The Dovetail Project

What if every child had a caring, active, engaged father present in their lives?

Photo of Sheldon Smith
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Founding Story: Share a story about a key experience or spark that helps the network understand why this project got started or a story about how you became inspired about the potential for this project to succeed.

Executive Director Sheldon Smith founded the project in 2009 when he became a young father at the age of 21. He wanted to be a great father, but no one had ever taught him how. His own father was in and out of his life when he was young, and the same was true for his friends and neighbors, so he didn’t have any kind of road map or manual for what great fatherhood might look like. Determined to overcome this challenge, he set out on a quest to discover every resource he could find in the Woodlawn community on Chicago’s South Side to help him to achieve that goal. He thoughtfully documented his own needs and how he learned to meet them. Realizing there were other young fathers in the community who could benefit from that same knowledge, he had the idea to develop The Dovetail Project.

He began The Dovetail Project with a small seed grant from Crossroads Foundation to develop a program to teach young African American men how to navigate the legal system in order to stay present in their children’s lives. He then added life skills, job skills and parenting skills to the program, and the first cohort of ten young fathers began on March 23, 2010. Since that time, 231 young fathers have graduated from The Dovetail Project – meaning that hundreds of children on Chicago’s South Side now have fathers who are ready to be engaged, responsible parents and support in their children's lifelong well-being.

Which categories describe you? (the answer will not be public)

  • Black or African American (for example: African American, Jamaican, Haitian, Nigerian, Ethiopian, Somalian)


Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [State]

  • Illinois

Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [City]


Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [State]

  • Illinois

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [City]


Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

African American fatherhood is, and has been, in crisis in low-income communities of color across America for many years. This is connected to a number of factors: racial discrimination, unemployment, scarcity of positive father figure role models, restricted access to educational opportunities, and the school-to-prison pipeline. When young men who have limited (if any) relationships with their own fathers become fathers themselves, they want to do better, but often lack the resources to help them do so. The data are staggering: 67% of black children grow up in single-parent homes, and 85% of all youths in prison come from fatherless homes. Father absence is linked to poor physical and emotional health.
Without a roadmap from their elders, young people risk perpetuating the cycle of fatherlessness. Dovetail provides the missing roadmap to guide them towards engaged fatherhood.

The Dovetail Project’s innovative solution is a one-of-a-kind curriculum-based program that provides young men with tools, skills and support to be better fathers to their children. Small cohorts of young African American fathers and expectant fathers, ages 17 to 24, immerse themselves for three months in an intensive curriculum of parenting skills, life skills, job skills and felony street law. Through instruction from program facilitators, peer-to-peer discussions, and guest speakers, they address the challenges and opportunities of fatherhood in a rigorous but supportive environment with high expectations and access to resources. Through partner initiatives, they enroll in a GED or trade program, and/or receive job training through one of Dovetail’s partner employers. They are honored with a graduation ceremony at the program’s end, and go on to complete their GED/trade programs and/or receive an employment offer and maintain a strong, supportive presence in their children’s lives. Their children then have a stronger sense of self, purpose, and belonging, because their father is actively engaged and invested in their well-being.

Is your model focused on any of the following traditionally underserved communities?

  • Communities of color
  • Low-income communities

Does your model work within any of the following sectors?

  • Child and Family Services
  • Community Development and Empowerment
  • Criminal Justice
  • Education

Year Founded


Project Stage

  • Scaling (the solution has passed the previous stages, and the next step will be growing its impact on a regional or global scale)

Example: Walk the network through a specific example of what happens when a person or group engages with your solution.

A young African American man stands at a bus stop or on a street corner on the South Side of Chicago. He has recently become a father, but has not seen many positive examples of fatherhood in his life. He wants to break the cycle, but he doesn’t have a roadmap to help him do so. A Dovetail alumnus approaches him, tells him about The Dovetail Project and encourages him to apply. He’s normally hesitant to approach institutions, but no one’s ever reached out to him in this way before, so he commits.
Once accepted, this young father spends twelve weeks in an intensive curriculum of parenting skills, job skills, life skills, and felony street law, with the ultimate goal of establishing a lifelong engaged, active presence in his child’s life.

Impact: What was the impact of your work last year? Please also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.

Since 2010, 231 young fathers have graduated from Dovetail. Evidence of impact is determined by analysis of participant entry and exit surveys. For the 2015 spring cohort, graduates increased time spent with children, understanding of legal rights and responsibilities of fatherhood, employment skills, felony street law knowledge, and confidence in their parenting abilities.

Dovetail will increase impact by opening two new sites in fall 2016 to continue to impact fathers’ and children’s lives in four key ways:
1. Enhance quality and quality of time fathers spend with their children.
2. Provide fathers with skills to gain and maintain employment and enhance financial awareness.
3. Increase fathers’ confidence in their ability to be active, engaged fathers.
4. Increase understanding of felony street law to improve decision-making and avoid contact with the criminal justice system.

