The lasting benefits of high-quality early childhood programs are widely understood. These benefits and the well-documented return on investments are among the factors that have shaped executives at philanthropic foundations’ grant making in support of early childhood programs, policies, and research in the United States. Yet little is known about the investments they are making in the field of early childhood. Drawing from a conceptual framework that combines types of philanthropic investment with the concepts of accountability and transparency, I conducted a comparative case study of the Buffett Early Childhood Fund, George Kaiser Family Foundation, and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, all of which began financially supporting early childhood between 2000 and 2005. I attempted to understand how and why philanthropic foundations and pooled funding organizations have supported early childhood from the late 1990s through 2018.
Based on my analysis of 32 semi-structured interviews with current and former early childhood philanthropic foundation, pooled funding, and operating organization executives, I found that each foundation independently determines their investment decision processes and invests a disparate amount of money in early childhood. In addition, philanthropic foundations gain programmatic and legislative power by leveraging funds and partnering with additional foundations and businesses. With the inclusion of early childhood programs in K-12 education systems and the decrease in national and state education funding from those same budgets, it is critical to understand how philanthropic foundations have supported early childhood education and some of the implications of their support both locally and nationally.