Sixteen months after the heart-breaking death of its long-time executive director, the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute has hired its next permanent leader, who inherits the challenge of steadying an organization amidst a pandemic.
Nancy Kay Blackwell, who was a special assistant at the Washington, D.C., Department of Human Services, becomes the institute’s fifth executive director. CCAI was founded in 2001 by former U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) with other congressional leaders who wanted to raise awareness about adoption and foster care issues at the federal level and educate members of Congress.
Since then the organization has created two signature programs – Angels in Adoption that honors foster care and adoption advocates from each congressional district and the Foster Youth Internship Program that brings former foster youth to Capitol Hill each summer for an internship where they also create reports before members of Congress, some of which have ultimately made their way into legislation.
“Nancy’s personal passion for children and youth, coupled with her professional expertise in child welfare, make her exceptionally qualified to lead CCAI into its third decade,” said board chair Landrieu, in a news release announcing Blackwell’s hiring.
Taking the helm of the almost 20-year-old organization while social isolation prevents most in-person interaction has been an interesting start for Blackwell, who has worked in human services for nearly two decades. She’s spending several hours a day on video conference calls with her three-member team of employees whom she has only met in-person one time during the interview process. She said she already feels like she’s running a “marathon on roller skates.”
“We are a small and mighty team, but our reach is significant,” Blackwell said. “The work is so significant.”
She also said she brings something new to the position as its first black leader.
“I carry the strength of the African American community,” Blackwell said, which she hopes will help her to be more intentional in highlighting some of the successes and challenges families of color face in the adoption and foster care communities.
Blackwell inherits an organization that was devastated by the 2018 passing of Becky Weichhand, its 36-year-old executive director. Bethany Haley, who had previously worked for Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), led the organization as an interim director for a year before announcing in January her departure.
With all of those transitions and moving into her role in the midst of a worldwide crisis has given Blackwell a moment to ponder.
“It made me take a pause and reflect on where I’ve been and what I’ve seen and how I need to respond during this pandemic with intentionality,” Blackwell said. “The pandemic has given me so many ideas about how we do our work. It’s caused me to think about our reach – fundraising, outreach, communication.”
Haley and the board had already moved to cut expenses to address a decline in revenue at the organization, moving into a co-working space at WeWork in early February, cutting the organization’s office expenditures in half. The nonprofit’s current staff of four, including Blackwell, are all working from home for now as much of Washington is shut down.
According to the most recent tax documents available, the organization’s revenue slid from $1.2 million in 2016 to $865,407 in 2017. Blackwell said fiscal year 2019 was similarly at $860,000 and she’s planning “to employ a three-prong strategy of a mix of corporate sponsorships, foundations and individual giving” to strengthen the organization.
“Things are tight,” said Blackwell, whose goal is to “focus the organization so it functions as a small business instead of a struggling nonprofit.”
The new director will also have to quickly figure out the short- and long-term future for CCAI’s two signature programs. The annual Foster Youth Internship program, through which 12 former foster youth are scheduled to arrive in Washington on May 25, could be delayed or modified this year because of stay-at-home orders and college dorm closures. While all participants have already been paired with a member of Congress or a committee for the 10-week program, the city’s lockdown has her team preparing daily updates to the schedule as logistics change.
While contingency planning continues to evolve for this year, Blackwell said she is already thinking about how the program’s scope can be expanded.
“It’s a significant piece of work for the interns and for us,” Blackwell said. “I’m thinking, how can we expand that program throughout the year?”
Blackwell isn’t quite sure how that will work, but she’s exploring options for building on the sense of connection the youth feel through shared lived experiences in the foster care system.
“Some of our foster youth feel like they’re the only ones who’ve made it,” Blackwell said. “They form a camaraderie amongst them.”
While expansion of the program may be stalled while the CCAI team grapples with the more pressing changes brought on by the pandemic, Blackwell says she sees potential in building out the program in congressional members’ home districts during other times of the year, providing youth with greater opportunity to influence policy.
CCAI is also preparing for its Angels in Adoption program, which takes place each fall. This year’s event is planned for Sept. 22-23, and nominations are being accepted through May 15.
Blackwell also envisions the Angels in Adoption event growing more with additional programming during the two-day event and more outreach to past Angels.
“Their stories are absolutely amazing,” Blackwell said. “I’d like to make the alum of the Angels the torch carriers for CCAI.”
As she forges ahead, Blackwell has also reflected on how her family and the start of her career have shaped her for her new role.
Blackwell began her career in human services with “humble beginnings as a foster care case manager” for the Baltimore City Department of Social Services. That basic beginning, through her most recent role as special assistant and senior adviser at the D.C. Department of Human Services’ Family Services Administration has prepared her for her new role expanding the organization’s programs and reach.
She had worked with CCAI while serving as executive director for Baltimore’s Court Appointed Special Advocates program, and said she felt drawn to the organization’s work to raise awareness about foster care and adoption issues at the federal level.
Personally, as the youngest of 13 children in a traditional Catholic family, Blackwell says, “family and children have been the center of my existence.”