Education Avengers Assemble: Major Funders Tackle Advocacy Efforts Together

Advocacy is playing an ever-increasing role in education funding efforts, with more and more foundations seeking to influence public policy. In the charter school sphere, this strategy is probably the clearest, as funders like the Walton Family Foundation provide almost as many grants for lobbying as they do for actual schools. The same could be said about early childhood education; it’s playing out on a smaller scale. In fact, many major childhood education funders have aligned behind two national advocacy groups — the First Five Years Fund and the Alliance for Early Success — to help shape public opinion. Simply put, learning begins in the first five years of life.

The two programs are supported by the same group of foundations: Buffett Early Childhood Fund, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Irving Harris Foundation, the Packard Foundation, George Kaiser Family Foundation, JB and MK Pritzker Family Foundation, and an anonymous foundation. (See W.K. Kellogg: Grants for Early Childhood Education; Gates Foundation: Grants for Early Childhood Education).

For early childhood fundraisers this is an important group of donors, and they wield the most influence in early childhood funding. But these partnerships also highlight the importance advocacy plays in their strategies.

The First Five Years Fund has a specific goal to sway public opinion, whether that's the opinion of parents, policy-makers, or businesses, and their efforts are focused in a few different ways.

The Fund hosts events and provides resources for policy-makers, journalists, and businesses, with the goal of helping explain the need for increased early childhood funding. The Fund’s Invest in Us campaign provides a traveling multimedia exhibit that shows how early learning impacts children and leads to their future success.

For fundraisers, The First Five Years Fund is an interesting organization. Not only is it well-connected, but their resources can also be valuable for leveraging funds for an group. In the past, they've worked with organizations to help bolster fundraising efforts — not with million-dollar grants, but instead by helping convince donors of the need for early childhood funders.

The Alliance is another key grantee, and through the support of those major foundations, the organization is also a grant-maker itself. Their focus is in three areas: advocacy, knowledge, and leadership training.

For grantseekers, the Alliance provides support in these three areas, and they accept unsolicited proposals throughout the year. With their A-List group of backers, this is a grant-source you won’t want to pass up. 

In terms of advocacy, early childhood efforts aren't nearly as aggressive as those of their charter school peers. Of course, the early childhood debate isn't nearly as contentious as charter schools, and that's probably one reason these early learning funders' efforts aren't as closely watched.

But the fact that they have all come together behind the First Five Fund and the Alliance certainly shows their willingness to form and develop strong partnerships to advance the issue. For early childhood advocacy organizations, it's certainly something to watch unfold.

Public opinion is evolving to recognize the importance of early childhood education. For example, it plays strongly into President Obama's education policy. And as the issue continues to gain public support, funding — not just from these major donors, but from other foundations with an interest in education — will likely follow.