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When It Comes to Young Children, It’s Time for Philanthropy to Stop Thinking Small

Date: July 21, 2022

Jessie Rasmussen

President, Buffett Early Childhood Fund

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Philanthropy has never had an opportunity like we now have to make a meaningful difference in the lives and futures of America’s youngest kids. Big, private investments in early childhood advocacy can be a game-changer for millions of families.

Many lawmakers see early childhood policy to be a bipartisan common ground in an increasingly polarized political environment. No wonder. Polls show that voters across the political spectrum are crying out and want relief when it comes to child care.

The polling is not surprising given what we’re also learning from the RAPID survey, which since April 2020 has gathered information from a diverse mix of nearly 14,000 parents of young children in all 50 states. In March 2021, RAPID added a survey of early childhood providers and, so far, has gathered data from nearly 2,600 child care providers.

The findings are troubling.

Given the pandemic, inflation, the ending of federal relief efforts, and other factors, parents are facing greater hardships and experiencing more distress. To make matters worse, families with young children are experiencing disruptions to child care, in part because child care providers themselves are facing increased hunger, hardship, and disruptions to their own employment. Plus, given the field’s chronically low compensation, finding staff to work in child care homes and centers is a huge challenge.

For most people in philanthropy, the return on investing in the early years, especially for those families from under-resourced and marginalized communities, is old news. The clear brain science, the reams of longitudinal studies, and generations of family stories of success are today the starting point for discussions about how to best prepare America’s youngest kids to reach their full potential.

Unfortunately, how we in philanthropy act on that knowledge has not evolved significantly. While we prioritize evidence and outcomes and invest in organizations accordingly, we continue to think small. Investing in effective programs and service delivery is essential, but we will never reach all children or achieve anything close to equity without parallel investments in policy change.

The White House and federal lawmakers allocated historic levels of funding to state governments for pandemic relief and other aid through last year’s American Rescue Plan. Much of that relief — including the Child Tax Credit — has expired. Some federal lawmakers are looking at ways to do more before their mid-term elections in November.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers, too, are eager to act. In these past few months, early childhood advocates and policymakers worked together in states to achieve significant additional gains for young children and families. Browsing a recap of state actions shows additional public investments, restructured agencies, and other gains.

Philanthropic investment can accelerate progress: It can inform better policymaking, ensure states are more equitably distributing any remaining federal relief funds, promote innovation, modernize data systems, provide talent to fill important vacancies in key jobs, support community planning grants, evaluate effectiveness, expand what works, and amplify success stories — all of which is necessary to sustain public investment. And sustained public investment is what it’ll take to make sure every child gets a good start in life.

In short, if you’ve been thinking about where and how to make a major impact with your funds, join us and others in funding early childhood policy efforts in your state and across the country.

I’ve seen up close the difference such investments can make. I served as a state senator in the Nebraska legislature for four years and then as the state human services director in both Nebraska and Iowa. My tenure in state government made it crystal clear to me that the strong support of young children is foundational to the success of our communities and states — and that new ways of doing business paired with higher levels of public-private investment are too rarely discussed.

When I left state government, the importance of investing in the early years was becoming more widely understood. I became the director of early childhood policy for the Nebraska Children and Families Foundation, an organization that took the lead in the development and successful passage of statewide early childhood legislation in 2006 by establishing Sixpence, a $60 million early childhood endowment funded through an uncommon public-private partnership. Today I serve as president of the Buffett Early Childhood Fund, where we have for 17 years pursued a parallel strategy of investing in proven programs and policy advocacy, all informed by science.

This includes partnering with a dozen or so philanthropies to support the Alliance for Early Success, which invests in every state to improve early learning, health, and family support for children from birth to age eight. The Alliance is an easy way for funders to co-invest, coordinate efforts, and maximize impact in states. What’s more, the Alliance partners around federal advocacy with the First Five Years Fund, another collaboratively funded policy organization.

The result of co-investing in a 50-state strategy like the Alliance is year-after-year increases — to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars across the country — in new, permanent state investments in the high-quality programs that help communities flourish by helping our youngest children start strong.

Families, providers, state early-childhood organizations, policymakers, and investors are working together in many states (take a look at Oregon, Alabama, Colorado, and New Jersey) to permanently scale high-quality early childhood programs. And more foundations — like Pivotal Ventures and Imaginable Futures — are adding early childhood policy advocacy to their portfolios.

There’s another fundamental reason to invest in state policy advocacy: If you are focused on improving racial equity, a vast and seemingly obvious place to start is early in life, by supporting policies that help each family best prepare their children for success. About 40 percent of the early childhood workforce are women of color who earn less than their peers, a historic inequity that needs to be changed. Smarter policymaking will help, and philanthropy can be the lever that makes the difference.

Here’s the bottom line: Young children lack the political influence to drive public investment, create partnerships, and make change. At the same time, many foundations with early childhood priorities continue the tradition of shying away from state policy advocacy, even though such advocacy is an essential tool to the success of these grantmakers’ missions. Now is the time to act.

Jessie Rasmussen is president of Buffett Early Childhood Fund, based in Omaha, Nebraska.

Editor’s Note: CEP publishes a range of perspectives. The views expressed here are those of the authors, not necessarily those of CEP.

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