Organization Type

  • nonprofit/NGO/citizen sector

Annual Budget

  • $250k - $500k

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is your solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

To ensure financial sustainability as the organization scales, The Dovetail Project will pursue four key funding strategies: 1) Foundation support (at the local, state and national levels), 2) Earned income (local government contracts, as well as conducting trainings for other organizations), 3) Individual donors and special events (galas, house parties and cultural events) and 4) Corporate sponsorships (for each cohort's graduation day).

Unique Value Proposition: How else is this problem being addressed? Are there other organizations working in the same field, and how does your project differ from these other approaches?

Upon conducting a search for “fatherhood” on the Changemakers website, a suggestion pops up: “Did you mean: motherhood?” This symbolizes the challenges of working with young fathers. Comparatively speaking, motherhood receives substantially more attention. The University of Chicago recently compared The Dovetail Project to over 100 similar programs around the United States and found no comparable standalone projects addressing all of Dovetail's components (job skills and parenting along with felony street law). Currently, no fatherhood initiatives on the Changemakers website are Chicago-based.

Reflect on the Field and its Future: Stepping outside of your project, what do you see as the most important or promising shifts that can advance children’s wellbeing?

The push for full-day preschool, recently implemented in New York City, is an important educational shift, since early childhood education makes such a difference in later educational outcomes. Regarding fatherhood, the cultural shift led by President Barack Obama is also promising. The White House's Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships has made responsible fatherhood one of its four key priorities, shifting public perception. Finally, changing perceptions of what constitutes a "normal family", thanks to the LGBT rights movement, are beneficial to children's sense of belonging.

Source: How did you hear about the Children’s Wellbeing Challenge? (the answer will not be public)

  • Email
  • Word of mouth

Referral: If you discovered the Challenge thanks to an organization or person other than Ashoka, who was it? (the answer will not be public)

The Dovetail Project was informed of this challenge through an email from one of Founder and Executive Director Sheldon Smith's mentors, DeRondal Bevly (SVP Chicago).

Program Design Clarity

a) African American fathers ages 17-24 in Chicago are Dovetail's beneficiaries. b) Small cohorts of young fathers experience a three-month intensive curriculum of parenting skills, life skills, job skills and felony street law. Fathers receive a bus pass, meals, & a completion stipend. Partner initiatives offer simultaneous enrollment in a GED or trade program, and/or job training. A graduation ceremony concludes the program. c) Fathers meet for one 3-hour session per week for 12 weeks, as well as outside field trips. d) Services are delivered by a facilitator with frequent guest speakers.

Community Leadership

The program both serves and is run by African American fathers from the same communities. The program's exclusive curriculum was developed through a synthesis of outside research and internal community expertise, based on founder Sheldon Smith's quest for resources when he became a young father. The program continuously develops community leaders by training and employing Dovetail graduates as recruiters, interns and staff members.

Age of Children Impacted

  • Pregnancy - 0
  • 0-1.5
  • 1.5 -3
  • 3 - 5

Spread Strategies

Dovetail's current strategy in this area is replication across Chicago. For several years, community partners have requested that Dovetail's services be brought to their communities. After partnering with the Community Programs Accelerator at the University of Chicago, Dovetail now has the infrastructure in place to triple programming for fall 2016, offering three simultaneous cohorts at three different locations across the South and West Sides.

Reflect on how your work helps children to thrive. How are you cultivating children’s sense of self, belonging, and purpose through your model?

Dovetail's work speaks to the paradigm shift that emotional needs are essential to well-being. A father's presence in his child's life is crucial to that child's emotional needs. A 2006 CDC report, “The Importance of Fathers in the Healthy Development of Children” (Rosenberg and Wilcox), indicates that children with present fathers have more confidence, emotional security/stability, and social connections. Dovetail's work meets this key need.

Leadership Story

Sheldon Smith, 27, has been involved in the nonprofit world since the age of 13, when he began working as a community youth organizer in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood. As a teen, Smith’s work focused on social issues such as youth and gang violence, juvenile justice, and civic engagement. Seven years ago, Smith became a father at the age of 20. Determined to be the best father he could be for his daughter, Jada, he made fatherhood his exclusive focus, founding The Dovetail Project to bring together resources he found lacking in his own life and the lives of other young fathers in Chicago.

What awards or honors has the project received? (Optional)

2016 - CNN Hero award (founder Sheldon Smith).
2015 - Francis W. Parker School’s Susan F. Berkowitz Award for Service to Children.
2015 - Cabinet Member, My Brother's Keeper (named by President Obama).
2012 - Sargent Shriver Youth Warriors Against Poverty award, Marguerite Casey Foundation.

