Friends of the Children pairs at-risk children with paid and trained mentors, from kindergarten through twelfth grade, to ensure that they make it through school, aren’t incarcerated, and avoid teenage pregnancy. With headquarters in Portland, Oregon, and chapters in Seattle, Boston, New York City, Tampa Bay, Klamath Falls, Oregon, and Cornwall, England, the group each year serves around 760 youths directly, and about 1,400 through partners. Duncan Campbell, a philanthropist who founded Friends of the Children in 1993, is interviewed here about the program.
Q: What prompted you to start Friends of the Children?
When I grew up, I was basically one of these at-risk kids. I grew up in a welfare family. My parents were alcoholics. They lived in bars and taverns. Then my dad was in prison twice. As a child, I knew that if I could change anything, I didn’t want any child to have the life that I had. That was one motivator for starting Friends of the Children. The second was that I worked in the juvenile courts for four years and saw all these kids come through. I knew most of them never needed to be there if they had a mentor. That was an empirical test.
Later on, I was fortunate enough to grow a business and sell it, so I had money for the first time in my life. I hired a Ph.D. child psychologist, and he went out and did research. His early research found that you could create resilience in these children if you started early enough with a long-term relationship with an adult role model who has values and shared those values with the children. I went around the country to try to find a program like that. There wasn’t any. So I approached a friend from the juvenile court, hired three social workers, picked 24 kids from the court, and started Friends of the Children in 1993.
Q: How does the mentorship work?
The entire program is built around the relationship that the mentor, called a friend, develops with the child. So they’ve obviously got to build trust with the child. They do everything together from homework to crafts to practicing. Later on, they learn life skills.
Every child gets an alarm clock, because people in these families often don’t care if they get up and go to school. Later on in life, they learn to use a washer and a dryer, because nobody cares how clean they are. They learn how to cook meals, serve meals. They learn a work ethic. Every child does some kind of work, at different levels for different ages—selling lemonade, or cutting a lawn, or serving coffee.
Education is another component. Almost none of these children read at grade-level when we pick them up. Getting them up to speed is one of our outcomes. So it’s the whole spectrum of experience.
Q: How do you decide where to open a new chapter?
We go where we’re invited. Usually, people have heard about the outcomes of Friends of the Children, they investigate to see if the results are real, and then they invite us to their cities and provide the bulk of the funding for the first three years. In the case of Boston, for example, they looked at 100 innovative programs around the country, picked 15 to focus on, analyzed them, narrowed it down to three, and then brought us to Boston.
Q: How do you establish a philanthropic base of support?
When we started the program, our family funded it. We went out to the larger foundations in the community and got their help with years two, three, four, and five. As that money tapered off we started going out to individuals and businesses and had a fundraising event. That stair-step process is the model for all new chapters of Friends of the Children.
Q: What are the greatest obstacles that Friends of the Children faces?
By far, the biggest challenge would be the high cost per unit. We’re just under a cost of $10,000 per child per year. A study by the Harvard Business Association found that for every dollar we spend, $7 of future social costs are avoided. But it can be hard to get people to understand the high cost per participant.
Q: What other areas of philanthropy are you committed to?
I founded another group called the Children’s Institute. It’s a childcare center here in Portland focused on education for three- to five-year-olds. On a fun note, I also created a golf course for children. The Children’s Course is a nine-hole course that will be here forever for children and families.
Q: If you are fully successful with Friends of the Children, what will that look like?
You’ve got to get to neglected children early. All the dollars spent later on are wasted, because very little change takes place. Our dream would be to exist across the country on the same scale as Head Start centers, where every child who needs a trustworthy friend can have one. Our vision is to break the cycle of poverty, break the cycle of kids dropping out, break the cycle of kids being involved with the juvenile justice system, break the cycle of teen parenting.