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Early Childhood Development: Lessons for Funders about Systems Change

By May 24, 2019October 13th, 2021No Comments

Funders who support community-driven efforts have a unique opportunity to transform systems. In 2018, I partnered with Engage R+D to conduct an evaluation of a community-driven effort to transform early childhood development systems in a low-income rural New Hampshire setting. Our article published in the December 2018 issue of The Foundation Review, By Us and For Us:  A Story of Early Childhood Development Systems Change and Results in a Rural Context, provides background on the investment and initiative strategy, summarizes key results, and outlines lessons for others pursuing systems change in early learning and in rural areas.

The Challenge

Coös is New Hampshire’s largest, most rural, and most economically disadvantaged county. Since 2007, the Neil and Louise Tillotson Fund, a donor-advised fund of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, has invested in the Coös County Early Childhood Development initiative.

Before 2007, early childhood providers knew one another in Coös County, but services were fragmented and operated in silos. Beyond crisis intervention and occasional referrals, there was little communication across disciplines, no collaborative focus on quality or training, and limited awareness of early childhood best practices. Child care centers applied a range of early learning strategies (some evidence-based, some not) and services, when measured, were not high quality. For mental health services, crisis intervention and long waiting lists were the norm.

The Solution

Through the Early Childhood Development initiative, a wide range of community providers formed strong professional relationships and agreed on common goals and evidence-based strategies to improve services for children and families. Community members joined forces with the Fund to create an integrated early childhood development system.

Since 2007, the Neil and Louise Tillotson Fund’s role in the Early Childhood Development initiative has been strategic and intentional. Today, the Fund continues to collaborate with organizations and leaders who are building a new early childhood development system for the county. Of the Fund’s 10-year $10M investment, 24 percent has supported local training, coaching, scholarships and financial aid, convening, facilitation, communications and technical assistance. The remainder has supported grants to local early childhood providers working towards systems change.

The Fund stays close to the work. Meeting frequently with local leaders, Fund staff provide feedback and resources to reinforce collaboration and shared ownership. Progress is assessed through frequent conversations with partners, annual grantee outcome measurement, and narrative reporting. Both the Fund and the initiative support inclusive, community-driven systems change governed by a collaborative network representing dozens of local early childhood providers and organizations.

Key Takeaways

Together the Fund and the Coös community have identified a few guidelines for funders interested in systems change to support early childhood development. If you’re a funder looking to play a larger role in this area, consider the following insights:

  1. Support change that is community driven – “By us and for us in Coös County” is how local leaders described the Early Childhood Development initiative. Leadership remains within the community and the Coös Coalition. The Fund serves as catalyst, advocate, and trusted partner, providing guidance, technical support, and funding.
  2. Focus on process – The Fund allowed time early on for grantees to build trust and relationships that could lead to secure partnerships and overcome resistance to change. The Fund also spends time with grantees, listening and understanding the work, the progress, and the challenges.
  3. Invest in system infrastructure – The Fund invests in collaborative infrastructure, creating both organizational and system capacity. Two infrastructures coordinate all activities: the Coös Coalition supports cross-sector collaboration, and the Director Network supports practice change and integration of child care within Coös’ early childhood development system.
  4. Support change through collective impact – The Coös Coalition model, with its shared vision and collaboration across sectors through work groups, has fostered connections and systems change, and has built regional capacity.
  5. Build momentum – Developmental screening was identified early on as a shared goal. Early county-wide success with improving developmental screening rates helped build momentum for the initiative.
  6. Sustain long-term vision and support – Maintaining a ten-year focus required steady, multi-year operating support for grantees and support for infrastructure, convening, strategic planning, communications, advocacy, training and technical assistance – described by local stakeholders as the “glue” that holds the initiative together. The Coös model also built in flexibility to address evolving system and local capacity-building needs.

Other drivers of Coös’ success include Fund staff presence, a dedicated place-based approach, and an intentional framework and work plan.

The Results

Coös’ Early Childhood Development initiative’s significance is its population strategy (targeting all Coös County children ages 0-8), its tenure, aspirational goals, and inclusive process. The initiative achieved dramatic results: By creating community capacity and a culture of collaboration and improvement, it transformed Coös’ early childhood organizations into an integrated, high-quality system for early learning and development where none existed before. Other results include a county-wide increase in developmental screening rates among young children, from 18% in 2012 to 54% in 2018. In addition, 93% of Director Network early learning centers achieved NAEYC accreditation or Licensed Plus status from the state. Stakeholders point to the Coös Coalition as a driving force in the county’s success, along with the Fund’s deep commitment to place and willingness to learn and listen.

Coös County’s story of inclusive, rural community systems change can help other funders learn about and promote systems change across many different areas. Other funders and New Hampshire policymakers continue to notice Coös’ success and adopt key components of the Coös Early Childhood Development experience into their own work towards systems change.

For more information, check out a recent blog by Clare Nolan, Founder of Engage R+D and co-author of By Us and For Us, at:

If you have lessons learned about promoting systems change or questions you are grappling with, we’d love to hear from you!