Organization's Twitter Handle


Organization’s Facebook Page (URL)

Leader's LinkedIn Profile (URL)

Evaluation results

4 evaluations so far

1. Relevance: Does this project seem to help children (ages 0 to 12 years) develop a strong sense of self, belonging, and purpose?

5 - Yes, this is great! The project lays out a strong, compelling case for how its model nurtures children’s wellbeing. - 66.7%

4 - It seems like a good fit, and the model talks explicitly about children’s wellbeing. - 33.3%

3 - I think so. The project seems related to children’s wellbeing, but the logic is vague. - 0%

2 - Not sure. The project doesn’t have much to do with wellbeing, or it doesn’t give enough information. - 0%

1 - Nope, this project definitely doesn’t fit the challenge brief (e.g., It doesn’t help kids younger than 12, isn’t in the U.S., etc.) - 0%

2. Innovation: Does this project tackle children’s wellbeing from a new angle?

5 - I loved this! The project describes a novel model that addresses important cultural or systemic barriers. - 25%

4 - This is pretty cool. The project is addressing an important problem in a new or compelling way. - 75%

3 - I feel like there’s something there, but I want more details about what makes it distinctive. - 0%

2 - It’s a good project, but I’ve seen others like it before. - 0%

1 - It was confusing or hard to tell what it made it different. - 0%

3. Social Impact: What is this project’s potential for creating positive social impact?

5 - Lots of potential. This project is achieving impressive results, and it’s growing quickly. It could absolutely inspire changes in the ways we approach caring for kids nationally, across sectors (e.g. childcare, healthcare, education). - 0%

4 - Pretty good potential. This project demonstrates significant positive impact so far, and it could scale regionally or nationally one day and fundamentally change how a system operates (e.g. childcare, healthcare, education). - 75%

3 - Budding potential. This project is creating local impact, but it would take a few adjustments before it could scale. - 25%

2 - Some potential. This project demonstrates some initial positive impact, but it would require major changes before it could scale. - 0%

1 - Limited potential. This project has great intentions, but it looks like it does not include key drivers of a shift towards children’s wellbeing. - 0%

4. Overall, how do you feel about this idea?

5 - This idea rocked my world. It’s awesome! - 0%

4 - This idea seems really exciting. With a little more polishing, it’d be among my favorites. - 100%

3 - I think the idea is great, but it needs some work before it moves onto the next round. - 0%

2 - I liked it fine but preferred others. - 0%

1 - It didn’t make my heart beat faster. Needs significant revisions. - 0%

5. Offer some feedback. Where should this participant spend some time revising?

DEFINING THE PROBLEM. Make sure to articulate the root causes or main barriers of the social issue your project addresses. (Founding Story, Problem, Solution). - 33.3%

CLARITY OF MODEL. Make sure to mention (a.) the beneficiary, b) the main activities, and c) how those activities drive social impact. Keep it streamlined! - 66.7%

MARKETPLACE. Make sure to research other players in this space and articulate how this project is different. I didn’t get a complete sense of how this project compares to others. - 33.3%

IMPACT POTENTIAL. Make sure to use specific numbers to describe what your project has achieved so far! And consider how you might scale the model or its insights, through partnerships, trainings, or franchising. - 100%

WRITING STYLE. Try to stay concise and make it vivid. Avoid jargon. - 0%

Nothing stands out! I thought it was great. - 0%


Join the conversation:

Photo of Nathan M

Congratulations Sheldon! You have created something truly powerful here! What a precious resource you are providing to those fathers in Chicago. I'd love to see your program scale to a national level!

In terms of your proposal, I might suggest finding a little more data to add to your description of the problem, and maybe another line or two about your impact as well. Other than that, I'd say it's very strong.

Good luck with the competition! And thanks for the vital work that you're doing.

Outside of this context, I just want to mention that you and your young men would probably really benefit from some of our work and tools. Here's a link to our site for your perusal: . 

Be well,
Nathan M

Photo of Fred

Awesome program identifying an at-risk population with the most important strategy of supporting fathers in their efforts to be part of their childrens' lives which in of itself reduces so many risk factors for both the father and the kids.  Would be very interested to learning more details about curriculum used and if there is any longer term follow up to see if fathers sustain their connection to their kids in a signficant way.

Photo of Jessie

This is great! Definitely agree that there is a need to focus on fathers and fatherhood too.Does Dovetail continue relationships with participants after the 12-week period? Excited to learn more about your model. Thank you for the work you're doing!!

Photo of Jennell

Wow Sheldon! Thank you for such wonderful work! The absence of a father has a tremendous impact on the wellbeing of our children. Working with hundreds of girls each month I observe the effects of such a void. Keep up the tremendous work!