A New National Collaboration on Early Childhood, Backed by Pritzker Wealth

 photo:  Junial Enterprises/shutterstock

photo:  Junial Enterprises/shutterstock

There’s been a lot of movement in the early childhood learning space in the last few years. While some funders have scaled national initiatives, most projects still happen on the local level, like the work the Kenneth Rainin Foundation does in Oakland and the William Penn Foundation does in Philadelphia. Even some funders with national profiles will often take a local focus, like the Detroit-based project the W.K. Kellogg and Kresge foundations recently announced.

    So when a funder does back an ambitious early childhood project at the national level, it’s worth paying attention—especially when we're talking about a billionaire donor who's lately been ramping up his giving.

    J.B. Pritzker and his wife M.K. are the philanthropists behind the Pritzker Children’s Initiative, which has a keen focus on research and policy and has been expanding its activities lately to "promote high quality early learning and development." Now, this outfit is partnering with several national organizations that have strong community ties to enhance local support for young children from birth to age three and their families. The Pritzkers, longtime champions of early childhood learning, put up $6.5 million to support a one-year pilot.

    J.B. Pritzker is one of a number of Pritzker philanthropists that we keep tabs on. But he stands out for his intense focus on early childhood, talking fervently about the issue and becoming an activist mega-donor in this area. Like many proponents of early childhood learning, he sees interventions focused on the first several years of a child's life as the best possible investment a society can make. He also sees such investments as the best way to level the playing field for low-income kids and children of color. 

    Pritzker believes the space has been overlooked by philanthropists, and plenty of his giving has the goal of changing that. Back in 2013, he donated $20 million to the Early Childhood Innovation Accelerator to increase the number of programs operating in the space. He's been a supporter of the Chicago-based Ounce of Prevention Fund and one of the founding supporters of the First Five Years Fund, a national organization advocating for early care and learning programs. He's also funded research at the Pritzker Consortium on Early Childhood Development at the University of Chicago.


    The organizations partnering on this new Pritzker-backed project include the National Association of Counties, National League of Cities, Center for the Study of Social Policy, National Institute for Children’s Health Quality (NICHQ) and StriveTogether. The partnership plans to make sure kids are ready for kindergarten by focusing on healthy births, supporting families and providing high-quality care and learning environments. 

    Just how do they plan to accomplish this?

    One major way is through supporting city and county officials interested in prioritizing early childhood education and connecting them with like-minded leaders in other jurisdictions to share experiences and best practices. That’s one reason for the inclusion of the city and county associations, which have ties to local leaders across the country.

    “While growing numbers of mayors and other city leaders are pursuing early childhood strategies designed to put young children and their families on the path to success, they urgently need promising practices and practical guidance on how to ensure that all children thrive by age three,” said Clifford Johnson, the executive director of the Institute for Youth, Education, and Families, an entity housed within the National League of Cities.

    The idea is to build systems locally, and scale them nationally.

    Jennifer Blatz, the interim CEO at StriveTogether, another partner, spoke to this, saying, “Through cohort learning and data-driven tools, we will help communities reduce disparities, improve developmental outcomes and identify strategies that can be scaled as national best practices to ultimately support the success of every child in the country.”

    It’s worth noting StriveTogether’s involvement in the project. The organization has attracted a lot of philanthropic attention—including a recent $60 million commitment from the Ballmer Group—for its work uniting education leaders from across sectors. Its Cradle to Career Network aimed at improving education outcomes through cross-sector collaboration received support from from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Ballmer Group, the Chan Zuckerberg Institute, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and others. StriveTogether also partnered with the Chan Zuckerberg, the Ford Foundation and several other organizations for the Student at the Center Challenge earlier this month, as we reported

    Lots of grantmaking is going on right now to connect the dots across sectors and change systems with the goal of helping low-income kids of all ages. But the action around early childhood is especially striking, and this new collaboration brought together by the Pritzer's Children Initiative is one more sign that this space is really heating up.