Strengthening South Jersey Families: Reflections from a 10-Year Evaluation of the Whole Family Approach

By: Mavis Asiedu-Frimpong, Madeliene Alger, Carla Villacis

A few months ago, the Senator Walter Rand Institute for Public Affairs was asked to participate in a Family Impact Seminar focused on how to better support low-income families across New Jersey. These seminars are targeted specifically for legislators across the State, and it was perfect timing for WRI. Over the last ten years, we had conducted a comprehensive evaluation of the Pascale Sykes Foundation’s Strengthening Families Initiative across 18 nonprofit social service agency collaborations in Southern New Jersey, and we learned a lot about family support along the way.  

The Strengthening Families Initiative is centered on The Whole Family Approach and its three main components: two adult caregivers engaged with children in the family; the creation of family-defined plans with short and long term goals; and collaborating agencies partnering with families to realize those goals in a variety of areas, including housing, food insecurity, and employment. In collecting and analyzing data from thousands of families and nonprofit collaborative staff members to examine the impact of the Whole Family Approach, there were some bright spots in terms of localized, community-based programming considerations for supporting families and minimizing service delivery barriers. 

Family Advocates. In some non-profit collaboratives, families within the model were paired with Family Advocates free of charge. Family Advocates provided individualized support to families on a one-on-one basis, forming personal relationships with them to increase accountability to goals, build community, and identify and connect families to necessary resources. As one Family Advocate noted: “… We trust people by listening and keeping things confidential, and not judging, and that is what builds trust.” Family Advocates often came from the communities they served, which helped to build strong relationships with families. In a supplemental sub-evaluation, we found that families who engaged with Family Advocates had self-reported improvements in financial stability, whole family engagement, mental and emotional well-being, employment, and housing stability. WRI is building upon this research to have an even better understanding of the impact of Family Advocates, especially those who support low-income families in our rural counties, where service delivery continues to be a challenge

Collaborative Infrastructure and Hyper-Localized Support. The non-profit collaborative agencies in our study were able to tailor the Whole Family Approach to specific family needs, resulting in community-embedded, community-engaged, and community focused wraparound services and support. Family-related data and notes were also shared across agencies with the aim of breaking down silos and enhancing coordination and communication efforts. We have all heard stories of how frustrating and inefficient it can be for people seeking services to have to repeatedly share their stories in multiple settings to access resources, and the increased communication between agencies helped to reduce that. There were challenges in overcoming technical barriers to data and note sharing in platforms and databases, but collaboratives found success in more informal knowledge and resource sharing and collaboration across agencies. 

Family-Led Goal Setting. The Whole Family Approach prioritizes goal setting that revolves around the families’ identified needs, and not the program administrators’ ideas of what those needs should be. Identified needs are therefore prioritized according to what matters most to families themselves, reflecting the idea that they are best able to articulate what success means to them. This allows for a comprehensive identification and addressing of each family’s unique needs.  In health care, there is momentum around patient-driven goal setting, collaborative action, and relationship building with patients themselves to support their needs, and the Whole Family Approach to engaging families reflects this sentiment. 

Flexible support from project funder. When the COVID-19 pandemic began to impact the region and thus the families participating in the Whole Family Approach, the Pascale Sykes Foundation quickly and nimbly pivoted to provide flexible funding to the collaboratives to meet family evolving needs. With this funding, collaboratives were able to support families with purchasing food, paying bills, and addressing technology gaps. Collaboratives appreciated the ability to put grant funding to use where they felt it was best suited in the moment. Philanthropy is not always structured to provide such levels of flexibility, and there are ongoing conversations in the field about trust-based philanthropy and flexible funding, the benefits of which were especially evident during the pandemic. The examples we saw as part of this evaluation made a critical impact.   

What we learned during this in-depth 10-year research journey continues to inform our ideas around research questions and research projects that shed even more light on supporting families across the region. We look forward to bringing additional insights to the conversation. Read the research report on the Strengthening Families Initiative here

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This post is in memory of Frances Pascale Sykes, longtime philanthropist and president and CEO of the Pascale Sykes Foundation.