How We Work

Advocacy, Public Policy & Systems Building

Public policy plays a fundamental role in addressing the root causes of problems that face our world. We believe that sustainable change requires a supportive public policy environment that strengthens systems and allocates public investments in an equitable way for all children, families and communities. Through grantmaking and field leadership, we invest in strengthening the advocacy infrastructure in Illinois, across states, and at the federal level, informing child and family service systems and structures, and ensuring that our key issues are prioritized by our non-profit and public sector partners.

An example of our work:

Race to the top and the Early Learning Challenge Collaborative

In 2005, recognizing the importance of informing how the large amount of federal funding comes to states for services for infants, toddlers and their families, the Irving Harris Foundation partnered with other national and regional foundations to develop and launch several new organizations: the First Five Years Fund (FFYF), the Alliance for Early Success and the Build Initiative (BUILD).  These new organizations were designed to strengthen state and federal early childhood policies, increase investments in high-quality early childhood programs and services, and inform state systems building efforts.  Simultaneously, the Foundation was a leading member of the Early Childhood Funders Collaborative, a philanthropy affinity group of early childhood funders from across the country who work to more intentionally leverage their collective impact to improve early childhood services and systems serving families and children, prenatal through age 5.

By 2009 the Foundation and our partners were able to help shape and secure significant investments in early childhood programs and systems when the Obama Administration launched the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC).  This federal initiative was set up as a competitive funding program in which states would compete for funding in several rounds.

As soon as RTT-ELC was established, the Foundation used our grant dollars, networks and credibility to raise significant private funds to create the Early Learning Challenge Collaborative (ELCC).  The ELCC, co-led by BUILD and FFYF, provided rapid response technical assistance to states applying for RTT-ELC grants and then assisted those states as they implemented their plans for comprehensive, high-quality early learning systems.

With the Foundation’s help, ELCC secured enough funding over the following years to help states through all three rounds of RTT-ELC applications and continues to support states with implementing their grants and evaluating the impact of the RTT-ELC.   In total, the Foundation and its partners helped 20 states capitalize on over $900 million in federal grants.

Since 2014, we have collaborated with our funder partners to support BUILD’s effort to analyze the impact of RTT-ELC grants and highlight lessons learned to inform federal policy. BUILD published an e-book, Rising to the Challenge: Effective Systems for Young Families and Children, that has been used extensively by federal policymakers to inform their work and priorities.

By remaining nimble and recognizing emerging opportunities, the Foundation helped a variety of partners successfully engage with the ELCC, leveraging millions in funds and leading to significant impact on states’ ability to develop high-quality, comprehensive early learning systems.

Roles of the Irving Harris Foundation within RTT-ELCG


Early Learning Challenge Grant (ELCG) idea raised during Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign


The foundation works with advocacy partners to advocate for ELCG.


Senate efforts fail, but ELCG is funded through Race to the Top


First round of ELCG funding through RTTP as a competitive grant to states


Foundation helps to develop and build the Early Learning Challenge Collaborative (ELCC)


The ELCC, funded by the philanthropic sector, provides TA to states


Strong state applications demonstrate need for additional round of funding


Early Learning Challenge Grant – Round 2


Early Learning Challenge Grant – Round 3

ELCG grants to states have totaled over $1 Billion to date