I once heard a story about a high school that invited recruiters from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines to speak to the student body for a one-hour assembly. Each recruiter had 15 minutes to speak.
The Army recruiter spoke boldly about being all you can be but did so for longer than his allotted time. The Navy and Air Force recruiters did the same, each taking several minutes longer than they were given. When the three of them finished with their presentations, one minute remained for the Marine recruiter to speak before the class bell rang.
Unrattled, the Marine recruiter took his place behind the podium. He stood in silence with his piercing eyes scanning across the room, looking from student to uncomfortably shifting student. He didn’t say a word for nearly 45 seconds. Finally, with the last few seconds of his time dwindling, he said, “As I look across this room, I see two or three of you that look like you have what it takes to be a Marine. If you think you’re one of them, come see me in the hallway when the bell rings.”
When the bell rang, a few students found their way to the tables of the Army, Navy and Air Force recruiters. But the Marine recruiter had a line of students that ran down the hall.
When we encounter difficult challenges, as humans we sometimes wonder if we have what it takes to face them.
There are a lot of essential roles in the foster care space, each as vital as the next. But there is one role that requires a unique level of commitment and tenacity. It’s not that it’s more important than the others, it just comes with its own set of unique challenges. Not everyone has what it takes to play this role, but those who do are transforming foster care, one community at a time.
You might guess that it’s the foster parent, social worker or young adult who has exited foster care without permanency. But the truth is, it‘s none of them AND potentially each of them at the same time.
The person I’m talking about is the convener whose efforts result in a unique and transformative impact in their community.
The convener looks at the foster care activity in their community and the roster of incredible professionals, advocates, and volunteers. They see value in this activity, but can’t help but think, “if all of these folks worked together, they could make a much bigger impact than they ever will by themselves.”
So the convener convenes. And when this happens, they provide leadership that is both rare and difficult. They must both earn the trust of those they seek to convene and build trust between the parties. Disappointment will come when some in the community seem more interested in competing rather than working together to help more children and families. Conveners may sometimes feel like the collaborations they seek to build are hanging by a thread. Some may even be tempted to return to doing their own thing knowing it won’t be as effective, but it will be a lot easier.
And yet, they resist the temptation to go it alone because they know this is the work they were meant to do.
And when a convener convenes, some pretty remarkable things happen. There are communities where all service providers for biological families coordinate on a shared online platform about each family they are serving. Because someone convened them, they are able to provide services in a coordinated way (like giving someone beds after they have secured housing instead of before). In addition, it is MUCH easier to see service gaps and work together to fill them. In another community a group of churches work together to create a giant recruitment event twice a year for the community’s hardest-to-place children. These are just two examples among hundreds where more gets done together than could ever be accomplished separately. But it ALWAYS starts with a convener.
If you think you have what it takes to be a foster care convener in your community, keep on reading. Here are four things every effective convener needs:
One: The Will
A convener must have a strong desire to bring others together to provide more than enough for children and families in foster care. Many great people are content to build a program or an organization. But the convener ultimately finds that less than satisfying. For the true convener, bringing people together is a bit of a compulsion. They cannot help but introduce people to one another. They love connecting people. They love watching what happens when smart, passionate people make plans together. Conveners convene because they have the will to do it, and they love seeing the results.
Two: The Posture
Some have the will to convene, but do not have the posture for it. Convening is not just wanting to bring people together or being a good networker. The effective convener has a posture of humility, shares credit at every opportunity, and resists the temptation to become territorial. This humble posture engenders the trust of others and provides an important example to local network members. If those gathered get a whiff that the convener is in it for their own interests or have a need to take credit, a collaboration can unravel quickly. The convener’s aim is best summed up by the words of Harry S. Truman, “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”
Three: The Time
Many who have had the will and posture to convene have been unable to do so effectively because they do not have the time to be effective. Work, family and church commitments can make it difficult for a convener to be effective. Often a convener is doing so as a volunteer, which is fantastic. However, sometimes collaboration can grow to require more time than a convener has to give. In some instances, outside funding can help free up a convener’s time to focus more fully on local network building.
Four: The Skills
Sometimes, those with the will, posture and time quickly hit what feels like a “leadership ceiling” regarding their ability to facilitate and scale the work of a local network. Convening is its own kind of leadership. It not only requires vision and tenacity, it takes a high level of diplomacy and transparency to build trust. There are very effective leaders of organizations who struggle to convene effectively. Training, coaching and cohort learning can fill these skill gaps. The best place to look for help is through networks of other conveners. They exist everywhere — from non-profits to businesses to faith communities to academic environments. It just requires being on the lookout. If you are a convener, find your people and walk with them to sharpen your skills.
When you ask what the foster care system needs, the usual answers are more funding, workers, resources for biological families, and foster families. However, the truth is that many of the resources needed are already out there, but competing entities are inefficiently leveraging them. We recruit foster families and social workers but can’t keep them longer than a year. Every day we learn about resources for families in our communities. Still, no one is coordinating their delivery in a way that makes sense. Private dollars are available for anyone who could get the key players in a community to work together to make a significant impact. And all of these things could be addressed if there were only a convener who had what it takes.
Maybe that’s you.
A version of this article first appeared in Jason Weber’s regular Foster Movement column of the Fostering Families Today magazine (March/April 2022 issue). To learn more about how you or your organization can subscribe to this great resource, click here.