Funding for Fathers: A Chicago-based Family Foundation Shines a Light on Fatherhood

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The Joseph and Bessie Feinberg Foundation recently gave a three-year, $300,000 donation to The Dovetail Project, a Chicago-based nonprofit that educates and supports Black and Hispanic fathers aged 17 to 24. This is a rare gift for a father-focused organization, and a big one. 

“Our work is 100% privately funded, and in our 13 years of existence, we’ve received only a handful of gifts over $100,000,” said Dovetail Project founder Sheldon Smith. “It’s transformative not just for what the money will allow us to do, but also in the field of fatherhood.”

He’s right; there is a lack of funding out there for fathers, not only in Chicago, where The Dovetail Project works, but also nationally.

This oversight is troubling — and odd, given the growing awareness of the myriad challenges facing men and boys. Brookings Institution scholar Richard Reeves highlights this crisis in his 2022 book “Of Men and Boys: Why the Modern Male is Struggling, Why It Matters and What to Do about It. As Reeves notes, both the political left and right flounder to find solutions. 

The struggle is particularly acute for Black boys and men; while patriarchy persists at the top, lower down on social and economic ladder, men are underperforming, feeling obsolete, insignificant and angry. As David Brooks wrote recently in a New York Times opinion piece about Reeves’ book, too many men are “leading haphazard and lonely lives.” The national effort to elevate women and girls has failed to lift up men along with it. In areas like Engelwood, families are further destroyed by gun violence and mass incarceration. Too many men are arrested and imprisoned, then released with criminal records that impose huge limitations on their ability to earn.

Who’s funding fatherhood?

Certainly, some foundations recognize the critical role of present, supportive fathers, most notably the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, one of the few major funders in the space. But even it allocates only a small amount of its total giving to father-focused programs.

As we’ve written before, the Kellogg and Annie E. Casey foundations have both supported the Center for Urban Families, a leading advocate and supporter of responsible fatherhood. Founded in 1998 by Joseph T. Jones, this Baltimore-based nonprofit offers short-term trainings, including a three-week program for low-income, non-custodial fathers. Other fatherhood funders have included the F. M. Kirby Foundation, which has made grants to the National Fatherhood Initiative, and community foundations including the California Endowment and the Communities Foundation of Texas.

Dovetail funder the Joseph and Bessie Feinberg Foundation was started in 1969 by brothers Bernard, Louis, Reuben and Samuel Feinberg in honor of their parents. It focuses not on fatherhood specifically, but rather on community-based organizations in economically underserved parts of Chicago and Los Angeles. Today, Reuben’s niece, Janice Feinberg, runs the $30 million foundation with her brother Joe, and Joe’s wife, Rhonda. They give away between $2 million and $2.5 million each year. This has included $25,000 a year to Dovetail since 2019, and now this new, multiyear gift, which is the first of its size to the organization. 

Janice Feinberg said she was motivated to donate by the need created by the pandemic, and by Smith’s vision and drive. “Have you talked to Sheldon? Did he infect you with his enthusiasm?” she said, when I spoke to her by phone last month. “What Sheldon is doing is relatively unique in Chicago, and he throws a lot of passion into it.” 

Feinberg also has met some of the young men supported by Dovetail, another major motivator for her. She said, “That’s all you have to do to see that it’s a worthwhile endeavor, and how they’ve benefitted from the program.”

The Feinberg Foundation is “really shining a light on the field of fatherhood,” said Smith. “You won’t see any fatherhood organizations receiving $100,000 in private capital. That opens up the door for other foundations. This gift is so important to open other doors.”

Over the last six years, The group’s been able to raise over $4 million from private sources. “We are grateful to philanthropy. The field has responded well, but there is more funding needed to drive the field.”

From boys to men in Chicago

The Dovetail Project’s main offering is a 12-week educational program that Smith created with help from the University of Chicago. The curriculum is divided into thirds: one-third nuts-and-bolts parenting skills; one-third life skills such as how to interview, write a resume and knot a necktie; and one-third felony street law. 

The nonparenting parts are essential for participants; parenting skills alone won’t help if you can’t be physically present for your family. “For young men like me and others who grew up with our fathers in and out of jail, we wanted to teach them how to stay out of the criminal justice system,” said Smith. 

Smith, who was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, started the program 13 years ago because he saw the need for fatherhood support first-hand. “I was raised by two teen parents. My parents were both 18. My father struggled to be the best dad he could. He means the world to me. I wanted to launch an initiative to support young dads because of what I went through in needing my father around more in my life.”

Smith said that when he started The Dovetail Project, there was not a curriculum that was culturally competent and also for younger dads. Attendees who complete the program receive a $500 stipend, coaching and job preparation support, and GED registration and completion or enrollment in a trade training program. “Where in the country can a young father receive a job, a GED or a trade, along with programmatic support and a $500 stipend? Typically, only here, with the Dovetail Project. There’s nothing like it that exists. We’re one of one.”

Since the first class graduated in June 2010, 591 young men have completed the program. The Dovetail Project follows graduates for a year, offering continued support — a critical component considering the ongoing challenges the young men typically endure. Of the first nine young men who completed the program 13 years ago, only six are still alive. 

But with support, fathers who struggle early on can thrive. Smith points to his own father as a role model. “He wound up getting it wrong, as anyone would at 18. But who he is now, he’s a great man. He’s been married for over 25 years. My little sister went to private school and attended college and graduated with a nursing degree. Today, he’s a great example of being a strong dad and community member.”