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A Conversation With Barbara Chow, Heising-Simons Foundation, and Shannon Rudisill, Early Childhood Funders Collaborative

December 04, 2018

This month, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Early Childhood Funders Collaborative, and Foundation Center will be launching a joint effort to map the last ten years of philanthropic giving in the field of Early Childhood Care and Education. The resulting interactive map of the funding landscape is publicly available and offers a valuable starting place for funders and practitioners to explore historical giving data in the context of demographic and education indicators. The map also includes deep dives into the evidence base around professional development and family engagement efforts, two areas of particular growth and interest to the field. A free webinar about the project will be held starting at 1:00 pm EST on December 12.

In advance of the launch, we spoke with Barbara Chow, director of the education program at the Heising-Simons Foundation, and Shannon Rudisill, executive director of the Early Childhood Funders Collaborative, about the project.

Headshot_chow_rudisill_compFoundation Center: Tell us about your motivations for commissioning and/or participating in this effort.

Barbara Chow: Well, we were about to start a strategic planning process, so naturally, the first question we set out to address was, how does our past and future funding fit into the larger funding landscape? We recognized that our understanding of the landscape was largely anecdotal as opposed to empirical. So, our interest was in figuring out whether what we had assumed to be true could be validated by grants data.

I realized that this was not the first time I had encountered this question. Usually, a foundation works with a consultant to conduct a series of interviews for the purpose of understanding the funding priorities of other foundations. The limitation of this approach, in my experience, is that as soon as the scan is completed it’s often out of date because one of the foundations has embarked on its own strategic planning process and will soon be on to something different. The real value in working with Foundation Center on this is that the map is dynamic and continuously updated with new data. It doesn't require human beings to go back and redo it every time a foundation wants to scan the field.

Shannon Rudisill: This project and the idea of hosting it with the Early Childhood Funders Collaborative is a natural fit for us. As our name says, we are about helping philanthropic collaborations in the area of early childhood get started, deepen their work, and thrive. The map is a fantastic tool for helping both national and regional foundations identify others who are working on these issues and who have similar goals.

The other reason this is a great resource to have sitting with the Early Childhood Funders Collaborative is because, as a publicly available resource, it’s not only available to ECFC members and early childhood funders, it’s also available to funders who are focused on K-12 education, poverty alleviation, and family economic success. We’re seeing a lot of outreach from folks working in those areas, and this tool can serve them as well.

Foundation Center: After spending a significant amount of time with both the grantmaking data and the evidence review, what are some of your takeaways?

Barbara Chow: I have four main takeaways.

My first takeaway is that, according to the map, between 2006 and 2016, philanthropy invested a little more than $6 billion in early childhood education. It's not a huge amount, especially when you think about it in relationship to public-sector funding for the issue, which is a much bigger number, and the clear and unequivocal return on investment for the field. Even though so many foundations are supporting powerful work, the scale overall is pretty small.

Shannon Rudisill: One way to think about it is that when looking at the total philanthropic funding over ten years, it's about two-thirds of annual public funding for the Head Start program.

Barbara Chow: The second thing I took away from the map is that the ECE funding landscape is fairly fragmented. When we look more closely at the $6 billion of funding over ten years, we see that the number of recipients and number of funders is not that different. Unlike some other fields, the bulk of the money is not going to a few nonprofits; in the case of ECE, it's going to a lot of different groups. In some ways that mirrors the fragmentation of early childhood care and education generally in this country. Unlike K-12, which has a lot of challenges and can be a hard system to move but nevertheless is a system, ECE isn’t. It's an amalgamation of many, many different funding sources, each with their own interests and each subject to different regulations from different levels of government, whether federal, state, or local. And that has resulted in a lot of challenges for providers, who struggle to meet all the different requirements from different government agencies, as well as for families, who have to contend with a maze of different, non-intersecting requirements. This fragmentation is a topic that the ECE field talks and worries a lot about, and it is something that philanthropy is trying its best to address. But the numbers here suggest a lot of dispersion, despite what in my experience has been a high level of collaboration in the early childhood grantmaking community.

