Tomorrow is Now: New Directions for Children’s Philanthropy

Joe Waters
Apr 29 · 5 min read

by Joe Waters and Sam Jones

“We face the future fortified only with the lessons we have learned from the past. It is today that we must create the world of the future. Spinoza, I think, pointed out that we ourselves can make experience valuable when, by imagination and reason, we turn it into foresight. It is that foresight we must acquire. In a very real sense, tomorrow is now.”

— Eleanor Roosevelt, Tomorrow Is Now: It Is Today That We Must Create the World of the Future, 1963

Today Capita publishes Tomorrow is Now: New Directions for Children’s Philanthropy, a new white paper sharing five big ideas about the renewal of children’s philanthropy and a vision for the future of investment in kids and families. These ideas are well-suited to help philanthropies adapt to current social and political circumstances, renew their most creative thinking and operate more productively in the future, all in turn magnifying their own impact.

Idea 1: Prepare for a post-liberal political future

Catalyzed by the rise of nationalist and populist leaders at home and abroad and a search for alternatives to liberal individualism, many credible thinkers on both sides of the political aisle are signaling the foundational weaknesses of the largely dominant political philosophy of democratic liberalism.

Characterized by separation of powers, a market economy, and equal rights, democratic liberalism has served as the foundation for American politics and life. Our human services, health, and education sectors are built within this tradition, as are the assumptions about the delivery of social welfare within that context.

If democratic liberalism is shaken at its core, then we must reassess the very foundations of these sectors, and work towards building humane alternatives. How can children’s philanthropy take it upon itself to helping build a post-liberal order that properly positions the child, and our obligations to the child, in ways that are truly humane?

Idea 2: Attend to the Winners Take All criticism

Philanthropy must reckon with its own complicity in the structures and practices that exacerbate the social challenges we are trying to solve. Anand Giridharadas in his book Winners Take All and others posit a valid criticism of the role that the rich play in driving inequality through extractive business practices that siphon the gains of our innovation-driven economy upward, while positively managing their reputations through philanthropic giving.

Often, the arm of business is exacerbating the issues the philanthropic arm is trying to solve. We suggest that child-focused philanthropic organizations reckon with the ways by which their investors and founders made their money. What work of repair must be done as a result of wealth generated by extractive or exploitative practices that continue to undermine the flourishing of children and families?

Idea 3: Prioritize in-depth learning and broaden the focus

Recently, we have seen great investment in entrepreneurial innovation, policy, and systems building in support of early learning and children’s health. However, after surveying these investments, we must ask: are we wiser about overall flourishing in childhood? Have we attempted to challenge the damaging cultural narratives, assumptions, and mindsets that undermine the well-being and dignity of children and families?

We don’t think so. Though these investments are important pieces of the puzzle, we believe that a deeper approach to children’s philanthropy could improve outcomes for both children and families. Mindful of solutions, we recommend more investment in multi-disciplinary research and learning communities that explore the most profound questions facing children and their families. We need children’s philanthropies to begin prioritizing contemporary questions regarding caregiving, the social-welfare state, and more.

Idea 4: Foster intersectional funder collaboration

Intentional intersectional funder collaboration across disciplines and policy areas is an encouraging trend that breaks down many of the barriers that exist within the social sector. We can imagine even greater possibilities from such collaboratives if funders are willing to consider meaningfully working with others whose work impacts child outcomes, but whose programming is not always explicitly or solely child focused.

For example, a funding collaborative concerned about the presence of childcare deserts in a particular region would be well served to collaborate with affordable housing funders and other organizations with similar goals in mind. An intersectional approach like this includes collaboration across disciplines and policy areas and has the potential to multiply the impact of children’s focused philanthropic investment.

Idea 5: Ideas matter, but conversations are costly

Ideas matter for driving better outcomes for children and families, but there aren’t enough good ones out there to solve the challenges we face at scale, and too few become reality. Organizations and institutions dedicated to advancing bold ideas are necessary to drive better outcomes for children over many years, and too few investments are made purely with the intention of fostering good ideas. Funders have come to expect a level of access to potential and promising ideas that is not commensurate with their investments in bringing those ideas to fruition.

A range of organizations has emerged in recent years to catalyze bold ideas-driven work to improve outcomes for children. They are increasingly aware of the costs of conversations with philanthropic organizations that wish to benefit from the power of good ideas, but do not make significant investments in cultivating those conversations. Funders should develop pools of resources accessible to individual and organizational pioneers fostering the next generation of ideas, and they should appropriately value the time of the pioneers building these ideas, making the case that ideas matter and thus have potential to solve our greatest challenges.

For more than a century, philanthropic organizations have been on the leading edge of social progress for children and families. We believe that this tradition of leadership is poised for renewal to meet the challenge and opportunity of the new age of reform in which we find ourselves.

However, the north star of philanthropic leadership must clearly and enduringly be our effort to, in the words of Robert F. Kennedy, “make gentle the life of this world” for all people, especially those on the periphery of society, and most especially, children.

We hope that, by taking to heart the lessons we share, children’s philanthropy in the United States and around the world is poised for learning and renewal, meaningful leadership in a time of uncertainty and inequality, and for public advocacy that clearly establishes investment in the first years of life and in families as the foundation for a life of flourishing and dignity.

Capita Ideas

Capita is an independent, nonprofit startup ideas lab working at the intersections of research, public policy, social innovation, design, and the arts to ensure that all children and their families flourish.

Joe Waters

Written by

Joe is the Co-Founder + CEO of Capita, an ideas lab working to ensure that all young children and their families flourish, and a Senior Advisor at Openfields.

Capita Ideas

Capita is an independent, nonprofit startup ideas lab working at the intersections of research, public policy, social innovation, design, and the arts to ensure that all children and their families flourish.