Sills Family Foundation

Sills Family Foundation

How can your family find a focus and achieve impact?

The incarceration of a parent can create profound consequences for children and caregivers. Feelings of abandonment, isolation and uncertainty over how to remain connected with a loved one behind bars are common.  Yet this issue is often ignored, glossed over, or simply hidden behind other challenging life circumstances. When the Sills family learned about the impact of incarceration on families, they knew they had to act - not only to help those parents and children affected but also to disrupt the cycle of poverty and crime that perpetuates the problem.

When the Sills Family Foundation was founded, it did not have an issue area focus. In fact, before receiving a $30 million inheritance, the trustees of the Foundation had no experience making grants. The patriarch had left money for his family to establish a foundation and work together to support essential human services, but he gave few parameters beyond that.  The family needed to find a focus and develop a strategy for the future.  They hired The Philanthropic Initiative to help.   

The Philanthropic Initiative guided the family through a strategic planning process and helped them identify mission and values, establish goals and form grantmaking guidelines.  To educate the trusteeswe created learning programs around their various interest areas and provided advice on conducting due diligence and evaluations. We also joined the family on site visits, modeling tactics for interviewing and evaluating proposals until they developed the skills themselves.

Deborah Sills Iarussi, one of the trustees, explains how they decided to focus on families affected by incarceration. “We started with a focus of helping children rise to their highest potential in three different dimensions, then focused more on families in crisis, and within that focused on families affected by the criminal justice system. The more we learned about it, the more interested we got and the more we realized how few other funders were involved.  From that our sense of commitment grew and grew.”

Today, TPI manages and administers the Sills Family Foundation grants program. We organize logistics and back office functions, and facilitate decision-making and planning meetings each year, introducing the family to new and proven approaches for increasing impact. 

Since finding its focus, the Sills Family Foundation has brought attention to families affected by incarceration by adapting programs, supporting specific organizations and influencing other funders and policies.

Two organizations that the Sills Foundation had previously supported did not realize the extent to which they were working with families affected by incarceration and were inspired to expand their programs for families to address that population. Circle, a battered women’s shelter in Vermont, set up special support groups. St. Mary’s Center for Women and Children in Massachusetts learned that more than 80% of St. Mary's clients experienced incarceration on some level. Development Director Jane Boulet reports, “We now have much richer services and clinical supports for them as a result of the Sills Foundation's generosity.”

The Sills Family Foundation also supports programs that exclusively help families affected by incarceration, including New York’s Hour Children, and The Osborne Association.

Now a proactive organizer, the Sills Family Foundation educates other funders on the issue, and brings practitioners and policy makers together to forge solutions. At one event the Foundation helped coordinate, attendees included state agency commissioners, families affected by incarceration, funders, and service providers. Deborah has joined the steering committee of the New York Initiative for Children with Incarcerated Parents. Through the network they’ve established, the Sills Foundation can enroll key players in speaking and presenting at events.

Preparing the next generation is next for the Sills trustees. In fall 2013, TPI led a planning retreat to elicit ideas and establish opportunities for previously uninvolved family members. By growing family participation, the Foundation plans to maintain its momentum, continue to address the needs of families affected by incarceration, and work to break the cycles of poverty and crime.