The following story was published by The Chronicle of Social Change in March 2020.
By John Kelly
The Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption (DTFA) – which oversees Wendy’s Wonderful Kids, one of the nation’s most successful permanency ventures – is a decent microcosm of what’s going on in the wide community of nonprofits that are facing an uncertain spring after the onset of a global pandemic. In the span of a week, the Columbus, Ohio-based organization had to get a handle on a new short-term future for itself, and for its partners.
CEO Rita Soronen said early last week, DTFA had canceled all staff travel and work group meetings. By last Wednesday, when it became clear that Ohio schools would be closed, employees with children were told to work from home if need be.
By week’s end, all employees were allowed to work from home. And when she spoke with this reporter yesterday, the organization was close to officially closing the office entirely for the foreseeable future.
“Three quarters of our staff are already working from home,” Soronen said. “We’re the kind of business where a lot of the work can be done on Zoom, over email, whatever.”
Not the case for DTFA’s partners. Through Wendy’s Wonderful Kids (WWK), the organization helps fund, train and educate adoption specialists who focus finding on permanent options for older and special needs youths, historically the most challenging group to find adoptive parents or guardians for.
A 2011 impact study found WWK produced significantly increased the likelihood of adoption And it is working on a massive expansion of the model around the country with an investment that could reach $200 million from Blue Meridian Partnership, a conglomerate of big bet grantmakers.
But a cornerstone of the WWK model is frequent, person-to-person contact between the specialists (who carry a small, targeted caseload), youths and potential relative guardians or adoptive parents. Overnight, that secret sauce became a risky chance to spread coronavirus; already, in certain parts of California and Washington, such contact is against the rules of social isolation.
“We sent out communications to grantees, because the model they agree to is regular and routine contact,” said Soronen. “We wanted to make sure nobody felt their grant would be at risk if they are not following that tenet of the model.”
A lot of social worker visitation is now expected to occur over video and telephone in the coming weeks, and Soronen said DTFA got behind that idea for its partners.
“As much as we could insist on it without actually being in charge,” Soronen said. “We said, don’t put yourselves at risk, or families at risk.”
DTFA’s own biggest backer, Blue Meridian, “essentially said the same thing to us. They’re not gonna ding us for not reaching our milestones. They understand. That seems to be the tone in the circles we’re flying around,” Soronen said.
But the organization’s bottom line will take a hit this year because of the pandemic. A California golf fundraiser planned for April, which usually nets about $1 million, is off. DTFA poured time and money into planning a Wendy’s Wonderful Kids summit to convene more than 700 people tied to the program – that is scheduled for May, and is likely off. The nonprofit is planning a move to a new building, and was planning a building capital fund to do so without cutting into program expenses.
“That’s certainly on pause,” she said, noting the inappropriateness of major gift asks amidst economic turmoil and huge direct service needs.
Nonprofit organizations provide one of the most critical safety nets in this country and our work cannot stop, even in times like this. Please consider making a gift today to the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption so that we can continue to serve even more of our nation’s most vulnerable youth who need our help — right now.