Hey, Billionaires: Here's a Shovel-Ready Plan for Changing Kids' Lives

After several decades of historic wealth accumulation, nearly 50 Americans now have a net worth over $10 billion and any number of mega-billionaires are now turning to philanthropy in a big (or bigger) way. We're talking about people like Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Ballmer, Ray Dalio, Steve Cohen, Michael Bloomberg, Laurene Powell Jobs, Sean Parker, the Google Guys, and more beyond that. 

This is the context for the Bridgespan Group's recent exploration of where America's billionaires might direct funds with great impact. The consulting group went in search of ways to boost social mobility and life chances for low-income Americans with $1 billion investments, and issued an overview report in May of six "billion-dollar bets" that could yield major returns for philanthropists. 

Now, Bridgespan is back with a deep dive into one of these bets, which focuses on early childhood development. 

This research is significant because Bridgespan very much has the attention of top new philanthropists and has lots of experience guiding donors in making big investments. So while we all have lots of ideas for how billionaires should give, Bridgespan has an unusual degree of hands-on know-how in orchestrating such giving. 

The last piece of context, here, is that early childhood education is red-hot right now, both for public and philanthropic funders. 

President Obama took the lead in 2014, proposing a $1 billion public-private campaign to expand access to preschool programs for children across the country. Meanwhile, over a half-dozen funders have joined together in the First Five Years Fund (FFYF) to push for a greater investment in early ed. Members of the FFYF include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundationthe Buffett Early Childhood Fund, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Irving Harris Foundation, the Packard Foundation, the George Kaiser Family Foundation, and Heising-Simons Foundation. Chicago philanthropist J.B. Pritzker is a FFYF supporter too. 

Other early childhood education efforts are ongoing among funders, including by the Bezos Family Foundation, as we've reported. 


So what is Bridgespan proposing in this space? It recommendations are contained in a report, “Billion Dollar Bets to Increase Early Childhood Development,” released this week. Study co-author Debby Bielak tells us, “With new research definitively showing that the foundation for life success begins in a child’s earliest years, our team set out to identify types of investments to help us move towards a future when all children in the U.S. have access to high-quality developmental experiences.” The path to academic success is blocked for a child who begins kindergarten without the abilities to learn and adapt to the classroom like his or her peers.

So how, exactly, can philanthropists make a difference during this crucial period? Relying on published research and data, the authors suggest a half-dozen investment approaches to "holistic childhood development" from birth through kindergarten. The focus is squarely on research and technology. More specifically, the authors argue for investments that support "greater understanding of how to effectively link diagnostics of early childhood development with the right suite of programs, services, and interventions" and seeding the market for "tech-enabled tools that can increase the effectiveness of adult-child interactions in informal as well as formal settings (e.g., parenting skills tutorials, information for FFN care, and social- and emotional-development curricular supports for daycare providers)."

Why the focus on tech? The authors suggest this is a "highly leveraged approach, with low cost per child and the potential to reach all of the adults who can help support a child’s early development." And they envision these investments as complementing "numerous other philanthropic investments necessary to achieve kindergarten readiness for children nationwide."

In other words, Bridgespan doesn't see its suggestions as a definitive answer for boosting our youngest kids. Rather, this is a specific area where philanthropists can cut in to a big challenge to make a big difference. 

The emphasis on technology is likely to resonate with many of the new funders emerging, quite a few whom are from the tech world, and Bridgespan is clearly mindful of that. Bielak tells us the hope is that tech billionaires will see they can create significant social change by investing in their own industry.

Also, this report's point about the return on investment that donors can expect is very much in line with the thinking of today's new donors, who want to see metrics of success. It estimates that large infusions of philanthropic capital for these bets could return between $5 and $11 on every dollar spent. The gains would be enjoyed by individuals and their families through higher lifetime earnings because they had the math and literacy skills to finish high school and earn a diploma.  

Tech billionaires—of which Forbes has identified 159—have a rare opportunity with early childhood development because it represents low-touch, high-impact investing with a clear purpose.