Bringing Donors Along on the Journey: A Preliminary Investigation of Organisational Strategies in Transitioning from Residential to Family Care for Children

 From Institutionalised Children Explorations and Beyond

Decades of research suggest that children and youth develop best in the context of healthy family relationships. Despite this evidence, an estimated 5.37 million children worldwide reside in residential care settings, such as orphanages, children’s homes, and group care. To address this, policy makers and academics alike have called for a transition from residential to family-based models of care for children separated from biological parental care, sometimes referred to as deinstitutionalisation. non-government organisations (NGOs) currently providing residential care are often well-positioned to develop new programs, such as family strengthening services and foster care, that would support systems of family-based care. However, transitioning to new family-based services may impact donor support of the NGO. Understanding how transitioning models will impact donor support is critical for NGOs to be successful in their transition. The current article explores: (a) the financial impact of transitioning from a residential model to a family model of care; (b) practices organisations utilised to engage donors in this process; and (c) the impact of the transition on donor support. Data-informed recommendations related to best practices for engaging donors when transitioning to a family model of care are included.

Evidence suggests family models of care provide the best long term outcomes and should be the preferred care model whenever possible. However with millions of children being cared for in residential settings, closing all residential programs would create a vacuum of services that could negatively impact children and youth currently in care. As such, new family-focused systems must be developed for supporting vulnerable children and families prior to deinstitutionalisation.

Recent work by Wilke et al. (2020) suggested that many NGOs that currently utilise a residential care model are well positioned to transition to family-based models. The authors note that organisations providing residential care are already embedded in the local community and often have a comprehensive understanding of the unique challenges that new programs would need to address within their context. Furthermore, the researchers found that the NGOs often had trained and competent staff, a committed donor base, established relationships in the local governments and communities in which they serve, and properties and other physical assets that can be repurposed for family-based services. In other words, NGOs providing residential care may be well equipped to reshape their current programs in order to establish new care options needed to support children in families.

Though the published research available is limited, evidence suggests that organisations face significant barriers when transitioning from residential to family-based care. The barriers to transitioning models are diverse, but many stem from and can be resolved by adequate funding at the onset of the transition. Research indicates that long term, alternative family care tends to have a lower cost-per-child than residential care. However, NGOs that transition typically see an initial rise in costs as they begin to expand their programs. This stems from the need to maintain current services while simultaneously building the infrastructure and capacity needed to establish new family programs. For example, programs may lack financial resources necessary to pay for training or coaching for a successful transition. Moreover, key stakeholders, such as staff, partner organisations, and even the families served, may be resistant to change. As such, NGOs need to develop and finance a communication strategy to adequately engage these stakeholders in the transition process. Further, moving to a new model of care often requires hiring new staff and retraining existing staff, which requires an initial financial investment. Therefore, programs require an increase in funding to help them overcome the initial costs of the transition process.


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  5. Transitioning from residential to family-based care for children is pivotal, yet poses financial and organizational challenges. Engaging donors effectively is crucial for successful implementation and sustainable support of new care models.
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