A Foundation Fueled by Tech Wealth Scales Up a Better Way to Help New Mothers

photo:  Rob Marmion/shutterstock

photo:  Rob Marmion/shutterstock

A healthcare nonprofit that says it provides cost-effective care for mothers and young children just scored $4 million to expand its program into underserved communities with poor health outcomes.

The money is going to the Centering Healthcare Institute, which pioneered a group healthcare model that brought new and expecting parents together for classes on prenatal and child care. The institute plans to expand to 130 new sites with the funding from the Valhalla Charitable Foundation, with a focus on low-income communities.

The institute started with the prenatal class after asking why doctors only share information one patient at a time, when they could deliver the same information to a group of people. Group classes were more cost-effective and allowed expecting mothers to connect with others in their communities going through the same thing.

The institute reported strong results from its prenatal group care, claiming the class lowered the frequency of preterm births overall, and closed the preterm birth gap for African American women. The institute believes it could push the needle on gestational diabetes, postpartum depression, breastfeeding and family planning, too.

There aren't as many funders working on these critical issues as you might think. One big player is the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which has backed initiatives that encourage breastfeeding, among other efforts aimed at improving outcomes for newborn babies and their mothers. 

The combination of lower cost and social support for new mothers caught the foundation’s attention, said Signe Ostby, Valhalla’s president and wife of billionaire Intuit founder Scott Cook. With good reason, the U.S. leads the world in healthcare spending per person despite similar life expectancies in countries that spend less, so any effective, cost-cutting measures would be a welcome development.

The Valhalla Charitable Foundation is the philanthropic vehicle of Cook and Ostby. This funder doesn't have a website, but according to its tax forms, it supports a diverse group of initiatives, from funding farms in sub-Saharan Africa to the YMCA. It cited its support of early childhood development as a motivator behind the donation to the Centering Healthcare Institute.

Related: Scott Cook and Signe Ostby

Early childhood development is having a moment among funders. Research shows that the early years of a kid’s life are crucial to her development and long-term success. Funders see an opportunity to make a big, long-lasting difference in children’s lives when they invest in early development programs. 

Most of these initiatives focus on the education side of early childhood development, rather than health. Even fewer include the health and wellness of the parent in their efforts. The Centering Healthcare Institute is different. Classes focus on the health of the child and the mother by encouraging discussions about wellness and self-care, nutrition, interconception health, mindfulness and family dynamics.

While the institute stands out, it’s far from the only group educating parents to improve health outcomes for young children. The First Five Year Fund and Ounce of Prevention Fund both mentor young parents through home visits. Both have attracted the attention and funding of the J.B. Pritzker Foundation, a big player in early childhood development, as we've reported. The Robert R. McCormick Foundation has also backed the Ounce of Prevention Fund, which focuses its work in Illinois. Neither fund emphasizes the group learning approach, with its promise of lower healthcare costs, though.

The donation to the Centering Healthcare Institute is an unusually large one for Valhalla, which rarely reports gifts over $1 million. It will be interesting to see what the foundation’s plans for the institute and other projects in the early childhood space are for the future, and whether the institute can attract the interest of other funders looking to lower healthcare costs and increase outcomes for low-income kids. 

Regardless, given the substantial wealth that's waiting in the wings, here, and the fact that Cook and Ostby have signed the Giving Pledge, it's worth keeping a close eye on the Valhalla Charitable Foundation in coming years.