In 1997 a group of Tennessee businessmen gathered to talk about the direction of their city. “We wanted to know how we could really make a difference in Chattanooga,” says Hugh O. Maclellan Jr., chairman of the board of the Maclellan Foundation. “We realized that the city’s biggest problem was the breakdown of families, and that every part of Chattanooga was being affected by it.” These civic leaders confronted grim statistics that showed Chattanooga families were suffering from unusually high rates of divorce, fatherlessness, and teen pregnancies, which were hurting not only the individuals immediately involved, but the community as a whole. Chattanooga’s numbers stood out:
· The rate of divorce in Chattanooga was 50 percent higher than the national average. (The state of Tennessee as a whole ranked fourth worst in the nation for divorce.)
· Chattanooga had the fifth worst out-of-wedlock birth rate of 128 other cities in the United States. A 1994 study showed 50 percent of births in the city and 39 percent of births in the county were to unwed mothers.
· One in three Tennessee families were headed by a single parent, compared to one in four nationwide; the state ranked third from last in the nation.
The philanthropists understood what these bleak facts meant for their city. Numerous studies demonstrated that divorce, out-of-wedlock births, and the absence of fathers greatly increased a person’s likelihood of suffering a number of ills, including:
· living in poverty
· achieving less in school and later life
· committing crime
· abusing drugs and alcohol
· having poor health
· dying younger
As David Popenoe, co-director of the National Marriage Project and professor of sociology at Rutgers University, observed in Philanthropy’s March/April 2002 issue, “Children from broken homes, compared to children from intact families, have six times the chance of growing up poor. For other youth problems like delinquency and teen pregnancies, the rates for broken-home children are two to three times what they are for children from intact families.” Public policy and philanthropic initiatives are both “doomed to failure” if they ignore the indispensable contributions of healthy marriages, Popenoe concludes.
After considering these serious problems, the group of concerned Chattanoogans realized the city’s health depended on the health of its families. They set out to found an organization that would strengthen the ties that bind.
The approach, they decided, should be proactive, not reactive—a premise that would set their organization apart from many other social service groups, which seem to assume nothing can be done to stem the erosion of family bonds. By focusing on preventive strategies, the donors hoped to stop family break-ups before the worst happened, not just devise ways to aid already-distressed families.
In August 1997, they founded First Things First (FTF), and it set to work to reach three bold strategic goals: first, to reduce the number of divorces filed in Hamilton County by 30 percent; second, to reduce out-of-wedlock births in the county by 30 percent; and third, to increase the involvement of fathers in raising their children by 30 percent.
“We knew we had to have an organization that could do marketing and public relations,” says Maclellan, whose foundation was the principal organizing donor of FTF. They spoke with Marriage Savers, a nonprofit group based in Potomac, Maryland, that helps communities devise ways to strengthen marriages and lessen divorce, “and they told us we needed two things to be successful: a sharp person to run the organization, and people to train mentors who would walk alongside married couples and advise them. We asked community leaders to join with us, and it quickly spread to every segment of our community,” Maclellan says.
Today, FTF can already claim some formidable successes in the areas it addresses (see nearby charts). From 1996 to 2002, divorce filings in Hamilton County decreased by 21 percent, and the rate of divorces decreased by 16.7 percent. Out of wedlock pregnancies decreased by 21 percent for teenage mothers. Several different programs encouraging fathers to take active roles in their children’s lives have been instituted across the community in schools, hospitals, churches, corporations, even prisons, and have drawn large enrollments. First Things First has “achieved their objective far better than I thought, especially in improving fathering and reducing divorce,” Maclellan tells Philanthropy. “You can have singles, doubles, and occasionally a home run. First Things First is a home run. It’s the best bang for our buck,” he says of the foundation’s funding, in which it matches other gifts up to a total grant of $300,000.
FTF executive director Julie Baumgardner says she is not aware of any other community-based program in the country that looks at all three issues: divorce, out-of-wedlock pregnancies, and fathering. “There are other organizations across the country that focus on one of the three initiatives, including the Grand Rapids Community Marriage Project in Michigan and Families Northwest in Washington state, both of whom focus on marriage, and the National Fatherhood Initiative and National Center for Fathering, who work with fathers.”
Although based on Judeo-Christian values, FTF is a secular organization, Baumgardner adds. By stressing the facts and relying on credible research, the program has been able to gather support across Chattanooga from foundations, corporations, and private individuals, regardless of their political leanings.
“Everything we do is backed with research from conservative and liberal sources and everything in between,” Baumgardner explains. “Orig¬inally we asked our first board to bring in support. We used fundraisers to talk about issues and convince people that this is not about politics, but about issues that affect everyone. The Barna polling research we consulted told us that individuals felt ill-equipped to build strong marriages, but that families were hungry to do that.” With this existing sympathy for FTF’s message, the organization has built support without stirring up controversy.
