How to Fund Early Learning, with the Center for High Impact Philanthropy

WONDERING HOW TO MAKE EVERY DOLLAR INVESTED IN ECE COUNT? WE RECENTLY DID A DEEP DIVE WITH MOLLY SINDERBRAND, POSTDOCTORAL FELLOW AT UPENN'S CENTER FOR HIGH IMPACT PHILANTHROPY, ON HER WORK COACHING DONORS ON HOW TO CHOOSE RESULTS-DRIVEN EARLY LEARNING PROGRAMS WITH BULLISH RETURN ON INVESTMENT. 

NSM: Can you describe, in a nutshell, how the Center for High Impact Philanthropy came to be — and why early childhood education is a core issue area you encourage donors to give towards?

Dr. Sinderbrand: Ten years ago, a group of alumni from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania became frustrated that they did not have enough reliable information about how to effectively use philanthropy to achieve impact across a range of social issues. In conversations with the Dean of Penn’s School of Social Policy and Practice (SP2), they realized that there was lots of relevant information and evidence about impact in the academic world, but that information was not accessible or actionable for donors. The marriage of these two groups—and their interests—yielded the Center for High Impact Philanthropy. We are the only university-based center with a singular focus on how philanthropy can achieve greater social impact.

We understand that donors care about many different social issues, and in that sense, the Center is issue-agnostic: we believe there are high impact options to fund in many areas. That said, early childhood is a core issue for us for two main reasons. First, early childhood stands out because of its strong evidence base. There is a lot of rigorous evidence showing investments in quality early childhood interventions can have life-long positive effects, and that the returns on these investments can be high. Second, both donor and policy interest in early childhood has been on the rise, and that interest has bridged traditional political divides. The existence of many strong and diverse early childhood-related organizations means both that there are great existing opportunities to fund, and that there is willingness to fund further evidence-building and experimentation, which is a key philanthropic role in the social sectors. It is a right thing at a right time.

NSM: Early childhood education is chronically underfunded in many places — which can make it difficult for some programs to invest in measuring and demonstrating their impact, which then makes it harder for them to fundraise. What advice do you have for the funders that are considering investing in programs that may not have the massive datasets, of, say, Abecedarian Project or CAP Tulsa?

Dr. Sinderbrand: If a program is doing something new but promising, donors can fund program evaluation, especially as part of a longer-term relationship between the funder and grantee. Funding for evaluation and fidelity assessments (for scaling) can be difficult to find, so this could be an important way for donors to help. Otherwise, if a specific program does not have a lot of evaluation data, there are a few things to assess before investing:

  1. The model. A program might use a strong, proven model (or a variation of it). If a program has elements that have been proven effective, we don’t need another expensive, long-term study to prove that those elements work. Instead, ask if the organization implements those elements in a high-quality way. This leads to the second point.
  2. The commitment to quality assessment. Even if an organization does not have a lot of outside evaluation data yet, an organizational culture that is data-driven might still be present. Is the organization collecting data? If so, what? How do they (plan to) use the data? Are they self-reflective and committed to improvement?
  3. Organizational strength and structure. Does the organization have other funders? Does it have a strong enough structure to support the program(s) it is running? Does it build partnerships? In essence, is it sustainable, does it have a good business plan, and will it last?
  4. Community engagement. Does the organization work collaboratively with other partners? Does the target group want to use its services? Does it meet the needs of those it serves?

NSM: As a follow-on — why does the Center argue that “all impacts can be measured?” You list “love” and “happiness” as two examples that we actually can measure scientifically… which I think gets at part of the struggle for early childhood. (It’s just babysitting! It’s just soft skills!)

Dr. Sinderbrand: “All impacts can be measured” is a theoretical claim—they can be measured but it could be extremely difficult, or expensive, or we might not have adequate tools to do so. The idea is that we don’t want to dismiss an impact as unmeasurable. That’s letting ourselves (and others) off the hook for not measuring it. Instead, we need to get creative about how we measure—using proxies if necessary—and keep exploring our methods and if those practices get at the core concept we want to understand.

  Dr. Sinderbrand's daughter Jocelyn browses the Center's High Impact Giving Guide.

Dr. Sinderbrand's daughter Jocelyn browses the Center's High Impact Giving Guide.

NSM: Back to the hard numbers — many folks have tried to nail down specific numbers for a return on investment for early childhood education — 2:1, 13:1, and so on. What number do you ascribe to, and how did you land there?

Dr. Sinderbrand: We don’t believe there is a single number. We say that “return on investment” in quality early childhood programming is generally high; this is based on the existence of positive estimates for several different programs. Each program often has a range of estimated return on investment, based on differences in populations served, effectiveness of implementation, and other issues. The preponderance of the evidence suggests potentially high returns to early childhood investments. But it is important for people to understand that these remain estimates: there are many different numbers calculated in many different ways, depending on what you choose to include in the calculation. Different outcomes may have different levels of evidence and occur at different times to different people, making them difficult to quantify. And though we do believe that all outcomes can be measured, it may not be possible or practical to monetize them. If they cannot all be monetized, then some impact is effectively “lost” in the final number. Focusing on a single number without understanding both the limitations and the strengths of this kind of analysis can lead to a false sense of precision and accuracy, as well as obscure the actual impacts to real people that are part of the number.

NSM: Every year the Center releases a “giving guide” for philanthropists. What programs would you like to call out for potential donors as worthy of investment — and how do you choose those recommendations?

Dr. Sinderbrand: We choose programs and organizations to profile based on evidence, scale, sustainability, and philanthropic on-ramps. We look for programs with evidence to support them—and organizations with a commitment to using evidence—that are sustainable. For our annual guide, we look for programs that have a scale and structure such that donors across the country (and the world) can get involved in relatively straightforward ways. Some early childhood programs that fit this description and have appeared in our annual guidance are Nurse-Family Partnership (a home visitation program for first time, low-income mothers), Educare (an early education program), and the Children’s Literacy Initiative (a teacher training program to enhance early literacy). We recognize that these particular organizations may not appeal to all donors, so where possible we mention other, similar programs at the national level, and try to give donors a sense of what to look for in a local organization that may be providing similar services.

NSM: We particularly love that you've called out two of our organizational partners — the NFP and Educare! Donors, take note. Thanks so much for taking the time, Dr. Sinderbrand!

Dr. Sinderbrand: You’re very welcome; thank you!