with an attempt to take the next eight most populous states to scale. Since Ohio is on that list, it’s really seven states: California, Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Georgia and Michigan.

Soronen said that moving those states to scale would be the longest haul, given their populations. As that progresses, the goal is to bring WWK statewide in the next 25 most populous states.

In all of these states, DTFA expects that it will advocate for states to engage in the expansion. The hope is that the 13 least populous states – which includes large rural states and several New England states – can be brought in with a request-for-proposals process, in which organizations would apply to house recruiters for some or all of the state.

“After five to seven years of word-of-mouth, our belief is that we could test an RFP approach,” Soronen said. She added that in some larger states with far-flung populations, ultimately “it might not be cost-effective to go into a full scaling strategy.”

Staffing Up

Internally, Dave Thomas will need to undergo a massive increase in capacity to go from an organization with a budget of about $10 million to an organization presiding over a potential decade-long, $200 million project.

The organization currently has a staff of 19. This will likely expand to about 60 during the first three years of the grant, and then up to 112 by 2028.

Soronen said that on the programmatic side, DTFA will likely spread out from Columbus and establish regional leadership of WWK. Asked if it also might include some advocacy presence in Washington, D.C., she said, “we’re building that capacity.”

The most significant organizational shift will come in fundraising where, as recently as last year, DTFA operated with a fundraising staff of one assisting Soronen. The foundation’s operation has heretofore been largely financed by funds from Wendy’s, the fast-food franchise founded by Dave Thomas.

“We now have an endowment in place,” Soronen said. “We have someone dedicated to major gifts, which we’re getting results on.”

It is an ambitious gambit, started at the right time. As the national foster care totals continue to swell, so too have the number of foster youth awaiting adoption.

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John Kelly
About John Kelly 1097 Articles
John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.