One study that especially influenced the Chattanooga philanthropists founding FTF was the Council on Families in America’s 1995 report “Marriage in America,” which concluded, “The time has come to shift the focus of national attention from divorce to marriage and to rebuild a family culture based on enduring marital relationships . . . . We must reclaim the ideal of marital permanence and recognize that out-of-wedlock childbearing does harm.”
The hope for just such a shift in attitudes was what Chattanooga’s leaders intended for FTF to achieve. Since studies demonstrated that families with two involved parents raised children who in turn were less likely to have out-of-wedlock babies, and more likely both to understand the commitments involved in good marriages and to appreciate the importance of fathering, the leaders designed their program to promote these agendas and to change attitudes in Chattanooga.
“Essentially FTF started as an experiment,” says Baumgardner. “All of us were surprised with the immediate interest in what we were supporting. The phone was ringing off the hook. In the year 2000, we had 2,000 people sign up for one of our marriage seminars, an event that was held on a Friday night and all day Saturday.”
When FTF began, it developed plans that are still in force for accomplishing its goals. Its strategy recognized that it must (1) be a secular organization that builds cooperation between religious, secular, public, and private groups; (2) make clear that its issues are important to all citizens, regardless of their social status, religion, or race; (3) concentrate on advocacy, education, mobilization and technical assistance; (4) work with a wide variety of programs already existing in the community that address families; and (5) engage citizens throughout the community in places of worship, public and private social service agencies, and the media.
Partnering Throughout the City
The number and the variety of organizations FTF works with to strengthen Chattanooga’s families is astonishing. “Their programs affect every single part of Chattanooga society,” says Maclellan. First Things First has worked, for example, with the county schools in a variety of ways to celebrate fatherhood and to boost the good character needed to be a faithful spouse. It’s worked with religious groups to develop pre-nuptial programs that better prepare members for marriage (naturally, the same courses are also offered under secular auspices). It’s partnered with businesses to promote family-friendly workplaces and honor a family-friendly company of the year. It’s provided speakers for local colleges. It’s helped support pro-family public policies. It’s partnered with the county medical society to produce a booklet that helps parents discuss sex with their children, available through pediatricians and youth service organizations. It’s conducted training seminars for mental health professionals to teach them about helping couples avoid divorce. It’s helped childhood development programs such as Early Head Start and First Steps to incorporate fathering material into their curriculum, and also provided trainers and speakers to these programs. The long list of partners also includes the Hamilton County Jail, the local Urban League, the statewide fathering advocacy group, the local domestic violence coalition, the county health department, and many more-any institution that influences marriage and family life.
One of First Things First’s earliest partnerships has now affected marriages across the state. FTF helped the county divorce court to develop the divorce mediation pilot project. Couples with minor children who approached the court for a divorce were required by the court to take a class that would educate them on the effects of divorce on their children. They were also required to develop a complete parenting plan to determine how they would handle finances, education, and other aspects of the children’s future.
These requirements had several repercussions. Sometimes couples became so concerned over the likely effects of divorce on their children that they decided not to split up. Other couples called off the divorce after working on a parenting plan which made it clear divorce wasn’t an easy way out of difficult responsibilities. Still other couples did go through with their divorce but with much careful thought of how to minimize the harm to their offspring. Judges told FTF repeat visits to the courts over custody, visitation, and child support issues declined by 50 percent. The program’s dramatic success has led the Tennessee legislature to mandate it statewide.
First Things First has also partnered with hospitals, which typically have classes for expectant women and new mothers but lack much outreach to fathers. FTF implemented Boot Camp for New Dads to address this deficiency. These classes are for men only, to encourage them to talk about difficult issues they might avoid if the class were co-ed, such as taking care of pregnant women and how new babies affect couples’ sex lives. The classes also discuss how to keep your marriage strong during pregnancy and beyond. “Veterans,” that is, men who’ve recently become fathers, talk to the “rookies,” the expectant fathers. The trainees get down on the floor to learn diapering-often the first time they’ve held an infant-and other new tasks. They’re also taught about the dangers of shaken baby syndrome and how to control their anxiety and stress.
FTF also provides hospitals with educational packets on marriage to be given out at birthing classes. At hospitals and government social agencies, FTF works to educate mothers on how to include fathers. “If you get fathers connected to children early,” explains communications director Heather Wilson, “you increase the chances that unwed fathers and moms will connect and possibly marry.”
Of FTF’s numerous media efforts, perhaps the best known is the Forever Begins Today Dream Wedding Giveaway. It’s the brainchild of Heather Wilson and Julie Baumgardner. Local television station WRCB airs the annual contest, which begins with engaged couples’ sending in their applications to win the free wedding, worth over $30,000. Couples entering the contest agree to participate in premarital education classes with FTF and not to live together prior to marriage. Viewers first vote on which couple wins, and then vote each week to select items for the couple’s wedding. The viewers choose the wedding attire, the cake, the reception menu, the invitations, rings, dresses for the bridesmaids and the mothers of the bride and groom, and so on, from goods donated by local merchants.
