Early Learning Emerges for Investment Growth Among Education Funders

In February, 2019, Grantmakers for Education released the tenth anniversary edition of Trends in Education Philanthropy: Benchmarking 2018-19.   A decade ago, the first Trends benchmarking study sought to provide GFE members and other funders with insight on evolving priorities in the education funding community.  The report has continued to serve as an essential resource for helping funders to understand their role in supporting education innovation and identify future priorities that hold the greatest promise.

Big Picture Trends: Investment in Early Learning and Social and Emotional Learning (SEL)

Two major trends of interest to early childhood funders stand out in the report based on the speed with which they have emerged, cross-cutting focus, and scale of current or potential impact on education philanthropy. 

One of these stand-out trends is a markedly increased focus among education funders on the learning stages before (and after) K-12 education.  Some of the largest gains in shares of funders and biggest anticipated increases in support reported by GFE’s respondents were for early learning, postsecondary education and preparation for career and workforce.

The report also indicates that education funders have ramped up support for strategies embracing the whole learner and learners’ holistic development, fueled by a growing body of research on the impact of social and emotional intelligence and family and community supports on learners’ academic and life success. Respondents cited social and emotional learning as the factor or trend they think has the greatest potential for a positive impact on education over the next five years.   

"More funders are investing in early childhood, which takes a whole child and whole community approach. The reported increased interest in social and emotional learning and family and community engagement in K-12 creates opportunities to work together across children’s educational pathways."
Shannon Rudisill
Executive Director, ECFC

A growing national awareness of the importance — and effectiveness — of supporting America’s youngest learners is emerging among education grantmakers. Among the 91 grant makers surveyed, one-third reported funding early learning (birth to age 5) efforts. While this is a small number of overall funders investing in education (4% of the education related philanthropy reported), the growth potential in early learning philanthropy is exciting:

  • Over half of those funding early learning (58%) anticipated increasing their 
          in early learning in the next two years, the highest percentage among all the
          education priorities tracked by the survey.
  • Grant makers rated early-childhood programs among the highest-impact
          areas of focus for grant making.
  • They also rate investing in early learning as a top positive trend in the field.

Factors cited as driving the growth in funder support for early learning are the growing understanding of the critical importance of preparing young learners for success prior to beginning kindergarten, as well as increased public interest and investment in early learning.   As one survey responded concluded, “If we address the front end of the education continuum, we won’t have to invest in fixing the back end.”

Grantmakers Are Leading Change in Early Learning

The GFE Trends report highlights the work of ECFC member foundations in Pennsylvania working together to move high quality early learning programs (GFE Trends Report, Funder Spotlight: Catalyzing Engagement in State-Level Early Learning Policy.  (Related article: ECFC Member Spotlight – Funder Collaboration to Engage Business Leaders in Early Learning).

Although philanthropy cannot (and should not) be a substitute for adequate government funding, the collaboration of Pennsylvania funders highlighted in the GFE report is proving that funders can leverage and strengthen government funding by stepping up to play a catalytic role for which foundations are well suited – supporting and sustaining small organizations to achieve real results, and in some cases leading to large-scale change.

Like their Pennsylvania colleagues, ECFC members around the country are working to improve systems at the national, state, and local levels.  ECFC members support advocacy efforts at the federal and state levels, support systemic reforms to serve families with two-generation approaches, and take a whole-child approach through new services for parenting and early childhood mental health. 

"It’s refreshing, in divisive times, to find something that unites us — something so basic and sensible that almost everyone holds it in high regard. Consensus is hard to come by, and the list of things that bring us together can seem distressingly short. But increasingly, early childhood programs are making the cut. From parents and politicians to voters and venture capitalists, there’s a growing national awareness of the importance — and effectiveness — of supporting America’s youngest learners. And according to the latest survey from Grantmakers for Education, foundations are following suit."
Commentary by Gregg Behr and Kristen Burns, Executives of The Grable Foundation
Featured in the Chronicle of Philanthropy Opinion piece, In a Time of Division, Education Funding Should Unite Foundations (April 2018)

Looking Ahead: Critical Questions Shaping the Future of Education

The GFE report notes that the observations and insights shared by survey respondents suggest clear reason for optimism, and pose the important questions for reflection, including:

  • Will funders substantially re-allocate resources to help early childhood
          education and social and emotional learning reach their potential?
  • Do we have the collaborative relationships in place with one another and
          partners in other sectors to have a meaningful impact on the priorities we
          have identified?

ECFC is committed to addressing these questions by building the capacity of foundations to make effective early childhood investments and facilitating connections for joint learning and joint action for early childhood funders. 

Related Reflections  

 In a Time of Division, Education Funding Should Unite Foundations (April 2019), Chronicle of Philanthropy Opinion Piece by Gregg Behr and Kristen Burns, The Grable Foundation.

The GFE Trends report has spurred a national dialogue about education reform and shifting trends among education funders via news articles and opinion pieces from prominent voices in the field. Visit the Report home page for additional philanthropy pieces on workforce training, equity, whole learner approaches and other themes in the report.