Filling a Gap: This Billionaire Couple Steps Up for Early Childhood As Federal Cuts Loom

Sam Zell is a Chicago businessman with a fortune of nearly $5 billion. His wife Helen is a philanthropist with wide interests and liberal views. The couple has been stepping up their giving, and we watch them closely, although we're often struck by the inscrutability of the Zell Family Foundation's giving, and always on the lookout for clues as to where the Zells' philanthropy is going.

Well, here's one issue that clearly is dear to them: early childhood education.

The Zell Foundation recently gave a $10 million to the Ounce of Prevention Fund, a private-public partnership that works to provide all children, especially those from low income families, with "high-quality early childhood experiences from birth to age five."

Early childhood learning is not a new interest for the Zells. Helen Zell has served on the Ounce Board of Directors since 1996, so she knows the issue well. But this is the largest gift ever for the nonprofit, and a big gift for the Zells, too. The Ounce, as it calls itself, hopes that the gift will set a new standard for giving to early childhood education nonprofits across the country.

Related - Zell Family Foundation: Chicago Grants

The Ounce operates several Early Head Start and Head Start programs in Chicago. It also provides home-visiting and doulas to low-income families statewide in Illinois. The Ounce also helped create the first Educare center in Chicago and continues to support 17 of these centers throughout the country. Educare's exemplary programs have helped establish Illinois as a leader among states in demonstrating ways to improve educational outcomes for young children. Many funders have lined up behind the Ounce, most notably the McCormick Foundation. 

Related - McCormick Foundation Believes in an Ounce of Prevention

It's a good thing that the Zell Foundation, like other funders these days, is stepping up its giving for early childhood education. Because even as research points to the big difference this intervention can make in the lives of poor kids, federal investments in ECE and childcare are likely to decline in coming years. While the overall dollar totals of such spending are projected to go up, the Urban Institute estimates that over the next decade, "Despite the dollar increase, early education and care will fall 17 percent as a share of GDP."

You'd never think that given how President Obama has talked up this issue lately. But such is the age we live in: big needs, shrinking budgets. 

Given the scope of these cuts, even large gifts by private funders won't be able to fully make up the difference. But they can definitely mitigate the damage and help sustain the push in many places for expanded early childhood education. 

The Ounce has a vision for how to invest the Zells' money: toward strengthening the skills of early learning professionals, "equipping parents with tools to be leaders of their families and communities," and advancing quality learning policies. 

The Ounce estimates that this new money will impact 6 million children with better early childhood education experiences. And while its work so far has been located in Illinois, it is now planning to have a more national impact with its "research-based program innovations and pioneering professional development models" being brought to more locations.

Related - Helen ZellZell Family Foundation