Hands-On Help: The Other Side of MacKenzie Scott’s Recent Early Childhood Ramp-Up


We recently reported on MacKenzie Scott’s flurry of support this year for early childhood — including gifts to a number of organizations that consider advocacy a major part of their mission. Those groups make a case for more equitable and robust childcare and early education systems; they also work to strengthen families and communities by supporting policies like paid parental leave, the child tax credit and guaranteed basic income. 

But advocacy is only part of the story. A close-up look at Scott’s recent gifts shows substantial support for organizations that uplift maternal health and child development on the ground and right from the start. Between them, the two streams of recent Scott funding for early childhood — advocacy and direct service — speak to what seems to be the megadonor’s intention both to shift systems and to build up organizations providing families with much-needed assistance. It’s a balance that we’ve argued Scott hasn’t gotten quite right in the past, though she’s certainly doing better than most billionaire donors out there.

Scott’s major gifts in this area are also an affirmation of the importance of early childhood, an area to which philanthropy has failed to dedicate sufficient resources, although that has begun to change in recent years.

Parents as Teachers is among the organizations Scott is funding with a more direct-service-oriented approach to early childhood care. The national nonprofit, which is based in St. Louis, connects parents with trained educators who make regular home visits and provide parents with information and resources, beginning when a family is expecting a baby through the time that child starts school. Parents as Teachers works with close to 200,000 families in all 50 states, as well as 115 tribal organizations, five other countries and one U.S. territory. 

MacKenzie Scott’s gift was $7 million, the largest in Parents as Teachers’ almost 40-year history. “It's an affirmation, a wonderful affirmation of the work we do,” said Constance Gully, the organization’s president and CEO. “I always lift up the fact that every parent wants what's best for their child, and it shouldn't matter what their zip code is. So Parents As Teachers — and home visiting in general as a strategy — is a great way to help parents bring the best they have.”

No place like home

The Parents as Teachers model works like this: Trained parent educators reach out to expectant families and offer to provide information about prenatal care. They can also connect families with resources for basic needs, like food and housing assistance. Once the child is born, the parent educator provides information about parenting and child development, and as the child grows, helps identify developmental delays and health issues, and boosts school readiness.

Twenty-eight years ago, when Gully’s own son was born, she got involved with Parents as Teachers at her local school. “My parent educator supported me with helping him develop things like fine motor skills,” she said. “Those things were not on my radar, but I had a parent educator to support me in identifying exercises, tools and resources to help my child’s development. Reading, talking, singing — and just understanding that the first years of life are a time when so many connections are being made in that baby’s brain, and when the most rapid brain growth occurs.”

Thirty-plus years of research speak to the effectiveness of this hands-on strategy. Some examples of findings: Parents and caregivers who participate in Parents as Teachers show more sensitivity to their child’s needs, and are more likely to read to their child, enroll them in preschool and be involved in their child’s school than parents not involved with the program. Participating caregivers are also more likely to enroll in school themselves and become employed. The program also reduces child abuse and neglect: “Parents as Teachers children had a 22 percent decreased likelihood of child maltreatment substantiations (as measured by Child Protective Services maltreatment data) compared to children not in Parents as Teachers,” according to an overview of research.

In her recent round of gifts, Scott joins a number of funders who invest in programs to promote maternal and infant health, particularly in-home, one-on-one care for families before and after a child is born. IP has reported on some of those funders, including Every Mother Counts, Elevance Health Foundation and Lever for Change. The First Five Years Fund, which advocates for maternal and infant health policies, specifically the governmental Maternal Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting program, receives funding from the Ballmer Group, Buffett Early Childhood Fund, Heising-Simons Foundation, George Kaiser Family Foundation, Pivotal Ventures and others. 

Meanwhile, the Early Childhood Funders Collaborative, which has a long list of funding partners, supports early relational health, an approach that promotes strong bonds between children and caregivers and includes home visits as one of its strategies (see this recent IP article for more about funders supporting early relational health).  

Parents as Teachers affiliates receive some federal funding through the Maternal Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting program. The organization’s other funders include the Ballmer Group, the Enterprise Holdings Foundation ROAD Forward Initiative, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Community Impact Network and the St. Louis Mental Health Board.

Starting early, seeing results

Several years ago, Parents as Teachers added another tool to its toolbox: a team of certified doulas who assist women before, during and after they have a baby. Middle-class and affluent women routinely hire doulas, but Parents as Teachers provides the services for free or at minimal cost to low-income, predominantly Black mothers in St. Louis. (Gully says some Parents as Teachers affiliates already provide doula services, and the organization is hoping to pilot the model at other affiliates around the country.) 

Doula programs are an effective, low-cost intervention, and many maternal health experts see increased access to doula services as one way to combat the serious Black maternal health crisis. Parents as Teachers’ five doulas are all Black women who not only provide support, but advocate for the mothers they work with. Gully asked one mother about the difference in her experience when she had a doula during the pregnancy and birth of her second child. “‘I felt heard,” she told Gully. “Like my voice mattered.”

The new funding from MacKenzie Scott will allow Parents as Teachers to enhance the work it’s already doing. For example, the organization already had one initiative in the works that the additional funds will help realize: challenge grants to its network of affiliates to encourage them to expand their services in response to community needs. “We’re excited that this gift will help us advance that work,” Gully said.

One Parents as Teachers affiliate also received a separate gift from MacKenzie Scott recently: Parent Possible, a small, Colorado-based organization that serves low-income Coloradoans. The organization provides home visiting services (15,897 visits in 2021-22) as well as educational software and tools for parents to use with their children at home. 

“This transformative donation will fuel our efforts to empower parents and caregivers with the knowledge and skills they need to support school readiness and break the cycle of poverty,” said Heather Tritten, Parent Possible’s executive director, when the $1 million gift was announced.

With all that in mind, MacKenzie Scott’s support for organizations like Parents as Teachers and Parent Possible presents a potential counterargument to the charge that her giving for direct service organizations doesn’t do enough to “change systems.” The nonprofit service ecosystem is also a “system,” after all, and enabling effective service organizations to expand their work over the long term may well impact more families than Scott would by restricting her support to politically contingent advocacy alone. It’s good to see that, given her wealth and her commitment to giving it away, Scott’s philanthropy isn’t limited to either-or, but so often manages to achieve both-and.