Growing its Education Work, a Silicon Valley Funder Looks to Boost the "Whole Family"


Early childhood education, which targets a child’s development before she has a chance to fall behind, is receiving increased attention from philanthropists who believe it may be the closest thing to a silver bullet in education.

Among the relative newcomers to this space is the Omidyar Network, the philanthropic investment firm of eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and his wife Pam. Its work on early learning started three to four years ago, and is now complemented by support for learners on the other end of the education spectrum—parents working toward a postsecondary degree or credential. 

The couple’s move into U.S. education may not come as a huge surprise to those familiar with their overseas work. The Omidyar Network first moved into the education space in 2009 and has maintained a focus on Africa, India and Latin America. Three to four years ago, the group expanded its focus to include education in the United States, said Isabelle Hau, who leads the funder’s domestic education work. 

“They both have been very excited about this work, coming at it from two slightly different angles,” Hau said. “Pierre being passionate about individual and community empowerment and seeing education as a clear pathway to individual and community empowerment. And Pam having a passion for early childhood and whole child learning for many, many years.”

An Expanding Education Agenda

The Omidyar Network is an LLC-foundation hybrid, rather than a traditional foundation, so the full range of its investments are not public. Hau says the network has devoted $150 million to education internationally and at home since 2010. The couple draws their wealth from Pierre’s role as a founder of the online commerce site eBay, and have an estimated net worth of more than $12.5 billion. The Omidyars have deployed about $1.4 billion through their philanthropic network across a variety of fields since the network’s start in 2004.

Domestically, early childhood has been the primary focus of the network’s education funding, but more recently, it has moved into postsecondary success for students who are also parents. The goal is to make sure 80 percent of kids start school ready for kindergarten. Right now, that number hovers around 60 percent, but with big discrepancies depending on a family’s income. 

The decision to work with parents seeking degrees was grounded in research Omidyar examined when the network was deciding whether or not to move into education at home, Hau said. When the foundation first weighed whether to move into U.S. education, the staff mapped out the entire education system. 

“That work led us to the conclusion that is very well known in the education, which is that the U.S. education system is fundamentally inequitable,” Hau said. “It works very well for some children and families; unfortunately, it does not work for many.”

The team zeroed in on one statistic that tied a child’s education outcome more closely to her parents’ income than to their education level, as was the case in the past, Hau said. Boosting a family’s income by $3,000 in the first years of a child’s life on average yields a 17 percent increase in that child’s earnings as an adult, according to a 2014 study

So while the network worked on one side of the education spectrum to ensure kids started kindergarten ready to learn, it also sought ways to boost parents’ income. 

“I’m concerned that, if I may be provocative here, even if we had a beautiful pre-school, childcare system that was high-quality, in the absence of thinking about greater economic mobility on the parents’ side, that we are missing a big portion of accelerating impact for families,” Hau said.

Omidyar landed on postsecondary degrees and credentials, which research suggested as one of the surer paths into the middle class. The network sponsored additional research on student-parents, which found that parents make up a quarter of those enrolled in post-secondary programs, about 5 million students, though they largely go unnoticed. 

“Having a college degree at this moment is one of the clearest paths to economic mobility,” Hau said. “They [student-parents] are in a system that was not necessarily built for them. Omidyar is trying to make societal progress to be ensuring that more of them graduate, and thus can get access to economic mobility.”

Despite being highly motivated and often with higher GPAs than their peers, parents who are enrolled in postsecondary institutions are far more likely to drop out due to additional barriers, which include access to childcare while they’re in class, and juggling jobs and school to support their families.

Breaking Down Silos: Focusing Work on the Whole Family

On the early childhood learning side, the network maintains a portfolio of about 10 to 12 grantees and focuses on both formal learning settings, like daycare centers and preschools, and informal settings, when kids are home with parents, relatives or neighbors. 

Within the early childhood space, it’s unusual, though not completely unheard of, for funders to tackle both informal and formal care settings. The David and Lucile Packard Foundation is another grantmaker that tackles both sectors. 

But differences in the formal or informal care sectors influence the side in which foundations choose to specialize. On the formal side, funders may end up supporting professional development for staff of child care centers or counseling owners on best business practices. 

Targeting informal caregivers like parents or other family members requires a different set of channels. Sometimes, that means reaching parents through trusted voices like pediatricians or faith leaders, or directly, through apps, texts or websites. This type of work can get even more creative by turning everyday locations into chances for learning, like stocking laundromats with educational pamphlets and books parents can read to young children. 

Omidyar has supported a few grantees in the formal care sector and a few others that bridge the gap between formal and informal. The network invested in Wonderschool, a tech platform for home-based childcare providers, which also has the ability to reach parents. Omidyar has also funded training in business practices for child care centers through its partner All Our Kin. 

On the informal side, Omidyar partnered with ParentPowered (Ready4K), which delivers evidence-based curriculum to parents each week via text message. This isn’t the only parent-focused, tech-enhanced service backed by big givers out there. Mike and Jackie Bezos, the parents of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, sponsored the development of Vroom, an app that shares daily evidence-based activities and tips with parents to stimulate a child’s early development.

Incorporating both sectors of early childhood learning is challenging enough, but Omidyar is taking it one step further by bringing parents’ education into the mix, too. 

Tackling two very different age groups and their academic outcomes means engaging two different sets of stakeholders, networks, funding streams and barriers, Hau pointed out. In the case of early childhood and post-secondary success for parents, it also means teaming up with fields that are at very different stages of development.

Early childhood learning is still a relatively new field, but it already has a lot of momentum, Hau said. The field not only has a roster of devoted supporters in philanthropy, but is increasingly the focus of local, state and federal policy makers.

Working with parents on post-secondary success is a different story. That work is at a much earlier stage, for Omidyar and the broader field. As a result, much of Omidyar’s work at the moment focuses on building coalitions and convening stakeholders rather than supporting grantees that provide services to parents and caregivers, the way the network can in early childhood.

Although the two-generational approach has its challenges, there’s one big advantage, Hau said, which is that it addresses the needs of the family unit as a whole. Looking at this work through the lens of the family was a way to meet people where they are.

“This family unit that exists is so strong. How could we transform the way we approach philanthropy around the family unit, as opposed to thinking in silos around age groups that are not as meaningful on a family basis?” Hau said. “On a family basis, you think, ‘OK, what is my childcare solution when I go to school?’ if you are a parent who is enrolled in an academic institution. You think about the success of your child and the education opportunities and where you’re going to live.

“You think of all of those things as a family unit, not isolated… but the two systems are siloed at the moment.”