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Facing Deep Regional Inequality, Silicon Valley Community Foundation Zeroes in on Early Childhood

Early care isn’t just expensive, it’s hard to find in many parts of Silicon Valley’s San Mateo and Santa Clara counties. SVCF’s most recent needs assessment found there were only enough licensed child care slots in San Mateo County to serve 4% of the infants and toddlers that qualify for subsidized care. 

The Silicon Valley Community Foundation is the largest community foundation in the world; its grants totaled over $14 billion between 2018 and 2022, according to Candid. In past years, the foundation drew criticism for, among other issues, not investing enough of its towering wealth in its own backyard. That shifted in 2018 with new leadership, and, in 2019, a freshly minted strategic direction that charted more of a regional focus, as my colleague Mike Scutari reported in 2021. 

SVCF has long made early childhood development a priority; it is one of the foundation’s core impact areas. Given the child care crisis that was both revealed and made worse by the pandemic, the issue is more urgent than ever. As Thorsteinson said on SVCF’s podcast “Philanthropy Now,” “It’s time to be bold. It’s time to speak up for our babies.”

We sat down with Thorsteinson to learn more about the foundation’s work, the key role philanthropy can (and should) play in boosting early childhood education, and why, after years working in this field, she remains hopeful. 

Can you talk about why early childhood development is such a priority for the foundation?

As a foundation, we’re focused on creating an equitable, economically secure and vibrant future for all. We have three focus areas: housing, advancing economic justice, and early childhood. We think every child has a right to the strongest start possible and to have the resources they need to enter kindergarten ready to learn. 

We know that these are interrelated issues: our children don’t live in a bubble by themselves, they live as part of a family, part of a community, part of a system. So this is long work; we know that there isn’t a quick fix and that’s why we’re making a commitment to invest deeply and stay in it for the long haul.

If we really want to see equity across the board and to create a place where families can thrive, we’ve got to start with our youngest kids. Silicon Valley is a place of immense wealth, opportunity and innovation. But 42% of our kids are living in households that are not self-sufficient; they don’t have enough to cover their basic needs. And the biggest driver for that is the cost of child care, according to recent numbers from the Silicon Valley Index. So if we want to break this cycle of poverty, we have to do a better job of investing in our youngest — all the research underscores the importance of the early years for brain development and the importance of quality early care. But for families in our region today, if you have two youngsters under five, you’re paying the equivalent of two college tuitions in order to go back to work. Our families are making really tough decisions and trade offs. 

Could you describe the foundation’s early education strategy? 

There are three ways that we’re investing in moving this work forward. The first is about raising community power and voice. We believe that it’s only through the community and expertise gained through lived experience that there’s going to be meaningful social justice change. 

The second bucket is looking at how we build leadership and drive change to public policy and increase public investment, and that work is much more focused on advocacy. We engage quite directly with policy reform at the local and state level, and occasionally, the federal level, as well. This year, for example, there are two bills — one in the state assembly and one in the state senate — that have the potential to dramatically increase wages for providers and cut costs to families. We are very publicly supporting those bills and advocating for them.

We also have a program called Choose Children, where the focus is to build a pipeline of champions running for office, so when they are elected, they have been informed about early childhood issues and will ideally create policies and budget investments that will support families and children. By engaging early in the election cycle, we have an opportunity to engage all of the candidates for office. We provide information to candidates and host candidate forums.

The third bucket is early care infrastructure — that is, focusing on the facilities and workforce in our region. One of our grantee partners is the organization Build Up San Mateo County, which works on child care facility improvement, expansion and preservation. 

We need thousands of early care workers, so in our grantmaking strategy, we are working with programs that help remove barriers to entering the workforce. For example, we support a group called Upward Scholars that works with immigrant and low-income families and provides support for folks to enter the community college system, access financial aid and navigate the selection of classes. It also provides students with support and mentoring, and addresses issues like technology and transportation to help ensure successful completion.

Last year, we also partnered with four local community colleges as they launched an early childhood apprenticeship program, which allows early care teachers to earn a living wage while they’re going to school to earn their credentials.

Early care may be critical, but it receives a fraction of philanthropic funding compared to K-12. Should philanthropy be doing more?

Yes, I think early childhood could use more philanthropic support. I think we have to start recognizing — and we’re getting there, for sure — that this is not a children’s issue, or a women’s issue. It is an economic issue. Early care needs to be seen as part of the economy. It is a social good that we need to invest in as a society. 

And it’s a good investment. Research by experts like economist James Heckman have shown that for every dollar we spend on early childhood, we get a major return in terms of lifelong benefits. And there is also a cost to doing nothing. A report this year by the Council for Strong America found that the childcare crisis is costing the economy $122 billion every year [in lost earnings, productivity and revenue, a cost that more than doubled since 2018].

Could SVCF itself be doing more? Only a small fraction of its funding goes to early care, according to Candid figures. 

It could. The way we work with our donors is that they advise us on where they want to invest. I would love to see more investment in this space. We’re working very hard to elevate it within our donor community and within the community at large. Ultimately, it has to be a partnership: We have a great opportunity to use our philanthropic dollars to help facilitate greater government investment in early childhood. 

Do you feel optimistic about the U.S. adopting a national system of early care? The Biden administration’s Build Back Better package looked promising, but it got scrapped in the end. 

We were so close with Build Back Better, and everyone in the early childhood field was very encouraged. The legislation was incredibly well thought out and crafted, and touched on many of the things we’ve been asking for, so it was really discouraging when it did not come to pass.

But all I have to do is spend a few minutes holding a baby, or talking to a family, and I’m like, OK, I need to get back in the game and do everything I can. And when I look back at where we are today versus where we were five years ago, 10 years ago — I know it feels slow sometimes, but we are making progress. Today, there is much more news coverage and awareness; that’s the first step. Look, in California, we’re going to have universal transitional kindergarten. Every four-year-old will be able to go to pre-K. We could never have imagined that happening 10 years ago. So there is progress.

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