Nail the Metrics: Grant Evaluation for Early Childhood Learning is Tricky

Measuring success can be challenging in early childhood education philanthropy. Unlike elementary and secondary students, it’s difficult for organizations to test younger learners and compile data to show concrete learning gains. How does one test the youngest students between birth to five years old? Clearly, a standardized test isn’t a reliable option.

Establishing qualitative measures is a focus of the PNC Foundation, and it's no surprise. (See PNC Foundation: Grants for Early Childhood Education). The majority of the organization's leaders are bankers first; return on investment plays an important part in the decision-making process.

"Since early childhood education is the focus of our philanthropy, we have had to adapt the standard means of evaluating education grants to account for the audience served," PNC Foundation President and Chair Eva Blum said in an interview with Forbes.com. "Preschool children do not test the way older students test. Their comprehension, language and writing skills are just being developed."

Not only is measurement integral, but it's also well-defined at PNC. (Read PNC Foundation president Eva Blum's IP profile).

"Instead, we evaluate the environment for learning and observe changes in the behavior of children and within families," Blum told Forbes.com. "One factor is to determine teacher confidence and comfort with the subject matter. Another is to evaluate the presence within the classroom of materials and hands-on activities for children to learn."

For every grant the program awards, they analyze impact and "identify areas in need of improvement." Sometimes this is done by a third-party, and many of the foundation's grants include extra dollars for this service. More established organizations with the capacity to test and measure their success — say, the Sesame Street Workshop, a long-time partner and grantee of the foundation — are given more freedom to show their effectiveness.

But this information isn’t wasted; PNC uses it to develop and shape their grant making and share best practices with partners in the field.

In the Forbes.com interview, Blum highlighted two programs that exemplify the foundation’s emphasis on results: PNC’s Grow Up Great with Science and Our Kids and the Arts. With both programs, the foundation looked into their core areas; analyzing teacher confidence, educational opportunities at home, and curriculum resources.

These programs increased learning at home, as they provided rich learning materials to families, and when compared to similar early education programs, both scored higher in teacher confidence and learning environment. In other programs, the foundation has conducted independent research with educators and parents, to determine the impact of their learning materials.

So measuring success is a clear focus of the PNC Foundation, which funds early childhood programs in mostly the eastern United States. This is important for early childhood fundraisers, and those willing to prove their worth are more likely to get their foot in the door at PNC.