Early Childhood Education

Philanthropy and Young Children


It has been argued that organized philanthropy remains one of the least known and most pervasive of financial networks throughout the United States, as it operates with remarkable freedom. Waldemar Nielson summarizes philanthropy as follows:

As a group, they are institutions like no others, operating in their own unique degree of abstraction from external imposed rules. They are private, and yet their activities cut across a broad spectrum of public concerns and public issues. They are not only important power centers in American life not controlled by market forces, electoral constituencies, bodies of members, or even formally established canons of conduct, all of which give them their extraordinary flexibility and potential influence. Yet they remain little known and even less understood, shrouded in mystery, inspiring in some the highest hopes and expectations and in others dark fears and resentments. By some they are seen as the Hope of the Future, our Secret Weapon for progress; by others as our Fifth Column; and by still others as our invisible Fourth Branch of Government. (quoted in Watson, 1993, p. 1)

Although early education receives only a small portion of foundation assets, private foundations have played a significant role in supporting in early childhood education, in increasing opportunities for young children and in advancing the early childhood profession in the United States of America. Two major themes have characterized foundation giving in the field: private foundation funding has (1) sparked innovation and experimentation and (2) elevated attention to systems change. In spite of these contributions, enduring and emerging concerns remain about the impact of philanthropy on the field of early care and education.


Foundations Promote Innovation and Experimentation

Private philanthropy has been a major source of support for many innovations in early childhood education. These innovations were critical as early educators worked to develop evidence about the effectiveness and impact of their work, and to build public will for improved early care and educational policies and practices. Innovative projects and model programs, as well as experimentation with replication strategies, have been the cornerstone of the work done by early childhood specialty foundations such as the A. L. Mailman Foundation and the Foundation for Child Development. Larger, comprehensive national foundations such as Ford, Kellogg, and Mott have also played significant roles at different points in time. Together, these efforts have sponsored new approaches, leveraged strategic opportunities and advanced critical issues that have informed the early care and education field.

To illustrate the range of projects that have been funded, a few examples follow:

• The Harris Foundation, established in 1946, helped establish the Erikson Institute in 1966 to train teachers for Head Start. In 1986, Harris also helped to initiate a public-private partnership, the Beethoven experiment, which brought prenatal care and exemplary early childhood practice to mothers-to-be in the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago. Beethoven’s ultimate goal was to insure that these children would be “ready for school” when they entered kindergarten. The Beethoven Project tested critical early learning theories in a real-life community-based setting, drawing national attention to successful early interventions in the very first years of life.

• In 1958, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) national office was established partly as a result of gifts from the Elizabeth McCormick Memorial Fund. In 1984, the accreditation system was field tested in four sites with the support of several small foundations.

In the 1990s, what is now The Early Childhood Equity Alliance was launched by the Kellogg Foundation with later support from the A. L. Mailman Family Foundation, the Peppercorn Foundation, Bernard Van Leer Foundation, and others. The Alliance nurtures and connects people engaged in racial and social justice education and action with and for young children, families, and communities.


Foundations Work to Achieve Systems Change

In addition to their support of “silo” projects, foundations have also supported efforts to leverage public funding for young children and to support systems change. This work is particularly noteworthy when one considers the fact that many philanthropic organizations were founded without any specific charitable purpose in mind. Rockefeller and Carnegie were rare among philanthropists because they wanted to leverage their gifts by influencing patterns of government spending. Perhaps only a small number of foundations had in mind what Neilssen calls “scientific philanthropy”—getting at the root causes of social ills rather than merely ameliorating the symptoms (see Watson, 1993).

Nevertheless, foundations can be credited with drawing attention to neglected areas of child development and boosting activity in important areas through strategic grant making. A few examples include the following:

• In the 1970s when the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation established its interest in child welfare, its support of this work through several national organizations is credited with promoting change. In the 1990s, the W. K. Kellogg’s “Families for Kids” imitative, along with work of the Dave Thomas Foundation, combined program, media, evaluation and advocacy tools to help create a movement for federal and state policy changes affecting the movement of foster children into permanent homes.

