Funder Collaboration to Engage Business Leaders in Early Learning

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A conversation with ECFC members: Michelle M. Figlar, The Heinz Endowments; Kristen A. Burns, The Grable Foundation; and Jennifer Stavrakos, William Penn Foundation.

Whether you define success for Pennsylvania as a stronger economy, reduced crime, successful students, or thriving communities, high-quality early childhood education is the key.

That is the cornerstone of the Pennsylvania Early Learning Investment Commission (Commission), a partnership of business leaders dedicated to making the success of every child in Pennsylvania a top priority.  With long-term support from ECFC members — The Heinz Endowments, The Grable Foundation and the William Penn Foundation, and the recent addition of The Vanguard Group, Inc. — the non-partisan Commission works to inform business leaders about the benefits of early learning to improve Pennsylvania’s future economy, and about the need to invest in educationally, economically, and scientifically sound early learning programs.

Pennsylvania Funder Collaboration to Engage BusinessCelebrating its 10-year anniversary, the Commission was born out of funding for Pre-K Counts, an effort to inform the public and policymakers about the compelling benefits of early learning funded by the three foundations.  The Commission was officially established by Executive Order in 2008 as a public-private partnership and has served through three administrations.  Today, the Commission engages more than sixty appointed Commissioners from the business and public sectors. The Commission’s work of raising awareness, supporting policy and budget investments, and working in local communities to expand access to high quality early learning is broken down into four core areas:

  • Business leadership education and engagement
  • Outreach to policymakers
  • Media connection
  • Development of local and regional coalitions of business leaders

The Commission works closely with the Governor’s office as well as the Pennsylvania Office of Child Development and Early Learning. The Governor’s office has been an important and essential connection in enabling the Commission to grow, adapt, and remain relevant. Briefings and communications organized by Commission staff have helped increase Commissioners’ understanding of policies and their impact on the state and their home communities. The Commission has also nurtured a strong group of business leaders comfortable with making policy recommendations that are based on a deep understanding of what the Governor seeks to accomplish, even if the Commission does not ultimately agree with the Administration.

“Prior to joining The Heinz Endowments, I served as Deputy Secretary for the Pennsylvania Office of Child Development and Early Learning (OCDEL), and as Executive Director of the Pittsburgh Association of Early Childhood Development.  I have seen the Commission at every stage and from multiple vantage points in non-profit, government and philanthropy. When I came to Heinz in 2016, I knew we needed to keep resources on the table for the Commission to be relevant in the advocacy long-game, and to be able to raise a strong and collective business voice for a broader range of early childhood issues.”

Michelle Figlar
The Heinz Endowments

Foundations have played a critical supporting role in the evolution of the Commission in several different ways. They have funded the initial campaign that inspired the Commission’s creation, have continued to provide support for staff and operations, and serve as planning partners in moving the Commission towards a broader focus and more diverse fundraising strategy for long-term sustainability.


The collaboration that launched the Commission was aligned with initiatives of all three foundations to increase and improve high quality learning experiences for young children, a critical element of school readiness and academic success.  The ongoing engagement of business leaders was and continues to be a key aspect of this work. The business community’s messages about why early learning matters bring a new perspective to an old conversation, and elevate early learning to a necessity for building strong families, employers and a future workforce.

“When a CEO gives a talk or visits a policymaker, no one expects him or her to begin with the importance of early learning. The Commission has raised the visibility of early childhood issues with remarkable knowledge and enthusiasm. Authentic collaboration among core funders helps make this possible.”
Kristen Burns
The Grable Foundation


Being nimble and adapting to change

The funders agree that being nimble has been critical, understanding that the Commission would change and evolve to take on the next (and the next, and next) challenge impacting the early childhood field.  The foundations needed to continually evaluate this work and ask: How and why was the Commission working? What did it need to adapt and grow?  How did it complement or duplicate other business commissions coming up in the state?

