New Momentum After a Long Fight: Inside Kellogg's Push on Children and Equity

The high percentage of U.S. children living in poverty—one in five, at last count—hasn't changed much in the past few decades. And while you'd think that would be a national scandal, this issue has just never had the political traction advocates have hoped. 

Lately, though, things seem to be changing. Early childhood education is moving up on the national agenda and a new book by Robert Putnam on the deeply unequal lives of American children has received wide attention. Amid a growing debate over inequality, and also race, fresh opportunities are emerging to improve the lives of kids. 

This is a moment that the W.K. Kellogg Foundation has been working toward. It's among the biggest foundations in the U.S., and boosting young children has been at the center of its grantmaking for decades—work that's often been a frustrating slog. 

Barbara Ferrer, Kellogg FoundationWith its core issues gaining new traction, what is Kellogg's strategy these days, particularly for the 0-8 population? And what does that mean for grantseekers?

To dig into these questions, and more, I recently spoke with Barbara Ferrer, chief strategy officer at Kellogg, and Carla Thompson, vice president for strategy.

"We remain deeply committed to a vision where all children thrive and have the opportunities that they need to be successful and both physically and emotionally healthy," said Ferrer in a recent phone conference.

That vision sounds pretty uncontroversial, except when you consider the big changes—and resources—that would be required to make it a reality in a country where some 19 million children live in low-income households. 

Equally ambitious is a main corollary to Kellogg's work for young children, which is "ensuring racial equity," says Ferrer, "so that the opportunities and the resources that people need to thrive are equally distributed and available."

Carla Thompson, Kellogg FoundationKellogg has assets of over $8 billion and makes over $300 million in grants every year. But, really, those resources are paltry compared to the challenges it's tackling. 

So how does Kellogg try to accomplish its goals in regard to children 0-8? Well, for starters, it doesn't prioritize direct services for kids, which Ferrer says is a common misperception of grantseekers. "That really doesn't represent the way we think about supporting children, which is understanding the context within which they live their lives."

Ferrer described how the foundation seeks to develop "thriving communities" through partnerships with educational and health institutions. A case in point: a $1 million grant to Parents for Public Schools of Jackson, Mississippi to strengthen the capacity of parents, teachers and administrators. 

Empowering low-income people is a key goal of Kellogg's grantmaking. "We work to cultivate communities that are mobilized and inclusive," Ferrer says, "and [to ensure] that they are able to develop their own leadership. All that is just as important as making sure there are programs and services for young children."

In other words, Kellogg is definitely a funder with an eye on systemic change, and it very much sees its work through a progressive lens. It's a key backer of national groups focused on movement building and community organizing, like the Center for Community Change, as well as policy shops like the Center for American Progress and Demos. At the same time, though, the foundation is very selective about where it goes deep, with some two-thirds of grantmaking focused in several "priority places" that include Michigan, Mississippi, New Mexico and New Orleans. 

We've written before about Kellogg's efforts in Mississippi, where it's taking on inequity in some of the poorest parts of the state, such as Sunflower County, where 36 percent of residents live in poverty, and which has some of the worst health statistics in the country. Clearly, this is not an environment where children can thrive. 

Related - Raising Mississippi: Kellogg Embraces a Tough Slog in the Deep South

Education is a huge focus of Kellogg's work to boost children 0-8, and Carla Thompson gave a quick overview of how the foundation works within its ed portfolio. She identified three key areas that Kellogg focuses on: family engagement, effective teachers, and alignment of systems that support early childhood education.

Regarding the area of family engagement, Thompson emphasized the foundation's belief that all families have a vested interest in their children doing well academically, and for that reason, Kellogg pushes hard for "authentic parent voice" in all aspects of program development, implementation, and assessment.

Last year, we wrote about a $600,000 Kellogg grant to support the work of James Comer, a giant in progressive education circles who, over recent decades, has promoted the idea that schools alone cannot do the job of educating kids; parents and communities need to be deeply involved as well. 

Related This Ed Giant is Still Going Strong, Pulling Big Grants His Way

Of course, this holistic approach to education stands in sharp contrast to the more narrow focus on school systems that is common among leading education funders, such as the Walton, Broad, and Gates foundations. Among other things, Kellogg is quite hopeful about the potential of low-income communities to improve student outcomes. 

"We really want to change the narrative about poor people not being interested in the education of their children," Thompson said. For this reason, Kellogg is working with community organizations to elevate the family voice and "recognize the importance of having really good family engagement practices that go beyond the parent-teacher conference."

The second piece of the education portfolio is focused on creating more effective teachers, both through improving the higher ed programs that prepare the next generation of teachers, and through "embedded professional development," through which teachers can get professional development during the school day and year, as new issues or challenges arise in their work.

Thompson referred to the many teachers who leave the field of early childhood education after only about three years. One reason for this, the data suggests, is that teachers feel ill-prepared by their education for the realities of life in the classroom. Kellogg is trying to bridge that gap and give teachers more real-world skills to address today's challenges in early education.

The third strategy for early childhood within Kellogg's education portfolio is a growing push for ECE to reach the next level and achieve critical mass. As Thompson explained:

We know from what's going on around the country, there's movement around pre-K, there's movement around Head Start, there's movement in the quality rating improvement systems, but these are all really fractured movements. There isn't an early childhood system that one can point to and say, 'this is how it's structured in every single state. These are the requirements, these are the financial resources available.'

We fund work that will help particular municipalities and states figure all this out. We help leverage the voices of the community to make the public policy changes that are necessary to serve all children, particularly young children who are poor, and children of color.

As we've reported, Kellogg is a major supporter of the First Five Years Fund, the top national advocacy organization leading the push for early childhood education. Kellogg helped start the group in 2007 and recently gave FFYF $1.65 million to bolster the push for early childhood education in Washington at a moment when this issue, finally, seems to have real legs in the Capitol. 

Related -Kellogg Helps Ramp Up the Advocacy Push for EarlyChildhood Education

But Kellogg is also pushing hard on early childhood at the state and local levels. Ferrer highlighted the efforts underway in Michigan to increase the state's investment in ECE. "This is a good example of the work we do to create capacity in community, and to broaden the network of people who care deeply about early childhood education." Among other grants to Michigan early learning initiatives, Kellogg gave $360,000 to Heartland Human Care Services of Michigan to "implement a model of Family Literacy services to parents/caregivers and their children, ages 1-5, to ensure kindergarten readiness and educational development."

The foundation is promoting ECE in Mississippi, too. Thompson noted that, in quite a breakthrough for Mississippi this past year, the state legislature approved $3 million in state funding for the first time to support early childhood education improvements.

Overall, Kellogg is pursuing a number of avenues to help young children, from systemic, society-changing efforts to very focused work in local communities. I asked Ferrer and Thompson what all this means for grantseekers, and what advice they had.

Ferrer gave the obvious advice—to take "a good look at our website"—but also, more surprisingly, made an impassioned plea for grantseekers to submit their ideas to the foundation.

Unlike other foundations, we are open to accept proposals 365 days a year. If you have a great idea, send it in. We review every single one. We don't require you to be in a relationship with someone here—we'd like to dispel that notion. We're really anxious as a foundation to hear those ideas.

That's not a call we hear every day, as many foundations these days send the exact opposite message. By the sound of it, Kellogg's door is unusually wide open. 

But if you approach this foundation, just keep in mind its distinctive world view, which is more bottom-up than top-down, and shapes what groups Kellogg gets behind.

Says Ferrer:

Whenever possible, our partnerships need to reflect the complexity of the real world for young families and young children. The community voice has been really strong in helping us make critical investments, both in innovative programming and approaches that lead to policy changes.