• The Caroline and Sigmund Schott Foundation played a pivotal role in establishing the nonprofit organization that led a state-wide effort to achieve universal preschool in the state of Massachusetts.

• The Foundation for Child Development has played a leadership role in research and dissemination of information.

Policy change has also been promoted by foundations’ support of many important commissions and committees addressing children’s issues. The 1991 report of the bipartisan National Commission on Children is credited with forcing social conservatives to acknowledge the need for economic supports for children (Schmitt, 2004). Similarly The Carnegie Task Force on Meeting the Needs of Young Children issued the influential report “Starting Points: Meeting the Needs of Young Children” in 1994.

Recognizing the limitations of work being done by individual funders, several collaborative efforts by grant makers have been established to foster strategic thinking and sharing.

• Grantmakers for Children, Youth and Families was established in 1985 as an affinity group of the Council on Foundations. Today, representatives from more than 500 private, corporate, community and family foundations participate in its activities.

• To better target interest in young children among those funders deeply committed to early childhood, in 1994 an informal group of staff from five foundations came together to create the Early Childhood Funders Collaborative. Today ECFC membership includes about 30 foundations who seek to increase the visibility and importance of quality in early childhood care and education and to increase private and public investment. This affiliation of individuals, often drawn from the early childhood profession, is deeply immersed in supporting early childhood education for the long haul. By 1995 it was decided to form a funding pool to support major leadership initiatives. Two such initiatives had been funded by 2004.

• With respect to specific funding issues, groups of foundations often come together to address specific concerns. For example, today The Packard Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, the Schumann Fund for New Jersey and the McCormick Tribune Foundation are collaborating with the Pew Charitable Trusts around universal preschool issues.


Limits of Phiianthropy

Major issues are associated with foundation funding in the field of early care and education. Chief among them are the following seven concerns.

1. Foundations constrain the advancement of work in the early education field because of their short term funding cycles. Most foundation grant commitments are for a term of one to three years. This funding pattern may not allow for the development of strong institutions that can plan for and sustain long-term change.

2. Foundation funding strategies are typically project focused and categorical. By establishing their priorities in interest areas (i.e., in housing, health, education), foundation funding has, in many ways, mirrored the federal program structure. Single issue organizations may be favored in this context. This structure, however, does not reflect the interrelationships among these categories in children’s lives. Further, the project focus of most funding has the consequence of offering relatively little support and few resources to support strategic planning, capacity building or fund raising activities. Moreover, “projects” are often ill equipped to address the structural and root causes of child well-being such as poverty; to focus on critical activities such as constituency building; or to create a coherent vision for social change compared to reactive activity reflecting social trends.

3. Foundations may have unrealistic outcomes and accountability requirements for grantees. Categorical project funding is often tied to the expectation that grantees will produce specific outcomes within a certain timeframe. In turn, grantees have often complained that these outcomes reflect unrealistic expectations about what can be produced in return for relatively small amounts of money and time.

4. Foundations have been a financial base of child advocacy organizations. Many early education or multiissue child advocacy programs receive a majority of their support from private dollars. This “good news” is accompanied by a major shortcoming: while foundations have played a vital role in sustaining child advocacy groups, these groups are, in turn, very dependent on foundation funding, finding it difficult to develop a diverse funding base or to develop hard revenue sources on which to rely. As a result, important initiatives, such as the Early Childhood Equity Alliance, operate under difficult financial circumstances. Many other initiatives, such as the Ecumenical Child Care organization, found it difficult to consistently sustain their level of organizational activity due to fiscal challenges.

5. Foundations are not inclined to invest in advocacy activities and social change. Progressive foundations woefully underfund public intellectuals, policy thinkers and policy work, relative to more conservative organizations. This is argued to have a limiting impact on the capacity of children’s organizations to disseminate information, engage in strategic media work, interact with policy makers and coordinate research and advocacy. Although there are certainly exceptions to this tendency, evidence shows that few foundations seem willing to fund advocacy activities (Covington, 2001). Rather, foundation funding has largely focused on funding discrete projects or programs not connected to the more fundamental economic and policy questions of the early childhood profession or the well-being of young children themselves.