In this process, the Commission and its funders realized that to remain a strong advocate for early childhood, the Commission would need to expand its focus beyond Pre-K to sustain early childhood systems change at-large.  At the beginning of the Commission, it was important to have a narrower purpose to engage business leaders who wanted to understand why they should care about investments in early childhood programs.  The initial focus on Pre-K broadened over time to include other compelling companion issues such as the cost of child care for infants, home visiting and workforce issues for early childhood program providers.

Assessing what is needed to strengthen a model that is working
To help the Commission expand its focus, the foundations stepped up to provide additional resources for strategic planning that would help grow and strengthen its model and to bring new thinking to the table.

For example, Commissioners were being engaged at different levels and had different base knowledge of early childhood issues. Some had a very sophisticated understanding of the early learning space – and especially the implications for future workforce — and some were even advocating for change in their own companies and the corporate world to support early learning investments and policies. However, expanding the focus beyond Pre-K was, for some, like starting from scratch.  The funders were able to provide supports and tools to help the Commission understand the broader components of a quality early childhood system, such as child care, home visiting, and workforce support, and how and why they work together.

Being honest about funding
The three foundations have served as the primary funders for this work for more than a decade, providing aligned grants to the Commission’s organizational home to support staffing and operations.  Although the foundations have a continued funding interest, they knew that they alone could not sustain the Commission long-term.  The foundations were able to present a unified voice to help the Commission understand that long-term sustainability required expanding and diversifying its funding sources. They engaged the Commission in conversations about bringing in other funding partners, and about individual Commissioners’ willingness to raise money. Because of the foundations’ collective and honest approach to these conversations, the Commission understood and took the message to heart.  The results have been impressive. In addition to moving its organizational home to a non-profit organization to give the Commission the ability to fundraise, the Commission has exceeded its fundraising expectations in only a few months.   Corporate and individual support – including Commissioners going back to their businesses and fundraising, as well as making personal donations – has not only diversified the PA ELIC funding, but it has created a visible and impressive demonstration of the importance of early learning policy and investment in the business community – a signal that this matters and it has further invested the business community in the success of the Commission and the early learning space generally.

Sharing the responsibility
While the work of the Commission is important to  each foundation, it is not always front and center due to other foundation priorities taking precedence at various times. Because of the three funders’ long-term commitment to collaboration, and previous relationships and trust among the foundations, they have been able to rotate the heavy lifting at times so that the work can be sustained.   Since the work of the Commission is driven by public and private partners, the direction and outcomes are often unknown, which can be uncomfortable for private funders.  Long-term alignment of funding to support the Commission reduces the risk each foundation individually takes and demonstrates to other public and private funders that this work is essential and a viable option for their own investments.

Greater collective impact 
The foundations came together to support the staff and other costs associated with the Commission’s operations because they realized that the established benefits of early learning were not known to many important stakeholders outside of the education sphere.  It was clear to the funders then that by collectively supporting this new public-private initiative, a key constituency and ultimate beneficiary of early learning would be informed about its importance.

The Commission was a key player in recommending and supporting a Pre-K legislation line item and increased funding in the state.  The Commission’s actions have also helped preserve funding at times when early childhood financing was at risk.

“The Commission is a geographically diverse group of prominent Pennsylvania business leaders who are deeply informed and engaged in the ways that early childhood issues impact the State and their communities. These leaders have been effective in using their networks to educate their colleagues and peers as well as amplify the messages of the Commission.”
Jennifer Stavrakos
William Penn Foundation

The state has also seen a 48% increase in the number of children able to attend pre-K, and $117 million in new funding for early childhood education to serve more than 3,300 additional children and their families in Pennsylvania.   Increases in funding and services for home visiting and early intervention have also been secured. And while these changes are not entirely attributable to the work of the Commission, it has been a strong, consistent and vocal stakeholder along with other advocates in the state to move and sustain this work.

Photo credit: PAfeatureELIC

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