The Pascale Sykes Foundation: Celebrating Thirty Years of Work Strengthening Families and Disseminating Knowledge

In July, I had the privilege of speaking with Frances (Fran) Sykes and several staff members of the Pascale Sykes Foundation, including Jackie Edwards, Richelle Todd-Yamoah and Joni VanNest. Founded in 1992 by Sykes, the nonprofit’s president and CEO, and her late husband, Donald Sykes, the Pascale Sykes Foundation has a long-standing relationship with Philanthropy Roundtable. Their work focuses on “empowering working low-income families, so they can collectively strengthen their relationships, establish stability and reach their dreams.” After 30 years in operation, the organization will close its doors this year as part of its original spend-down plan. Below is a transcript of my interview with Sykes.

Q: Fran, how did you become involved with Philanthropy Roundtable?

As we were forming the foundation, we were seeking advice from others. Looking at the field of philanthropy, we noticed that the Roundtable was a new organization, and its mission was appealing to us. We were new, the Roundtable was new, and it has always been a part of our work.

Q: The foundation is known for its “Whole Family Approach.” How did that develop?

We started with the mission of “strengthening families.” My career began in education, teaching third, fourth and fifth grades in public schools. I saw families who were neither extremely poor nor seriously troubled having a hard time accessing the services and resources that would provide the extra support that so many need to thrive.

Q: What is the Whole Family Approach and why has it been essential to your work?

It begins with the premise that all members of a family are interdependent, that the challenges or successes of any one family member affect all the other members. The Whole Family Approach is a family-led strategy which provides adults and children with the tools to set, plan for and achieve their goals together. No family should have to experience a crisis or extreme poverty to get assistance. This approach is preventive and is much more likely to produce stability.

Q: What have you looked for in the families with whom you work?

We typically sought families with two adults, one of whom had the potential to work outside the home. And we also engaged not only with the family members but also with any supportive agencies they were currently utilizing.

Q: Until the past few years, the foundation’s efforts focused on a specific part of New Jersey. What led you to concentrate your work there?

I had seen data in “Kids Count” (a project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation that provides data on children and families) that the four poorest counties in the state were all in south Jersey – Atlantic, Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem. This is an area in the state with a lot of potential but with insufficient resources for so many of its residents.

Q: How did you go about identifying needs in this region?

I began to hold events and invited anyone interested to share their thoughts about the social services already in place, where the gaps were showing, what the potential was for workforce development and economic development overall. We began our work with a settlement house model, based on my familiarity with the Henry Street Settlement on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. We moved on from that to developing a collaborative model where multiple agencies would offer their expertise to work with our families. It wasn’t an immediate success and we had one failed collaborative early on. But that’s the model we stuck with. When Hurricane Sandy hit our region in 2012, families needed help on multiple levels. So many buildings were damaged or destroyed, so emergency housing was an immediate need and schools had to rent space in order to keep operating. No one agency could have managed it all.

Q: You eventually launched the Whole Family Approach in some new communities, so please tell me about that.

Yes, we moved our model into communities in Jersey City and the Bronx in 2016, providing funds for a five-year program in each location. We told the nonprofits involved that, in the fifth year, we expected them to raise funds so that their work could continue, and the Pascale Sykes Foundation would match those gifts. We continued to develop the collaborative approach in these new locations and the participating agencies agree it has played a critical role in benefiting the families with whom they work. We also retained evaluators to ensure the lessons we learned along the way would be useful to others working in this field after the Pascale Sykes Foundation had completed its grantmaking.

Q; That brings me to your decision to sunset the foundation. You had planned to do that in 2021, but you postponed it to 2022, correct?

Yes, the pandemic delayed the evaluation work and we wanted to wrap that up before we closed our doors.

Q; What inspired the decision to spend out?

It was always part of my plan because the Whole Family Approach was my passion. I never wanted to burden my children with the expectation that they would share my donor intent, but I also wanted to be sure the foundation would honor its mission during its existence.

Q; How have you planned for the foundation’s end?

By 2017, and with some new staff in place, we were thinking more and more about the foundation’s legacy. We had always brought our grantees together in an annual conference where they could connect with each other and hear from external presenters. We wanted to expand our knowledge dissemination work, so we hired a marketing firm to upgrade our website, and in 2021, our staff began to offer podcasts about our work and our grantees. We are excited that one of our grantees — Bigs & Littles NYC Mentoring — will be featured in Philanthropy Roundtable’s Opportunity Playbook under poverty alleviation. And we closed with a research summit on November 16, “The Power of Research to Inform Policy.”

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