Meera Mani -

Mar 24, 2022

Leveraging Philanthropic Collaboration to Support Child Development

To celebrate the five-year anniversary of Pediatrics Supporting Parents, Ira Hillman, Einhorn Collaborative’s Bonding Lead, speaks with Meera Mani, Director of the Children, Families, and Communities Program at The David and Lucile Packard Foundation about what they have learned in partnership. Listen to the interview here, or watch the video on Vimeo. Meera Mani shares her reflections from their conversation.

In 2011 when I joined the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, I began thinking about what it would take to create lasting and transformative change to improve the health and learning outcomes for young children. I took stock of the role philanthropy played in advancing the early childhood agenda. What I learned was that philanthropy often invested in the development and testing of model programs; research to build evidence; and advocacy and public policy to increase public sector investment. What became clear was that the public sector needed support to drive implementation of early childhood at scale. This became the Packard Foundation’s challenge to take on, and we could not do this alone.

We began working with a group of eight national early childhood funders. With the support of The Bridgespan Group, we examined two things. First, we investigated the critical drivers for improving the health and learning of children. Second, we considered how this collective of funders could have lasting impact.

As we dug into the research, it became clear that quality of the interaction between adults and children had the greatest impact on child development. Typically, funders and field leaders have focused on the structure of a program or service (facilities, materials, etc.) to improve child development. But what we learned was that when parents and caregivers connect in a way that builds attachment and healthy relationships, children will be more likely to explore, make friends, and have the curiosity and attention necessary to learn. As a result, over the next several years, we built two investment ideas – one to support parents through pediatric well-child visits and one to support the early childhood workforce. We called these investments “big bets” because they carried both risk of failure and an opportunity to succeed.

Pediatrics Supporting Parents (PSP) was formed to promote the social and emotional development of children ages zero to three during their pediatric well-child visits. Together, we coalesced around a clear north star, with clarity on what was essential and where there was flexibility on approach. For PSP, it was essential to leverage the pediatric channel, a universal access point for parents, to promote social and emotional development of children – a core foundation for strong child development. What we agreed to remain flexible on was how this collective of funders would co-create solutions in partnership with the systems and communities we seek to benefit. In the first five years of PSP, working in partnership with pediatricians, parents, field leaders, and community-based organizations, PSP developed a set of best practices ready to be implemented in pediatric settings along with a national and state blueprint for financing.

The Bridgespan Group, who helped advise us through the big bet planning process, recently published a paper called Releasing the Potential of Philanthropic Collaboration, recommending important mindset shifts for funders who wish to collaborate. One of their findings is the importance of supporting systems change (not just scaling programs). Many funders prefer giving to programs that provide direct services. While those investments are important, the true transformation must happen at the systems level to incentivize and fund effective programs at scale. The power of funder collaboration such as PSP is the ability to aggregate giving for investment in systems transformation to create a strong public infrastructure for serving communities – something that is near impossible for a single funder to do.

Another mindset shift that Birdgespan calls for is sharing power with grantees and communities. For the next five-year phase of PSP, from 2021 to 2025, we will move to a field-led collaborative, going deep in communities and centering community and parent voice with a shared governance model. We approach the work with humility and respect for our grantee partners and community stakeholders to achieve a commonly held goal. True collaboration like PSP takes time and requires discipline and belief in the power of collective action – an approach I believe in.

Building on the success we have had in phase one and the importance of the pediatric channel to child and family wellbeing, we are looking for more funding partners to join us. We must address the barriers that prevent communities from supporting parents in nurturing their child’s development. We invite national, state, and local funders to join us to support the work both nationally and in communities. Finally, we will partner with the public sector so that they allocate resources to support practices where pediatricians and parents partner, so children can thrive. We know that responsive, sensitive, and warm interactions between adults and very young children are critically important for learning and getting ready for kindergarten. So, imagine a world where pediatricians spend the time during a well-child visit talking to parents about what to look for and how to build strong relationships with their children so they can thrive physically, socially, and emotionally. Now, it’s time to make that world a reality.

The PSP funders would like to acknowledge the work of all those who have made the initiative possible: Center for the Study of Social Policy, Child Trends, DCR Initiatives, EC PRISM, Family Voices, Health Leads, HealthySteps, Help Me Grow National Center, Johnson Group Consulting, Manatt Health, National Institute for Children's Health Quality, Patient Tools, Inc., and many others who deserve our gratitude.

Meera Mani is director of the Children, Families, and Communities (CFC) Program at The David and Lucile Packard Foundation where she provides strategic direction to the Foundation’s work in children’s health insurance, early learning, and summer enrichment.