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Chairman's Corner

Chairman’s Corner: November 2005

November 10, 2005

A New Rationale for Investing in All Children

by Mario Morino, Co-founder of VPP

Editor’s Note: There is a wide gap between the investments currently made for children and what is truly needed to change the status quo for all children. But the intense global economic competition America now faces may provide a new rationale for investing in all children.

A recent item by columnist Sam Fulwood III posed the question: “Do most Americans really care about people living in poverty?” and then answered: “I doubt it.” Is he right?

Maybe. I know that I often wonder why, as a nation, we are unable to marshal the resources to truly help all children and invest in their future. And by all children I mean not only those from our middle and upper classes, but also those from our lower middle class, working poor, and families living in entrenched poverty. A friend gave this a different twist, noting that society often views these children as “somebody else’s children, because they are not the children the public sees each day and not the children they care to see.” Is she right? Maybe.

Certainly there are numerous public, nonprofit, and civic efforts—formal and informal, organizations and individuals—working to make a difference in children’s lives. And we are grateful for these labors. But despite these wonderful efforts, we can’t deny the gap between what exists and what is truly needed for all children remains a wide one.

So why can’t we get this done for our children? Ultimately, I believe there is a lack of conviction and will—political, private, and public—to do what is really necessary to change the status quo for children of working poor families and those living in poverty. As a result, we are in danger of losing a very important national resource.

We’ve known for years that investing in the future of our children is one of the best investments we can make—public or private. And the facts are compelling, regardless of political persuasion. When a child grows into a responsible adult leading a productive life, the social and fiscal gains to society are significant. And, for those whose lives are compromised by early teen pregnancy,  poor education, truancy, jail, drugs, gangs, or even early death, the costs to society are huge and tear away at our community’s social fabric.

However, the case obviously has not been compelling enough to drive the kinds of long-term public policy change, private and philanthropic involvement, and community-building solutions that would change the life outcomes for children on a broader scale.

But there is a new and growing threat facing our country that may just tip the scales in favor of greater and more effective investments in children. Simply put, we have entered an era of heightened global competition in which America’s supremacy as an economic superpower is being seriously challenged.

We are in the midst of the economic battle of our lifetime, and no one can know for sure how it will play out for America. Certainly, we can be quite optimistic about the exciting new opportunities globalization makes possible, the new markets that will emerge, and the innovation we will witness. But, there will also be a dislocation for many in our country. The loss of manufacturing jobs over the past 20 to 30 years—the early indicator of the impending global competitiveness challenge—has crippled many communities and created “economic wastelands” in too many of our cities.

And innovation, once almost the exclusive province of the United States, is going global and is driving the growing middle class in countries like India and China, while our middle class gets weakened as salaries erode, pension funds go under, and the high cost of healthcare hangs over all of our heads. And, less obvious, but still ominous for our country, are the early stages of movement in research and even higher education to shores beyond our own.

So what does all this have to do with our children? To win this economic “battle of a lifetime,” our country can’t afford to lose one good mind, one talented child, in this global economic challenge that is really just beginning to unfold. And, we certainly can’t continue to sustain the growing adverse social costs that occur when children fail to grow into adults who lead productive lives. For the sake of America and the sake of each and every one of us, we must ensure that all children have the opportunity to live the American dream. And if we don’t act, that dream will be all but lost for too many of our children.

From a pragmatic standpoint, we will have a finite amount of public funding available, and we must find better, smarter ways to invest that money to have the greatest impact for our children. We must also recognize that, as important as the public support and money is, government can’t solve this challenge alone. Communities need to come together more—institutions, small business, foundations, philanthropists, and community activists—to work toward a common good. A common good grounded in sound economics, but one that also acknowledges the importance of human intellect and spirit, regardless of class, race, ethnicity, or geography.

Although the challenge before us is great, one should not doubt the resilience of the American people in the face of adversity. I remember the challenge of the 1950s when Russia took the lead in the race to space with Sputnik and saw our country respond in a way that spawned massive innovation and literally created and fueled the growth of what is today our high technology industries. And, in the 1980s, as Japan’s rising economic and management prowess threatened our position, we responded with a fundamental change in American business that affected industries for years to come.

