Big Money, Small Kids: A Billionaire Steps Up Yet Again for Early Childhood

It isn’t surprising that J.B. Pritzker just gave another $5 million for early childhood education. Neither is it shocking that the recipient organization is Chicago-based. The most recent grantee of one of the nation’s leading ECE philanthropists is the Ounce of Prevention Fund, a public-private partnership focusing on years zero through five. The grant is aimed at low-income children, who have been shown to lag behind their peers as they enter kindergarten and elementary.

The Pritzker family always makes our head spin, because there's so damn many of them, and they have their fingers in a lot of philanthropic pots.

So as with all things Pritzker, it’s helpful to know which branch of the 30-billion-dollar family this money comes from. J.B. Pritzker and his wife head up the J.B. and M.K. Pritzker Family Foundation. A subset of that foundation, the Pritzker Children’s Initiative funds research and programmatic work to further ECE in underserved communities.

The Ounce of Prevention Fund (The Ounce) receives Pritzker’s money on a regular basis, but this grant raises the bar. The Ounce plans to use the funds to host the National Summit on Quality in Home Visiting, a forum dedicated to a practice that can especially help the children of poverty. Additional Ounce programs that’ll benefit from the Pritzker grant include efforts to help parents and educators navigate the early childhood years, as well as more research.

The Ounce is a high-viability, well-connected organization (its president, Diana Rauner, is married to Illinois governor Bruce Rauner). As such, it relies on funds from some big-name donors in Chicago and around the nation, including Kellogg, Gates, the Buffett Early Childhood Fund, the Irving Harris Foundation, billionaire couple Sam and Helen Zell, and the McCormick Foundation.


In that rarified company, J.B. Pritzker is an undisputed leader. He’s a founding supporter of the First Five Years Fund, another prominent Chicago organization in this space. He funds research at the Pritzker Consortium on Early Childhood Development at the University of Chicago. His past grantmaking also includes $25 million to a federal partnership (Invest in US) to invest in early childhood education as well as a separate smaller foundation dedicated to the issue—the now-sunsetting Pritzker Early Childhood Foundation.

Pritzker has maintained that philanthropic investment (and government dedication) to early childhood development is very much lacking. His giving is as much about spreading the word as it is about delivering services. In 2013, he put $20 million into the Early Childhood Innovation Accelerator, an effort to increase the number of operating ECE programs (another big funder behind that initiative, interestingly, was Goldman Sachs).

As his funding record hints, Pritzker takes an interest in thought leadership in the early childhood development field. Partnering with the Bridgespan Group, the Pritzker Children’s Initiative put together a report laying out the case for more investment in this field, from the public sector in particular. One thing is clear: while early childhood education might not yet be at the national level Pritzker envisions, awareness is on the rise, and with it prospects for funding.