What's Behind Buffett's Selective ECE Giving?

When a foundation carries Warren Buffett's name, there’s a perception that billions of dollars are available for grantseekers. But that’s not the case with the Buffett Early Childhood Fund, one of the leading early childhood education funders in the U.S. (Read program development director Eva Lester's IP profile).

The fund isn't backed by a major endowment, and their grantmaking is selective. But as an ECE funder, Buffett holds a lot of sway. (See Buffett Early Childhood Fund: Grants for Early Childhood Education).

Without an endowment, the majority of the fund’s grant dollars come from Buffett’s children. Each year, the NoVo Foundation, son Peter’s foundation, and the Sherwood Foundation, daughter Susie’s major philanthropic vehicle, make major gifts to the Early Childhood Fund, which allow for BECF's investments in early childhood education.

It’s a complex giving strategy, but it makes sense. For instance, the Sherwood Foundation -- which works primarily in Omaha and Nebraska -- can contribute grants dollars to national ECE campaigns without shifting the Sherwood's geographic focus.

For fundraisers, Buffett’s approach is pretty focused, and there isn't a lot of opportunity there for attracting the fund's financial support. That can be discouraging, but there are plenty of reasons to pay attention. The fund is a leader in several substantial early learning programs and initiatives, and Buffett is leading the charge in the policy debate. And that's worthy of attention. 

The majority of their grants are focused in three areas: providing educational opportunities to at-risk children, research and advocacy.

Advancing early childhood learning programs is probably their most defined purpose. The fund has been a major investor in Educare, a growing national network of ECE facilities. Buffett was an initial funder of the network, which was created in partnership with Ounce of Prevention, another major ECE organization and grantee of the fund. (Read president Jessie Rasmussen's IP profile).

For fundraisers, this might be their most significant grant-making program, as the Educare Learning Network provides challenge grants each year to communities looking to open Educare centers. Buffett, along with Ounce of Prevention, also provide consulting support for interesting organizations, providing resources to help nonprofits generate private and public support for Educare.

The Educare program definitely provides an in-route for ECE fundraisers looking to work with a longtime Buffett partner, but that doesn't change their closely guarded grant-making strategy. In terms of grants for organizations, it's hard to get on the fund's radar. They don’t accept unsolicited proposals, and they research and vet their own grantees, many of which are longtime partners.

Policy is another focus of the fund that provides support to ECE nonprofits. The fund -- along with a network of other major ECE funders -- is a major supporter of the First Five Years Fund and the Alliance for Early Success.

The Five Years Fund works strictly in policy, providing resources and multimedia exhibits for organizations. Although the program doesn’t provide a ton of direct financial support, it can play an important role for fundraisers, especially those hoping to leverage investments in their ECE nonprofits. The exhibits and resources highlight the importance of early childhood experience, providing a lot of convincing data that can help sway public opinion.

The Alliance for Early Success is also another Buffett-sponsored program that can help out ECE nonprofits. The group provides grants for organizations working in shaping policy, research and building community support, and for ECE organizations, this can play a valuable role. The Alliance accepts grant applications throughout the year, and this might be a reliable funding avenue for organizations.

Buffett also focuses grant dollars on ECE research, particularly Harvard University's Center on the Developing Child and for research at the University of Chicago detailing the economic impact of early childhood education. Both research groups are longtime grantees, a recurring theme in the fund's giving, and that might be what it best boils down to. 

Buffett has a lot of strategic partners in early childhood education, which makes it difficult for organizations to get on their radar, but the majority provide support, whether indirect, through advocacy or cutting-edge research, or direct grant dollars from the Alliance or Educare. Partnerships are key; they can take years to build.