Six Ways WRF is Fostering Collaboration in Our Pursuit of Equity in Early Childhood

Educational Equity
Recently I joined a Funder-to-Funder Conversation hosted by the national Campaign for Grade-Level Reading about how philanthropy can foster collaboration relative to their early childhood strategies. I spoke specifically about how we’re supporting collaboration within Excel by Eight (E8), an initiative focused on building a reliable resource grid where all Arkansas families and communities have what they need to help children thrive.

You can see a recording of the conversation and more information here, but I wanted to share my insights. When I think about how the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation is promoting collaboration within Excel by Eight, six things come top of mind:


Caste a bold, shared vision - In order to collaborate, I think all stakeholders need to understand the north star, even if they’re only focusing on discrete pieces of it. That’s why I love Excel by Eight’s Resource Grid. The grid speaks to the comprehensive, two-generational vision of what needs to be in place for children to thrive, and the electric grid metaphor underscores that these resources not only need to be in place, they need to be connected. There can be no downed power lines or patchy flows, so to speak. I think such a clear illustration of a vision in and of itself fosters collaboration.

excel by eight education grid graphic


Fund it - Very simply, in order to promote collaboration, we fund it. We’ve learned that collaboration takes real time, energy, and labor, and have seen many a taskforce or working group fall apart because of a lack of a dedicated coordinator. WRF has used grants or even part-time contracts with skilled collaborators to promote collaboration, and with Excel by Eight, we’re doing just that. Much of our funding goes toward the E8 “backbone” - the individuals whose job is to coordinate, engage stakeholders, facilitate group meetings, build consensus, follow up on next steps, and foster collaboration. With E8 we’re funding a statewide coordinator and also local coordinators in E8 communities around the state.


Use intermediaries - Despite an intention for collaboration, grants to individual nonprofits can often, by design, give decision making power to that organization’s leadership and not a broader collaborative. With Excel by Eight, we have used an intermediary to create and fund a collaborative table with shared power and decision making. WRF’s funding for E8 goes to the Arkansas Community Foundation (ARCF) as the fiscal sponsor of the E8 initiative. E8 is not a stand-alone non-profit. ARCF contracts with our coordinators, and those coordinators are pulling together nonprofit partners, parents, policymakers, and the like to collaborate and make decisions collectively on how to advance the initiative.


Challenge narratives - At WRF, we’re leaning into the importance of narrative as a root cause of many of our current inequities. In order to foster collaboration, it can be important to challenge the myths and stories we tell ourselves that influence our decisions and the solutions we might envision together. Narratives around parenting, deservedness, women’s work, individualism, and more all influence current early childhood systems in Arkansas the E8’s ability to drive systemic change and achieve equity in early childhood.


Build trust - Like many things, I think we could say collaboration moves at the speed of trust. With E8, carving out time, resources, and people to focus on building authentic relationships with stakeholders, understanding their needs, doing one-on-one outreach, etc. has been crucial. The E8 collaborative has also gone through an external equity audit process to understand and unpack any blindspots, biases, and opportunities to build more inclusive conversations, all of which has been critically important in order to foster deep collaboration, especially with diverse stakeholders across the state.


Stick with it - WRF has been funding Excel by Eight for nearly a decade. We provide multi-year grants with a single budget line item for flexible funding. Since we are funding the backbone of Excel by Eight, the infrastructure so-to-speak, we believe it is important for E8 partners and stakeholders to understand our commitment in order to have room to innovate and drive a long-term strategy. Collaboration takes time and energy, and some stretched partners could understandably decide that effort is just not worth it if funding is short-term or prescriptive in its use. Long-term, flexible funding gives partners room to build relationships and collective strategy and to learn and innovate together.

I encourage you to watch the recording of the webinar to hear additional insights from my colleagues and to learn more about Excel by Eight at