Recent research and advocacy efforts have led funders, politicians, and the business community to agree that the first years of a child’s life can determine the rest of their development. Across ideological divides, there is consensus that investing early makes sense—it helps children prepare for successful futures and creates a high return on investment of public dollars.
We are excited to see so many foundations and corporations adopt or expand philanthropic commitments to early care and education (ECE). Through our work with more than a dozen funders, such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Houston Endowment, on their early care and education efforts, we have learned that this space is highly complex, dynamic, and challenging to navigate, but that funders of any size have a real opportunity to help create a system where all children can thrive.
In our new guide, we share 7 principles that we have found to be crucial for ensuring success:
- Connect Siloed Dots: Fragmentation and silos create a diverse but disconnected sector—funders have an opportunity to catalyze connections and trust among varied actors.
- Double Down on Family Engagement: Families should be at the center of shaping, implementing, and evaluating the many facets of early care and education systems change work.
- Embrace the Tensions: Different settings, standards, and social norms create tension—successful systems change efforts must face, rather than circumvent, these tensions.
- Factor in Market Forces: Childcare is an industry of small business owners competing for customers—supporting this industry means thinking beyond traditional grantmaking.
- Play the (Not So) Long: Long-term systems change strategies in early care and education must be coupled with short-term successes that foster and sustain commitment.
- Expand Your Outcome Horizon: It is possible—and critical—to track indicators of incremental systems change on the long-term path to better outcomes for children.
- Adapt to Twists and Turns: The dynamic context of early care and education means that strategies must be agile and regularly subjected to rigorous reflection and course correction.
We hope these 7 principles help funders more deeply understand and anticipate the challenges and opportunities of investing in early care and education, leading to better design, implementation, and evaluation of their investments.