Treehouse, Seattle WA

Treehouse logo

In 1988, a group of Washington State Department of Social and Health Services social workers grew tired of seeing the deprivation often faced by children in foster care. They started purchasing the little things needed to help foster children feel loved and capable — things like birthday presents and school supplies — funded by community bake sales and car washes.

Over time, Treehouse grew to become a strong and thriving nonprofit providing valuable programs — all with the goal of supporting successful completion of high school for students in foster care.

But in 2012, the organization faced the harsh reality that — despite its efforts — fewer than 50 percent of youth in foster care were graduating from high school.

Defining the Challenge and Need

In analyzing the situation and strategizing about what it would take to realize change, the leaders at Treehouse — including board members — quickly identified systemic challenges that were creating barriers, both to students in foster care and in terms of access to Treehouse’s programs. They quickly understood that if there wasn’t coordination, shared data, and maximization of the role and benefit of state child welfare and school services, Treehouse could work smart, long, and hard but still fail to fulfill the strategic goal of educational equity for youth.

There was no question: It would take changes in public policy to solve the systemic challenges that were resulting in low graduation rates for students in foster care. And that meant that Treehouse needed to build an advocacy strategy.

People using post-its
“We realized that the organization could not improve youth outcomes through direct services alone.” - Dawn Rains Chief Policy & Strategy Officer, Treehouse

Organizing for Advocacy – Strategy & Resources

According to Treehouse’s chief policy and strategy officer, Dawn Rains, “When we first waded into advocacy, [our CEO] led the way, identifying barriers and needs that could be addressed through legislation, as well as advocating with state agency leaders for practice change or providing needed input on administrative rules. She represented our organization at child welfare coalition meetings at which we would adopt a shared legislative agenda each year; she also went to our state capitol to testify on legislation and advocate with legislators.

“If we had a law we wanted passed, [our CEO] would reach out to the board and a handful of key supporters and ask them to call or email their elected officials,” says Rains. “As we experienced small wins, we began to realize that they were the tip of the iceberg, and that Treehouse had the potential to be a critical statewide voice for youth in foster care.”

It was that realization that prompted the Treehouse board to formalize its engagement in advocacy as a core organizational strategy. This included the formation of a policy and advocacy committee to lead the board in setting and achieving Treehouse’s advocacy goals.

woman next to bikes at treehouse

Leveraging the Board – Individual Board Member Engagement

Treehouse’s board committee on policy and advocacy plays a key role in supporting all members of the board in their advocacy role, keeping them informed about their legislative advocacy activities and helping them learn how to advocate in person and via phone, email, and social media. The committee — in partnership with staff — provides board members with talking points, background information, and opportunities to practice their ‘pitch’ in board meetings, as well as with template emails, Facebook posts, and tweets they can customize and send directly to their elected officials.

Says Rains, “There are so many ways for board members to participate in advocating for your mission. For us, our staff and board have organized trips to the state capitol during the legislative session for board members to meet with lawmakers. Board members also participate in an annual Youth Advocacy Day, led by our partners at The Mockingbird Society, in which they accompany youth to advocate on issues the youth themselves have identified to improve the foster care system.” Advocacy has become such a central part of the Treehouse board’s work that all board members now set an annual goal related to their engagement in advocacy, right alongside their personal fundraising goals.

group of people standing together

The Result: A Policy Framework that Supports Youth in Foster Care

Treehouse can point to a number of advocacy wins that have significantly improved systems supporting youth in foster care:

  • Minimized enrollment times, as well as simplified credit transfers, when students in foster care change schools.
  • Improved communication and data-sharing between education and child welfare systems.
  • Ensured automatic eligibility for youth in foster care for the College Bound scholarship.
  • Improved school discipline policies that disproportionately impacted youth in foster care.
  • Increased funding for Treehouse’s educational support services for children and youth in foster care to more than $2.8 million annually.

Beyond all of these wins, Treehouse was also heavily involved in advocating for the passage of HB 1999, which established the state legislature’s intent to make Washington first in the nation for high school graduation, college enrollment, and college graduation. The bill aligned educational support services contracts with the state education agencies rather than the child welfare agency, and has laid the groundwork for significant expansion of education programs for foster youth statewide.

Family sitting on couch
“When we started our work in advocacy, I don’t think we knew what was possible. We are so proud that Washington now has some of the most comprehensive laws supporting the educational success for children and youth in foster care, thanks in great part to Treehouse’s leadership — and our board members that have played a key role.” - Dawn Rains, Chief Policy & Strategy Officer, Treehouse

Learn how other nonprofits used advocacy to increase their organizations’ impact and advance their missions.