As political analysts debate whether the trend toward devolution — shifting government dollars and responsibility for social programs closer to local communities — is losing momentum, one thing seems clear. In large parts of the foundation world, devolution never had much momentum to lose.
Indeed, most foundations have made only cosmetic changes to the traditional paradigm of first establishing a pilot program and then bringing it “to scale,” a practice at least as old as the Ford Foundation’s Gray Areas Program, which famously distended into the War on Poverty.
Our Spring 1997 issue reported on the old paradigm’s durability even in the face of prevailing bipartisan declarations of the end of “big government.” This issue of Philanthropy contains a rather striking example of that durability-the Howard Heinz Endowment’s support for a five-year, $59 million pilot project known as the Early Childhood Initiative (ECI). Interestingly, while there may be little change in the tendency of some foundations to take their bearings from government, the disappointing slowness of efforts to obtain a promise of state support for ECI suggests that governments may be increasingly reluctant to pick up the eventual costs of foundation-supported pilots.
The ECI represents an umbrella approach to youth services, uniting programs as varied as Head Start, parenting education, daycare, so-called “family day care,” and preschool. Heinz officials point to clear evidence that such programs can work, and cite a study published by the David and Lucille Packard Foundation’s Center for the Future of Children (The Future of Children: Long-Term Outcomes of Early Childhood Programs) which found “ . . . overwhelming evidence that early childhood child care and education can produce sizeable improvements in school success.”
Heinz is equally clear about its intention to offload the program’s cost — estimated to balloon to perhaps $300 million per year if implemented statewide — on the state and local government, a goal that is proving more difficult to realize than expected. Margaret Petruska, program director for social welfare at the Heinz endowment, puts it gingerly: “We know what programs work. The problem is that we have not been able to get them to scale. One of the problems has been getting the public sector to buy in, but we are working very hard to partner with the state government to see how they can re-aggregate their dollars to support this.”
Jim Roddey, President of Wexford Health Sources Inc. and a past chairman of the Allegheny County United Way, is the man responsible for getting the bureaucrats (and the governor’s office) to agree to the concept and pick up the bill. It has not been easy.
“Basically there’s not much movement right now. We’re still negotiating with the state and we’re trying to construct a model that will allow the state to ease into this, not statewide but a pilot study in four or five areas of the state.”
Roddey estimates the program’s cost statewide at “maybe $300 million a year” but adds that if the program is successful there should be savings in other areas, such as corrections. “We believe each dollar we invest will save seven dollars by the time the person is a teenager.” Roddey says he is not concerned that successful local programs are notoriously difficult to replicate on a large scale, seeing ECI as a collection of small “neighborhood-driven programs” that “are designed by the neighborhoods.” The key, Roddey believes, is finding the key person or persons in each community without whom the program absolutely will not work. “In every one of these neighborhoods, there are pillars of strength. It could be the local church, it could be the local Salvation Army, it could be a community hospital, it could be a neighborhood service organization.”
Asked about the trend toward devolution, Roddey points to the urgency of catching young people before they enter a life of unemployment, early parenthood, and crime. “The most basic reason for me [for supporting ECI] is that you can pay me now or you can pay me later. And the cost of paying later is just unacceptable.”