Critical Connections: A Foundation Breaks Down Silos to Boost its Impact on Early Childhood

How much do internal organizational structures color the work a foundation pursues? What possibilities open up when a foundation breaks down internal silos to better reflect the lived experience of the people the funder seeks to reach?

Those are questions Meera Mani, director of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation's Children, Families and Communities Program, has thought a lot about as she has reshaped that foundation's early childhood work.

They are also questions that may be of interest to others, as more philanthropists come to focus on the earliest years of a child's life. Bolstered by a growing body of research, this funding space has picked up momentum in the last several years, thanks in part to vocal champions like J.B. and M.K. Pritzker. 

But the early childhood field is complicated, and foundations are still learning how best to have impact.

There's the formal care sector, where foundations can push government to do more or make sure caregivers get professional development. Meanwhile, working a different set of muscles, philanthropy needs to think about how to reach kids in informal care settings, when they're at home with parents or cared for at a neighbor or relative's. How can a foundation reach those informal caregivers where they are to make sure they have the resources to create an enriching, nurturing environment for infants and toddlers?

Then, of course, there's the child's health and physical development to consider. Foundations can get involved by funding developmental screenings and home visits, or by supporting efforts to insure both kids and adults.

Early childhood work encompasses each of those areas, and where funders choose to focus can look different from foundation to foundation.

Packard is one of the few grantmakers that takes on all three of those components of early childhood work. And lately, it’s worked to meld them together in a more holistic way.

Doing Things Differently

The foundation, which was started by David and Lucile Packard in 1964 and boasts assets of around $7 billion, has a long history of helping give kids a strong and healthy start in life—investing $708 million in this area over the past half century.

By 2012, though, the foundation’s early childhood education and health work was at a crossroads, Mani said. Over the previous decade, the funder had seen many of the goals it set out to accomplish fulfilled. Those included near-universal access to health care for kids and access to preschool for all low-income four-year-olds in California, where the foundation is based.

At that point, the foundation started looking for its next mission. To do that, Packard engaged with families and communities across the country to ask what support they needed and how the foundation could help. One big take-away of this listening was that the way the foundation’s early health and early education teams were structured—operating as separate units—didn’t reflect how health and learning interact in the real world.

“When we went back and looked at how children spend their time, how families spend their time, we realized that their lives are not siloed,” Mani said. “On any given day, they [parents] take their child for immunization, or to a pediatrician, or to get some kind of acute care. Then they drop them off at a family, friend or neighbor, or at a childcare setting, and they loop back and forth.”

“When you think about parent-child relationships, or adult-child relationships, they aren’t really saying, ‘Okay, now I’m going to focus on your health and now I’m going to focus on your learning,’” Mani said. “They’re sort of doing everything simultaneously.”

That prompted Mani and her team to examine how they approached early childhood health and education as two separate, distinct verticals and question whether that made sense.

“As we began to understand how communities, children and families are spending their time, I was interested in being sure that we, internally, could walk that talk and be thinking in less siloed ways ourselves,” she said.

Practically speaking, the reorganization required members on the health and education teams to assume new roles and learn the ropes of the other sector. The foundation also brought on new hires who had expertise in both fields.

To combine the teams, Mani said she needed not only approval from above, but also buy-in from her staff, neither of which posed a problem. The team helped design the reorganization, she said. “As we learned about the data together, as we learned together how families are spending their time, they were inspired to figure out how we break down the silos internally.”

The new team structure has allowed Packard to drill deeply into health and education within communities, to make sure both sets of needs are cared for in tandem. The California cities Oakland, Fresno and San Jose, where the foundation supports work, provide a glimpse of what this looks like in practice. In those three locations, Packard has invested in early childhood education and early childhood health.

On the education side, that means making sure caregivers and teachers in the formalized childcare system get professional development and that informal caregivers, like parents, neighbors, friends and relatives also have the resources they need to be effective. To ensure a child’s health isn’t forgotten, the foundation works to give families access to developmental health screenings.

Packard also uses its convening power to make sure people on the ground in early childhood health and education are talking to each other, too. In the cities where it’s made big investments, the foundation brings together the health and education systems. Additionally, the foundation’s annual conference for early childhood health grantees, now also includes grantees working in education.

In addition to the work in California, the foundation funds initiatives in eight states and participates in national partnerships with other foundations.

Bringing Cross-Sector Sensibilities to Early Childhood

Focusing on the linkages between health and education is hardly new to the field of childhood development, which has long emphasized bolstering maternal and child health in tandem with expanding early learning opportunities. In recent years, though, new brain research has deepened knowledge of just how important these linkages are—making it more urgent that funders in the early childhood space work across the spheres of education and health.

According to Mani, it’s critical to understand the link between physical and mental development in the early years of a child’s life because it’s a time of such growth in both areas.

“When you look at children birth through age three, so many of the synapses are being connected in the brain,” she said. “The brain development is absolutely exploding and so is physical development.”

Mani expanded on that idea, using a child’s understanding of object permanence to illustrate the link between learning and physical development.

“Children realize that just because something is out of their sight, doesn’t mean it’s out of this universe. When you hide something they go looking for it. In order to go looking for it, they will have to crawl. They will have to pull themselves up on a table,” she said. “There’s your physical development, as your motor development, which really falls right into health.”

Packard isn’t the only foundation working on early development from both a health and education angle. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation includes both elements in its early childhood work. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has drilled down on creating healthy, nurturing environments for young kids as part of its efforts to address the social and environmental determinants of health. Newer funders in the field, like the Pritzker Children’s Initiative, also emphasize these connections. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is centering its education funding, including recent investments in early childhood learning, around the idea of the “whole child”—an approach that addresses a child’s academic needs along with her social and emotional, cognitive, identity, physical and mental needs. The Ballmer Group is another relatively new funder interested in the connections between early learning and child health and well-being. Blue Meridian Partners, a funding collaborative that includes both Ballmer and Packard, has invested in several nonprofits that address these linkages.

Like other areas of philanthropy, the early childhood space is in considerable flux as major new funders arrive on the scene, including ones with some very deep pockets. But Packard’s leadership role in this funding space remains powerful given its depth of experience and a geographic scope of work that spans multiple cities and states. That’s likely to remain the case as the foundation pursues a more integrated approach to its early childhood work.