Why funders should support fatherhood

Fathers Direct LogoDads have changed, so must the support networks

Third Sector, 19 January 2005

Fatherhood is all over the news these days, with ever more florid stunts by Fathers 4 Justice and with cabinet ministers speaking eloquently about their fatherhood as they resign, having failed when in office to develop policies to tackle this important social issue.

“Father Chaos” as the leading article in the last edition of Third Sector put it. But is it chaos?

A fundamental social change is underway: mothers work in more than half of two-parent families with under fives. Women’s behaviour and aspirations are changing as their education levels rise. Men are changing too: fathers now do one third of all parental care, 8 times more than 30 years ago; and their aspiration to be more involved with their children is virtually universal.

This is no middle-class phenomenon. Blue collar fathers do more childcare than middle class dads. Research by the Prince’s Trust and at Bristol University show that young, disadvantaged fathers have high aspirations. Any educator in a young offender’s institution will confirm there is nothing like fatherhood to light up resolution to change – 25% of young offenders are fathers, six times the average for their age.

But the only support they will ever get as fathers is inside – there will be none when they get out. They (like all fathers) feel excluded by family services, where workers rarely have skills or self-confidence even to meet them. At a recent public consultation in my area, a senior midwife remarked “of course, by the time the baby is born, the young dads have all buggered off”. Wrong. Most are still in a romantic (if often fragile) relationship with the young mother, live round the corner and want to be involved. An ongoing relationship with their father is shown to be particularly valuable to the children of teen mums.

A challenge for the voluntary sector. Do you know the literature on the impact of positive, negative or minimal father involvement in children’s lives? If you work with men, do you know if they are fathers and whether supporting their fatherhood could help achieve your aims? If most of your users are women, do you know for sure that men don’t want support – or have you not yet found ways of reaching them and meeting their needs? If you are a funder, have you adapted your strategies in line with the research evidence, and the changing social landscape?

Why fathers are a charitable cause

Times, 26 May 2003

Raising money to help men seems selfish. Surely, some think, there must be more deserving causes than men, who, after all, are the cause of most problems in the first place? Indeed the whole notion of charities making men a priority smacks of the women and children getting pushed aside in the rush for the lifeboats on the Titanic. So Fathers Direct, understandably, does not fit most mainstream funding criteria.

Not that this problem has stopped us. We’re men and women with families who feel that children lose out because fatherhood is undervalued. We know that the workplace, family and health services often stand in the way of men becoming active and involved fathers. These failings deny children – and their mothers – better lives. The research evidence in the field is comprehensive, conclusive but not yet widely acted upon.

To carry on with our work – producing innovative publications aimed at fathers, training family services that want to involve dads more – we require a special type of financial support. We need funders whose business is spotting progressive social change and supporting it. Many institutions might say: “That’s us”. But is it? The trouble is that many are so swamped with applications that bureaucratic procedures can sometimes take over. All the box-ticking and testing against the funders’ “criteria” cuts out the charlatans, but it often misses social innovators who are thinking outside the box.

What’s the answer? Perhaps focussing more on relationships, less on form filling. The Diana, Princess of Wales, Memorial Fund is an example of good practice. When it checks out your application, it is not just by the Royal Mail. A skilled, smart individual will meet you and talk. The fund did this for us and it was brilliant. It didn’t stop them turning us down, but that was OK. We were not boxed out of the process.

Foundations, in particular, have a unique opportunity to back projects that have an element of risk. It’s harder for the Government because they are accountable to voters and traditional funders understandably play safe. But foundations can take chances and lose less sleep about making a mistake. This is especially true if they build relationships and understand their applicants. They can help organisations that need a leg up to gain respectability, at which point more conservative funders can take over.

So hats off then to the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, which recently joined Charity Bank in offering £3m in loans to charities denied help from High Street banks that miss the bankability of many charitable ventures. Likewise, the Charities Aid Foundation has set up Venturesome, a risk capital fund. It is a lifeline for the innovators because its decision-making depends on a knowledgeable relationship. We have enjoyed working with them because they have got to know us. It’s good when backers understand we have set ourselves a titanic task. But they also know that we won’t go down and, as we succeed, we will bring the women and children with us.