Shannon Rudisill: I agree that we are still a long way from a cohesive early childhood system, but when I look at this data, I draw a different insight.  Due to the lack of adequate public funding, I see a layer of philanthropic funding spread thin across a lot of areas. There are so many bases to be covered because there is no publicly-funded system. If we had a system, philanthropy could concentrate resources on innovation, cutting-edge professional development, or driving changes to an already functioning system. But a lot of funders are just trying to provide basic spaces for care because there is such a shortage. By any measure, only a third — or fewer — of eligible families are getting the public subsidies they need to pay for care. And what you get when you have an environment of scarcity like that is people trying to cover a lot of bases with limited dollars.

Barbara Chow: As for the more specific takeaways, there's a part of the map that lets you look at the kinds of strategies that foundations employ in supporting the field, and a couple of things really jumped out at me. One is that the level of general operating support — which is usually considered to be a best practice in philanthropy — is pretty small in the ECE space. In 2015, it was 14.6 percent, compared to 20.7 percent for K-12 funding. There are a lot of reasons for that, but it struck me as something we need to investigate. What also struck me was the level of support for policy and systems change, 5 percent, which is close to what we see in K-12 funding and is actually a little higher than what we see for the philanthropic sector overall. But given the importance of public funding in this field, it still seemed like a relatively low number to me.

Shannon Rudisill: I had the same takeaway as Barbara did in terms of the levels of public versus private investment. One of the things that ECFC has been particularly good at over the years is helping people think about the best use of private dollars in leveraging public money through public-private partnerships. This is a core ECFC principle. The data shows that to build the system we need for kids and families in this country, it's not going to be funded primarily by philanthropic money. The data helps us identify specific levers and best practices as we start to think about partnering with the public sector.

Foundation Center: Barbara, how do you think your program team members, and, Shannon, your members, will use the map?

Barbara Chow: Shannon already touched on this, but the Heising-Simons Foundation works both in California and nationally. We're already pretty familiar with our colleagues in California — although there are always foundations popping up that we haven’t worked with before. But nationally, for instance on the work we are doing around the ECE workforce, the tool will help us better understand the interests of foundations in states we are less familiar with.

I also foresee it being of assistance to us as we enter into new areas we have not yet worked in but are interested in exploring. The map gives us a set of other foundations and grantees we can look to who have already done work in a specific area and who we can consult with and learn from. For instance, we are interested in further supporting grassroots organizing. If you look at the data for that specific support strategy in the map, it quickly becomes apparent how little support there has been for it in the ECE space. I think it’s an area that is about to break out, but it doesn't yet command a lot of funding. The first name that came up when I searched for foundations supporting grassroots organizing was the Minneapolis Foundation, which is not a group I have worked with before, but now I know they have experience in this area.

It also can be helpful, if you’re working with a grantee for the first time, to speak with other funders of that organization to get a sense of how they work, what challenges they have experienced, and what’s the best way to support them.

Shannon Rudisill: We are seeing a real trend in new funders coming into ECE, whether they are new philanthropists who, after looking at a lot of the evidence, have decided that early childhood is going to be their focus or are funders who fund in related fields but want to add ECE to their portfolios. One of the things we do for new funders is to provide expertise on the topic and connect them with peer funders. The map will be a valuable tool in both orienting people who are new to the field and in helping them identify peers.

Foundation Center: As Barbara mentioned, it's not uncommon for funders to participate in scans that are static. But it's also become common for these scans to remain private. Can you speak to why it was so important to make public availability a guiding design principle of this project?

Barbara Chow: Like many others, we are huge believers in the value of funder collaborations. So, by making this work publicly available, we are hoping to stimulate even more collaboration. We also thought that if the map was made publicly available, many foundations would look at it and realize their data wasn't there. Our hope in making the map public is that it will stimulate other foundations to add their data and, more generally, report their grants data to Foundation Center electronically. There’s a network effect in that which is pretty important, but we only really benefit if the data is publicly available and accessible to lots of people. We very much see this as a first draft. It's a good one, but it will continue to change and get better over time. It's a start, not in any way an end, and the more foundations participate, the better the data will be.

Shannon Rudisill: When you really look at the map and the underlying data, it sparks really interesting conversations and new questions. Every time you look at it you're struck by something else. The biggest value might be the conversations that are sparked by the data.

— Gabi Fitz

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