During the contest, Julie Baumgardner appears regularly on the local TV morning show to talk about marriage. She discusses communication, sexual issues, the importance of pre-marital education, and the dangers of unmarried cohabitation. “The contest,” Mrs. Wilson explains, “gives us a chance to work with one couple publicly and gives them an opportunity to focus on their marriage while we plan their wedding. The public enjoys all the planning and voting, and at the same time we’re able to stress that a wedding is just one day while a marriage should last a lifetime. The contest gives us an opportunity to promote our premarital education programs and direct couples to our website, where they can get more information about preparing for marriage.” When the contest ends, the wedding is broadcast live.
Baumgardner says it’s not hard to convince people to support FTF because its goals are so readily acceptable. When she approaches businesses, she finds they immediately recognize that supporting an organization that helps their employees lead better family lives will help the company, too. “When your family is in distress, you’re not focused on the job and are a less productive employee,” she tells them. When FTF asks companies for money, it is really asking them to partner with the organization. By supporting FTF, the company helps Chattanooga families in general, and by instituting family-friendly policies in their own workplace, the company helps their business in particular.
“In our Lunch and Learn program, we go into the workplace and talk to employees about issues pertaining to families. That’s a win-win situation. Employers are seen as looking out for the best interests of their employees’ families,” Mrs. Baumgardner says. She adds that by instituting programs that strengthen families-such as Boot Camp for New Dads-companies build loyalty in their employees.
Southern Champion Tray Company, a Chattanooga manufacturer, supports FTF with corporate donations, and its board chairman, Chuck Zeiser, and his wife also contribute privately to the organization. Mr. Zeiser was on the first board of FTF, and today his son and daughter-in-law are FTF board members. “I feel very strongly that the family is the foundation of our country, and FTF is working to strengthen rather than tear down the family,” Mr. Zeiser says. “FTF is arming people with facts about where we are today and with things that can be done to save the family,” adds Mr. Zeiser, who proudly notes that other cities are looking to Chattanooga and FTF as a model to help them start similar programs.
Other local funders include the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga, the Chattanooga Christian Community Foundation, the Weldon F. Osborne Foundation, the Benwood Foundation, the Hazel M. Hutcheson Foundation, and the Grandview Foundation. Carter Paden, Grandview’s chairman, says his foundation provides general operating support because “First Things First is tackling a tough problem and making progress.”
“Many times the most unlikely partner is the greatest partner,” Baumgardner says. “For example, FTF has teamed up with motorcycle groups to host the Ride for Families and brings in new donors from $5 to $1,500. They have been the most wonderful people to work with.”
Though FTF remains non-sectarian, 145 churches in the Chattanooga area have signed FTF’s marriage covenant, in which they agree to make pre-marital counseling mandatory before they will marry couples and to pair newlyweds with mentor couples who can serve as friends and advisors.
Dr. William E. Dudley, senior pastor at Signal Mountain Presbyterian, one of the area’s largest churches, explains his church’s commitment to FTF: “We originally went with FTF because of their affirming principles toward Christian families. They have also had an amazing influence in reducing the divorce rate through their programs. Their very non-threatening approach encourages people to trust them.”
FTF’s income for 2002 grew by $430,000, a 48 percent increase over 2001. The organization’s income came from the following sources: foundations, 43 percent; individual gifts, 14 percent; faith-based institutions, 1.8 percent; corporations, 8 percent; grants through donor-advised funds, 9.5 percent; in-kind donations, 19 percent; and miscellaneous income, 4.7 percent.
Donors and community leaders from Memphis, Birmingham, Flagstaff, Grand Rapids, Atlanta, Seattle, and Mobile have sent representatives to Chattanooga to learn about FTF. Baumgardner has also spoken about the organization at meetings in Dallas, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Kansas City, Denver, New York City, Washington, D.C., and Portland, Oregon.
In his article on philanthropists’ efforts to strengthen the family, David Popenoe observed that campaigns to improve marriages, reduce teenage pregnancies, and encourage active fathering have been gaining momentum across the country during the last five years. The results of their success can be seen in less youth crime and the lowest child poverty level in over 20 years. Popenoe concludes that much of this progress is due to wise giving by foundations.
Donors who are impressed by the accomplishments of First Things First and who would like to learn more about replicating such a project in other cities are invited to attend a Philanthropy Roundtable meeting that will be scheduled later this year in Chattanooga. Participants will include Julie Baumgardner, the Maclellan Foundation, and other leaders working to strengthen marriages and families.
Karin Glendenning is book editor for the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
For more information:
First Things First
701 Cherokee Boulevard Suite 230
Chattanooga, Tennessee 37405
1 Fountain Square, Provident Building
Chattanooga, Tennessee 37402
9311 Harrington Drive
Potomac, Maryland 20854
Additional reading, available at www.philanthropyroundtable.org
David Popenoe, “New Day Dawning? In the Struggle over the Family, Foundations Made the Difference,” Philanthropy, March/April 2002.
“Family Matters,” an interview with Dr. Wade F. Horn, Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services for Children and Families, Philanthropy, March/April 2002.