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Q&A: Families Lead California

As families across California continue to struggle with a host of social and economic stressors, the Foundation’s Families Lead California initiative seeks to support community-based organizations that strengthen the pipeline of diverse parent leaders and to build their power to influence system and policy changes that reflect the priorities of families with children ages 0-8. The Families Lead California is an initiative of the Foundation’s Education program, which works to facilitate the creation and strengthening of early childhood systems necessary for children from low-income families and children of color to reach their full potential.

In the Q&A below, Education Program Officers Kimberly Brenneman, Malia Ramler, and September Jarrett share insights about Families Lead California, three years into the initiative.


The Families Lead California initiative recognizes the critical role of parents and families to influence California’s education systems and policies that affect young children’s learning. How did the initiative come about?

Families Lead California (FLC) is a $3 million investment in 11 California-based organizations that offers flexible funding, tailored support and coaching for capacity building, and a facilitated peer learning community. The initiative aims to contribute to sustainability of individual organizations and create conditions for the formation of a network that partners for advocacy on common issues. FLC was designed in 2021, in response to the compounding effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, an economic recession, and ongoing racial injustice. Our Foundation values hold that those closest to challenges are in the best position to offer solutions. For early childhood education, that means that solutions must involve parents and caregivers. FLC was developed in recognition that parenting adults know what children need to thrive, and it is through their leadership that systems will become accountable and responsive to diverse families.


What type of organizations are supported through the initiative?

The FLC partners build the power of diverse parent leaders to influence system and policy changes that reflect their priorities. The FLC grantees are diverse in size, location served, and demographics of participating families, but share a common goal to recognize and develop parents as leaders in their families, communities, and state. Grantees view FLC as an opportunity to obtain dedicated support to increase organizational capacity, to innovate and increase their reach to new and diverse families, and to build connections with one another that will enable shared action. For example, one partner shared that general support funding “allowed us to be innovative, take risks, (and) invest in our leaders who are going to be coming on as part-time staff…” Another explained how the grant has fostered new growth and diversity in the parent leader pipeline, saying it “has allowed us to work county-wide with our […] network partners. This has resulted in us having more Latin American, Afghan, [and] North African leaders.”


The Foundation’s Education program is paying attention to learning and evaluating the success of the initiative. Where are you in this learning journey?

FLC is in its third year, approaching the end of the first cycle of funding. Throughout the initiative, we have engaged in data collection to understand whether FLC is achieving its goals and those of its constituent organizations. We sought evidence of increased organizational capacity of FLC partners, of increased reach and diversity among the parent leaders involved in partners’ work, and of growing connection among FLC organizations. We also asked our partners about the Foundation’s practices, those that were appreciated and those that could be improved. This evaluation has gleaned three main learnings:

  1. FLC partners have increased programmatic and staff capacity, which has enabled them to offer new programs and expand the reach of existing ones. Capacity growth is connected to increases in parents engaged in early education advocacy, with organizations reporting that the number of parent and caregiver leaders had more than doubled between 2022 and 2023. They also reported impressive increases in the number of BIPOC-identified parent leaders, from 65% to 88%. This growth is critical to ensuring that the advocates working for change represent the diversity of California’s families and, in turn, that local and state policies are informed by their voices.
  2. Over time, FLC has fostered connections among the 11 participating organizations, with every leader agreeing they have built deeper connections through FLC activities such as peer learning opportunities, in-person retreats, and site visits. Readiness to collaborate across organizations is growing, indicating that FLC is moving towards a connected network. FLC partners will have opportunities to capitalize on their expressed desire to engage in collective action towards shared policy goals.
  3. Flexible funding and support for tailored organizational development have contributed to stronger, more sustainable organizations. FLC grantees have reached new families and have offered programming based on community needs, not funding requirements. Similarly, FLC partners were able to decide the focus of their capacity-building work for themselves.


What can others in the education philanthropic space learn from this initiative?

FLC illuminates some of the ways that flexible funds enable organizations to operate in support of their missions, to grow programs and diversity, and to foster the leadership capacity of many more parents. Our partners told us that connection to consultant support and dedicated funds for organizational development allowed them to engage in critical activities (such as succession planning, strategy development, and staff wellness) when they needed to do them, not on a funders’ timeline. Trust had to be built between our staff and grantees, and this took time, humility, and commitment on everyone’s part. Similarly, community-building among the organizations takes time, funding, and expertise. FLC has benefitted immeasurably from the deep know-how and commitment to equity of Teng & Smith and Social Policy Research Associates, who are leading the peer learning, capacity-building, and evaluation work.

The Education program has taken a learning stance with FLC. Will the cohort model – with flexible funding and a multi-year timeline – yield benefits for our partners, their communities, and the education advocacy sector that would not have happened with traditional funding to 11 separate organizations? Initial evidence is promising, and we look forward to learning more.

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