6. There is an increasing tendency for foundations to design and direct their own initiatives. A major trend in philanthropy is that foundations are increasing designing and directing their own initiatives, and working through grantees to achieve those goals. In this way, foundations may have undue influence on foundation-dependent organizations who grumble about being the “implementers” of foundation-directed initiatives. Further, with a rapid growth of new foundations, one finds heightened interest in “venture philanthropy”—new donors, exemplified by persons such as such as Bill Gates, seek a more engaged and directed approached to philanthropy. These venture philanthropists show a renewed focus on building partnerships, exit strategies, accountability measures and building networks. Grantees may find that they have to structure their work around the funding initiatives of the foundations.

7. Grantees often feel that the unequal partnerships with foundations effectively limit the vision for the field of early care and education. The “unequal partnership” is evidenced by many factors, including a lack of feedback about negative funding decisions. Thus, dialog and discussion and learning do not always occur, sometimes fostering a mutual lack of candor as foundations influence choices of strategic issues, strategies and methods.



According to Watson,

Traditional philanthropy operates according to self-defined goals of charity for the poor and the promotion of high culture. Charity is extremely gratifying for those who engage in it, as evidenced by the symbolic link between arts and its patrons. But what makes traditional grant making easy—gratification—is precisely what makes empowerment as a strategy for grant making so difficult. Building capacity among powerless people requires the creation of alternative sites of decision making, validation, and power. In the abstract, these issues may not seem to be troubling, but in the real world, they frequently involve choices between well-run institutions that are known and loved, and weak, emerging organizations about which foundation boards and staff have little knowledge and with which have even less contact. Empowerment is threatening because it is messy. When people have the capacity to act for themselves, they frequently do—and not necessarily in ways that people who have acted for them anticipate or welcome. (Watson, 1993, p. 8)

However important and strategic foundation giving may be, it is important to remember that private giving is dwarfed by state spending. Ultimate growth in early education services is tied to how well those public resources can be leveraged. See also Advocacy and Leadership in Early childhood Education; Preschool/Prekindergarter Programs.

Further Readings: Convington, Sally (1997). Moving a public policy agenda: The strategic philanthropy of conservative foundations. Washington, DC: National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. Dowie, Mark (2001). American foundations: An investigative history. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Foster, Catherine Crystal, and Anjali Srivastava (1996). Forging the links: How advocates connect kids and public benefits. Washington, DC: National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. Jenkins, Craig J. (1998). A channeling social protest: Foundation patronage of contemporary social movements. In Walter W. Powell and Elisabeth S. Clemens, eds., Private action and the public good. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, pp. 206-216. Johnson, Robert Matthews (1998). The first charity: How philanthropy can contribute to democracy in America. Cabin John, MD: Seven Locks Press. Lakoff, George (1996). Moral politics: What conservatives know that liberals don’t. Chicago: Chicago University Press. Mitchell, Ann, and Rima Shore (1998). Next steps toward quality in early care and education: A report commissioned by the Early Childhood Funders Collaborative. Neilsen, Waldemar A. (1985). The golden donors: A new anatomy of the great foundations. New York: E. P. Dutton. Schmitt, M. (2004). Kids Aren’t Us. The American Prospect Online. Takanishi, Ruby (1998). Children in poverty: Reflections on the roles of philanthropy and public policy. In Charles Clotfelter and Thomas Ehrlich, eds., The future of philanthropy in a changing America. Vol. 2. The Ninety-Third American Assembly, April 23-26. Los Angeles, CA: The Getty Center. Watson, B. C. (1993). Minorities and marginality in American foundations. Association of Black Foundation Executives. Weiss, Heather B., and M. Elena Lopez (1998). New strategies in foundation grant making for children and youth. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Family Research Project.

Valora Washington