From Big Bird to Big Grants: How Sesame Workshop Became a Fundraising Juggernaut

Syrian children at a refugee camp. Din Mohd Yaman/shutterstock

Syrian children at a refugee camp. Din Mohd Yaman/shutterstock

In May of this year, New York City played host to the 17th annual Sesame Workshop benefit dinner. The event celebrated 50 years of Sesame Street, the legendary children’s program, which stands as a shining example of a nonprofit’s ability to remain relevant and timely—and in turn, attract major grant dollars. 

What’s the secret sauce of one of the nonprofit world’s best-known brands? And why have funders lately been lining up behind this organization with the biggest gifts (by far) in its storied history? 

From Unproven Concept to Funding Magnet

Sesame Street was launched in 1969 after a conversation three years prior between documentarian Joan Ganz Cooney and Carnegie Corporation of New York Vice President Lloyd Morrisett. The pair were discussing the inability of federal programs like Head Start to meet the challenges of early childhood education for impoverished youth. Ganz Cooney championed the medium of television as a vehicle for attracting and educating America’s youth, and Morrisett was so intrigued by the notion that he funded her research into the matter. It was on the heels of that research that Cooney raised $6 million (an enormous sum at the time, for what was essentially an unproven concept) from prominent foundations such as Carnegie, Ford and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. 

With that grant money, Sesame Street was born. And it didn’t take long for Ganz Cooney’s concept to be proven correct, as the show reached 1.5 million homes in its first week. A decade later, 9 million children watched Sesame Street every single day. Today, that number has ballooned to over 150 million around the world.

While the birth of Sesame Street clearly illustrates that private philanthropy can take risks to tackle a need unmet by either government or the market, there is a larger story at play, here. Namely, the show’s ability to remain relevant for five decades, and as a result, continue to rake in major grant dollars—more so than ever, in fact.

Foundation Center data documents hundreds of grants over recent years to Sesame Workshop, which has been a darling of major funders such as the New York Community Trust, the MetLife Foundation, and the PNC Foundation (all of which have contributed millions of dollars over the years). Last June, Sesame announced a $20 million donation from the recently deceased Peter G. Peterson, co-founder of private equity firm Blackstone. The $10 million gift, coupled with a $10 million challenge grant, will support the expansion of Sesame Street into vulnerable communities. 

Historic Gifts

But the real headline-making grant came in 2017, when the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation awarded Sesame Workshop its inaugural $100 million 100&Change grant. The money is being allocated to evidence-based, early childhood education for refugees of the Syrian crisis. With over 1,900 proposals, Sesame Workshop faced stiff competition when applying for the 100&Change grant. 

So how did a 50-year-old nonprofit whose claims to fame are Big Bird and Cookie Monster beat out other applicants for one of the single biggest grants ever offered by a foundation? 

Julia Stasch, President of the MacArthur Foundation, has said that what ultimately swayed the board of directors was the depth and urgency of the problem that Sesame Workshop was tackling, as well as “the strength of the teams and partnerships, the viability and credibility of the proposal, and the prospects for each solution to be sustained over the long term, either through the market, or ongoing philanthropic and public support.”

Before Sesame won the 100&Change grant, many people didn’t even realize that it worked on the global refugee crisis. But the organization had actually carved out a unique role on this issue that played to its core competency. A number of major nonprofits work with refugees, and in entering a crowded field, Sesame’s intention was never to compete with others in the space. Instead, in a circumstance that bears resemblance to how Ganz Cooney initially founded the program, Sesame noted a gap in the market: humanitarian aid tends to overlook early childhood education, despite the fact that such intervention is essential to the long-term potential of future generations. In fact, less than 3 percent of all humanitarian aid goes to education, with only a sliver of that amount being reserved for early childhood development. 

On the surface level, this makes sense: Humanitarian responses are traditionally focused on the metrics of immediate survival—food, shelter, safety—as opposed to investments into education. However, today’s displacement is a long-term challenge. Many of the 1.5 million school-aged Syrian refugee children living in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon have already spent a fair amount of their childhood in refugee camps, and only about half of them have access to formal education. Their refugee status could last years more, if not decades. Dollars must be invested into education for the child refugees of today to develop the skills necessary to one day rebuild their societies. “Children are remarkably resilient,” explains Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, which paved the way for Sesame Street with a grant to the National Educational Television Center in the 1960s. “And with the right support at the right time, we can change their trajectories.” 

A Major Intervention

In Sesame’s case, “the right support at the right time” means the largest-ever humanitarian-based early childhood intervention program. Working alongside the International Rescue Committee, Sesame Workshop is responding to an urgent crisis with a fresh and innovative approach that offers early childhood education to a refugee population that would otherwise be bereft of basic learning skills. 

And Stasch’s prediction for long-term sustainability is already coming to fruition. The MacArthur grant was followed up just one year later with yet another $100 million grant—this time, from the LEGO Foundation, which awarded the money to ensure that young children affected by the Rohingya and Syrian crises have opportunities to learn through play. Working in partnership with the Bangladeshi relief organization BRAC, the IRC, and New York University’s Global TIES for Children, Sesame Workshop has now expanded its outreach to children affected by the crisis in Bangladesh.  

Why the Money Keeps Coming

When I asked Sherrie Westin, president of global impact and philanthropy for Sesame Workshop, how a 50-year-old nonprofit can still manage to attract major grants like those from MacArthur and LEGO, she cited her organization’s approach to large-scale problem solving. “Being able to address the issues of the day that were not issues 50 years ago is precisely why we are so relevant,” says Westin. Sesame is no stranger to complex subjects like the refugee crisis, having previously tackled homelessness, HIV/AIDS in Africa, and autism. As with its 100&Change application, the nonprofit has been leveraging its core competency to confront these issues in unique, emotionally resonant ways (the introduction of an autistic Muppet, for example).  

With the largest number of displaced children at any time since World War II, the larger goal of Sesame Workshop is to shine a light on the various refugee crises in the hopes that others will join in their efforts. And ultimately, that is what is so encouraging about LEGO’s involvement—it may herald more giving for refugee education. As Inside Philanthropy has often reported, few major foundations have stepped forward to aid refugees in recent years—avoiding an area that many see as Band-Aid grantmaking that doesn’t advance systemic change over the long term. By putting education at the center of philanthropy for refugees, Sesame, MacArthur and LEGO have reframed such giving as a future-oriented investment, generating an inflection point in how foundations tackle one of the world’s most complex challenges. 

While it’s not uncommon for nonprofits to wander off-mission in pursuit of funding, Sesame has landed historic gifts without losing sight of its deep commitment to early childhood education. Quite the contrary: It’s pulled in the big money precisely because of that relentless focus, without which the organization never would have won over MacArthur, and subsequently LEGO, as well. “We’re completely consistent in our DNA in terms of helping children arrive to school ready to learn,” says Westin.

Ultimately, that is what encapsulates the 50-year-old story of Sesame Workshop: a singular focus manifested through an array of creative and evolving approaches.