Early Childhood Education Funding: Chicago

In recent years, the Second City has established itself as a hub for innovative early childhood education funding. Chicago-based nonprofit Ounce of Prevention founded and continues as a partner in Educare early learning facilities, and has attracted major funding support from top foundations such as The Buffett Early Childhood Fund, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and the Gates Foundation, which have all contributed multi-million-dollar donations.

In addition to varying leves of ECE support from the city’s top foundations (such as the Chicago Community Trust, the MacArthur Foundation, and especially the McCormick Foundation), there is also a stable of other funders that have made this issue area a high priority. For Chicagoland’s early childhood fundraisers, it may be difficult to get into the door of some of the city’s early childhood funders as many do not accept applications, but there still remains a large pool of potential early-ed supporters for organizations offering quality learning opportunities for the city’s at-risk youth.


J.B and M.K. Pritzker Family Foundation

J.B. Pritzker is an heir to the Hyatt hotel chain, and the Pritzker name is emblazoned on at least five foundations in Chicago. But the J.B. and M.K. Pritzker Family Foundation has the biggest impact in the area of early childhood learning, which is their exclusive focus, and the foundation’s support for early learning continues to grow.

In 2013, the foundation announced the first phase of the Early Childhood Innovation Accelerator, a $20-million initial investment " to increase the availability and quality of early childhood education programs for disadvantaged children," and the foundation recently invested an additional $25 million into early childhood programming. . 

The foundation has also been a major investor in Ounce of Prevention and the First Five Years Fund, as well as a variety of other early learning initiatives such as social impact bonds, Pay for Success, and the Pritzker Consortium on Early Childhood Development at the University of Chicago, which makes the foundation a must-know for any early childhood grantseeker.  While conditions could change with the announcement of these “accelerated” investments, the Pritzker Family Foundation has so far kept a fairly guarded grant-making profile— grant guidelines and application materials aren’t available online.

Grand Victoria Foundation

Supported by Illinois' Grand Victoria Casino, the Grand Victoria Foundation seeks to "strengthen early education opportunities for young children, protect natural lands and waterways, and promote economic vitality through robust employment development" with an emphasis on supporting organizations that "champion networks, bring in new partners, improve coordination, adapt to changing circumstances, and build toward solutions at an appropriate scale." The foundation’s stated focus is on "policy, advocacy, and systems change efforts," and funding is available for start-ups or existing programs.

The foundation's geographic focus spans the entire state of Illinois, but Chicago and the surrounding suburbs receive significant attention. Although the foundation’s education grantmaking covers education for all children from infancy to college, early education commands a large share of foundation dollars. Recent recipients' work has included statewide advocacy organization, programs providing support and resources for educators and parents, and advocacy efforts to include the early educational needs of Latino children birth to age eight. Grants in recent years have ranged in size from $15,000 to more than $500,000; grantseekers can review the foundation's grantees from 2009 to the present.

Funding for early childhood organizations comes out of the foundation’s Core Grants division, which awards grants twice per year, and interested applicants must submit letters of inquiry to initiate the application process. 

Irving Harris Foundation

If there is one name that is synonymous with early childhood funding in Chicago, it is Irving Harris. The billionaire businessman founded Ounce of Prevention )a central organization in Chicago’s early ed funding and advocacy landscape) and was a major funder of the Erikson Institute, a graduate school that prepares teachers for careers as early childhood educators.

Today, the Irving Harris Foundation carries on this legacy, providing continued support for a variety of early ed organizations that target low-income and at-risk children.  The foundation's mission, "to enhance quality of life through the creation and development of innovative programs, preventive practices, and public policies that promote social justice, address inequity and create opportunities for creative expression," focuses on the target areas of "Early Childhood, Arts & Culture, Jewish Values and Community giving."

Although the Harris Foundation selects its own grantees, it has cultivated partnerships with a variety of early ed organizations, including Ounce and the First Five Years Fund. Working with these partners might offer the best route for getting on the foundation’s radar.   

Gustafson Family Foundation

Gustafson might not be the most well-known foundation in Chicago, but they deal exclusively in early childhood education, development, and healthcare. The guiding philosophy behind the foundation is closing the achievement gap behind low- and high-income children, and they support a variety of initiatives to accomplish the task, though he most significant focus is on support for early childhood ed programs. Gustafson has been a major funder of projects in the region, with a geographic focus on "Cook and DuPage counties as well as the cities of Aurora and Bolingbrook" and a special preference for organizations serving communities in Chicago's western suburbs.

As a smaller-scale funder, the foundation has a history of working with long-term partners and establishing close relationships with their grantees, who can be reviewed on the foundation's grantmaking history page. "Outstanding leadership" and a vision for a long-term relationship are highly prioritized assets for this funder. Interested grantseekers must first register online and then submit letters of inquiry, keeping in mind that LOIs are only accepted between September 1 and October 31 each year.

Robert R. McCormick Foundation

McCormick is a major player in Chicago philanthropy, and the same is true about the foundation's impact on early childhood education in the city. In recent years, McCormick has focused its efforts on providing grants to bolster early learning service providers, researchers, and advocacy nonprofits, with an emphasis on improving policy, public awareness, and infrastructure, mainly in the Chicago area and the state of Illinois.

Recent funding has been granted to services and programs aimed at infants, toddlers, and their families, quality early childhood teachers and programs, quality leadership (including for principals), family and community outreach efforts, curriculum development and alignment, public policy, and teacher evaluation, professional development, training, and continuing education. Unsolicited proposals are not accepted for McCormick's education program and there is conflicting information on the site regarding unsolicited inquiries. Grant decisions are made every year in May.