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5 Top Takeaways from the Conversation: Early Childhood Philanthropic Leaders Discuss Deploying Risk Capital

Because we can’t take our Early Learning Nation Studio on the road during this time, stay tuned as ELN recaps Top Takeaways from important webinars, town halls and virtual events from the Early Learning field. Read them all and join the conversation! And visit our Early Learning Nation channel on YouTube for interviews with leaders from education, child development, business, politics and more.

The pandemic isn’t letting us get back to business as usual yet. In the case of foundations with missions centered on young children, it’s compelling a thorough re-evaluation of assumptions and methods. Making grants the way foundations did in 2019 would mean overlooking acute crises in communities across the country as well as the underlying inequities that Covid has exposed.

Foundation officers not only see the importance of expediting support to children whose households are at greatest risk of the health and economic fallout—they also recognize that even the foundations with largest coffers will achieve greater impact through collaboration. This is no time to go it alone.

On September 1, the Hunt Institute presented the third in a series of conversations on this topic, featuring:

Dan Wuori, The Hunt Institute’s Director of Early Learning, once again moderated the conversation. He set the scene by reminding the participants of steep declines in state revenues and the resulting reductions in pre-K funding. Here are our takeaways from the conversation.

👉 Our Top Takeaways from the June 16 conversation
👉 Our Top Takeaways from the July 21 conversation

1. The emergency continues. Dr. Davis said she makes a point of showing up and engaging with the communities her grants are intended to help. She reported, “They’re dealing with food deserts, inadequate housing and poorly funded schools. All this puts pressure on families and is driving abuse and neglect.” Hau added, “Quality early child experience is a human right. It’s not just about parents getting to work.”

2. Trauma endures. Hau noted that research in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and other disasters unmistakably points to the long-term consequences of trauma. Philanthropy can and should help build the infrastructure for ongoing support. Aside from the inevitable rise in inequities, she said that “young girls are affected more, as well as children who were already vulnerable owing to prior experiences.”

3. Inclusion and equity are more than buzzwords. Citing Mahatma Gandhi’s dictum What you do for me, without me, you do against me, Dr. Davis urged her fellow grant makers to welcome people to the table who are part of the solution. “We can’t abandon this equity charge,” she said. “It is a moral imperative.” For Dr. Bruno, embracing the strengths of diverse communities has become increasingly urgent, as opposed to clinging to what she called the “deficit models” of the past.

4. Data matters. While Dr. Davis underscored the importance of data by saying, “Without benchmarking, we can’t measure progress,” it’s safe to say that nobody on the panel appreciated data quite like Dr. Bruno. Her organization makes grants for research and program evaluation rather than operational support, and at first she felt sidelined by the pandemic, but then it hit her: We need data today more than ever, so we know what works and what doesn’t. “Research,” she said, “allows and forces us to hold ourselves accountable.” Referring to the troubling history of social science, she admitted, “The early seminal studies we all cite were racist. I know—I took part.” To rectify this situation, she called for putting researchers of color on leadership teams.

5. Solutions abound. “Philanthropy is risk capital,” Hau said. “We can demonstrate what’s possible so public dollars can scale up.” She said she was pleased to see collaboration among unusual suspects during the pandemic, citing the private sector’s support of child care for essential workers as an example, which she called “infrastructure investment that’s here to stay.” Collaboration with other sectors enables foundations to think bigger and more ambitiously.

Mark Swartz writes for and about nonprofit organizations. He lives in Takoma Park, MD, with his wife and two children.

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