Leadership Lens

Christine James-Brown

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For the past several months, I have been working with CWLA board members, employees, key stakeholders, friends, and advisors to develop a new business model for CWLA. This model provides the focus and resources we need to better serve our members and to help change the world of child welfare. It was recognized very early in the process that major change was required for CWLA to continue to be relevant in a challenging and changing environment.

Change is not new for CWLA. There have been numerous times in our 90-year history that we have had to rethink and adjust our business model. When CWLA was first established, there was no declared government responsibility for abused and neglected children and no Children's Bureau or public sector agencies with a charge to work with this target population. There was no formalized social work profession, and most abused and neglected children were served in orphanages largely run by the faith-based community. CWLA was founded by a group of service pro-viders committed to improving and standardizing child welfare. They came together to share their experiences and commit to excellence in the services they delivered.

Since CWLA's founding in 1920, the profession of social work has developed, and federal, state, and local governments are major players in serving vulnerable children and families. No longer are the majority of children served in orphanages. Residential programs continue for the most challenged children, and foster care, adoption, and kinship care services have expanded to ensure that the each child gets the right service for the right amount of time. As the variety of services have increased and changed, so have the children, youth, and families who benefit from these services; they are increasingly important partners in the service delivery process. All of these changes are steps in the right direction.

Other changes have been more difficult for the field. Many challenges and opportunities come along with new technology, demographic shifts in communities, state budget deficits, demands for accountability and results, the ripple effect cuts have on promising and evidence-based practices, emerging public and private partnerships, and transformation to family-focused, community-based service delivery models. With the rapid pace of these changes, it is especially important to build on strengths and strategic advantages. For CWLA, our challenge is to leverage our major strategic advantages: our history, reputation, and accumulated knowledge, and our broad public and private membership.

There are many people who think that leadership and membership cannot coexist; they believe that membership organizations are designed to serve their members and that real leadership requires freedom from members and their demands. It is in recognition of the fact that a group of organizations came together to form CWLA with a voluntary commitment to improving outcomes that I firmly believe that having members is our greatest strategic advantage. Having a broad membership base with sometimes competing interests, and having both public and private members in the same member base, requires that CWLA focus on the best interests of children. This is why having our Standards of Excellence as benchmarks for good service has been an integral part of the work we do.

But having a shared long-term goal only makes it slightly easier for members to continue with CWLA when they are facing so many short-term challenges. So CWLA's new business model recognizes that we will be a smaller organization. It has an even greater focus on collective leadership around a commitment to excellence in serving children, youth, and families. It also has a stronger focus on helping members deal with what they are facing today and helping them strive for continuous improvement and transformation so that they will be strong and full partners. CWLA will work with members to help them understand the value of using data and research to make important decisions, support staff with what they need to work in the changing environment, and develop skills to work with partners in other sectors and systems.

When you look at the history of child welfare, it seems too full of "either/or" situations: adoption or foster care, foster care or kinship care, therapeutic foster care or residential care, family as enemy or family as ally, faith-based groups in or out. But we shouldn't have to choose. We have to have public and private organizations, along with family care and residential services.

This can only be accomplished if we are held together by a strong vision for children, youth, and families and a commitment to making their lives better. CWLA and our members share a vision that all children in America will be safe and nurtured in their families and communities and grow up to be productive citizens of our society. Advancing this vision, while helping members focus on standard-setting, policy and practice excellence, and collaboration to improve outcomes is the best way to leverage our strategic advantages and move into our next decade of service.

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