Even now, there are indications that a communal response may already be at work in the aftermath of recent natural disasters. Informal networks appear to be coming together in small to big ways, including communities, nonprofits, and faith-based organizations taking in the “new” homeless on an unprecedented scale; communities adopting the displaced; or police and fire departments across the nation coming together to support their brethren in affected areas. And, just recently Independent Sector convened a select group of leaders to discuss the future of the social compact in America.

Maybe the resiliency of the American people is at work in new ways, but, if so, how do we better put it to work for all of our children and for our economic future? And how can we do so here in the National Capital Region?

The National Capital Region is one of the most important regions in America, home to our country’s federal government, rich in assets, and blessed with a strong economic underpinning. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the people and institutions of this region came together to leverage the region’s economic strength, social assets, resourcefulness, and stability to demonstrate new and better ways to invest in our children as an important part of the formula for ensuring competitiveness, quality of life, and providing opportunity to all?

This isn’t to say that there are not effective programs and efforts underway and people working to bring forces together. One example is the DC Education Compact, which has brought together the different sectors—public, private, and nonprofit—with parents, teachers, principals, and unions to address public education in the District of Columbia. And, there are other such examples of good work happening in the region that will positively impact children.

But, the sheer scope of the challenge posed by globalization, the gaps we need to overcome in our own region, and the opportunity we have with our children strongly suggests that quantum, transformational change is needed.

We can do this—but only if we find the will. That means asking tough questions; making smart, effective investments in our future; coming together for the common good; protecting our economic prosperity; and closing the divides among us.

In our work with Venture Philanthropy Partners, we pursue a path that we think offers one of the ways to drive fundamental change in improving the lives of children and trigger an even broader effect. We believe there are organizations and leaders that are truly making a difference. Organizations with breakthrough potential—a potential that, when realized, will not only make a greater difference in the lives of the thousands of children they serve, but will raise the bar of performance, bring quantum change to our expectation for what is possible, and help drive change more broadly to impact the lives of tens of thousands more children beyond those now directly served.

We see this potential for dramatic change in the organizations in VPP’s portfolio and other organizations like them in the region―demonstrating that public education in urban centers can work; showing that with the right support many more students of low-income families capable of a college education will have the opportunity to get one; proving that young people, who were not able to succeed in traditional public school, can make it and successfully go on to college; and scaling the delivery of quality, needed healthcare to mothers and children of low-income families with lasting impact on their lives.

These organizations and their leaders are, in a way, a new breed. Already well-known in the region, they are thinking differently about what they can do. They are bolder in their plans. They are making tough decisions about their focus, growth, and financial health. They are investing in building and strengthening their organizations and in the ways they improve the lives of children.

Collectively, these leaders with their stronger organizations and their constituencies, along with others like them, represent a force for change to improve the lives of children in the region. They represent an investment in children and in our economic future.

At Venture Philanthropy Partners we strongly believe that one answer to the challenge our nation and region faces is to invest to create nonprofit “market leaders” serving children that will inspire people, foundations, corporations, and policymakers to believe programs can work and are worth investing in.

We are also focused on building on what we and our nonprofit investment partners are accomplishing, thinking about our future, and learning from our collective work of the past five years. We want to better serve the nonprofits in the region and be a part of the region’s response to changing the fate of its children and bolstering its economic future. We are determined that our efforts should have a much greater impact in our ultimate goal—improving the lives of all children in the National Capital Region and helping our nation be economically competitive in the 21st century.

Everyone—national and regional officials, thought leaders, heads of organizations, and community activists—needs to ask these difficult questions about how to improve outcomes for children, think differently, and find new ways to make a difference. It’s not about yesterday’s battles, but about the sizable challenges we face in the future.

We welcome your input into our process because each of you can provide valuable insights. The question is simple: what one or two things could VPP, nonprofits, and others in the region do to make the biggest difference in the lives of children in the National Capital Region over the next 10 to 20 years?