Melora Balson and Lydia Icke have known each other for 27 years, in “many different iterations of life,” as they say. In 2018, they launched the Commonwealth Children’s Fund as a donor advised fund (DAF) at the Boston Foundation. We caught up with them close to the Fund’s one-year anniversary. Their many years and close collaboration together means that they can practically finish each other’s sentences. That synergy and a sense of direction is a great benefit to the early childhood sector in our region.
TBF: Tell us about the Commonwealth Children’s Fund and how you two got it started.
Lydia Icke: Our background in early childhood doesn’t include formal training except for the fact that we have 10 children between us! But we have worked in and around K-12 for many years in many capacities—and it had become clear to us that the earlier you address the issues of children and their development, the better the results will be. We launched in September of 2018 with a focus on early childhood in Massachusetts.
Melora Balson: Our primary agenda is helping local communities build infrastructure around the birth-to-5 continuum. Early childhood includes so many systems, from child care to health to mental health to education. Our hypothesis is that if we can figure out a way to help families, particularly low-income families, navigate those systems, it’s better for everybody. Our pilot community is Somerville; we made grants over the summer to both the Somerville Public Schools and the City of Somerville. Some really good, coordinated—but resource-shy—work was already going on there, and the public sector was bringing all the different pieces together.
LI: The coordination piece is really key. Think about the corollary of children once they enter kindergarten: They register for kindergarten and then the school district can follow them through the years and refer them to wraparound services they may need. The family is on the city’s map. Up until that point, however, there’s a real need for coordination and identification of needs and services.
TBF: What brought you to the Boston Foundation? Why didn’t you start a private foundation?
MB: When we looked at the different mechanisms we might use when starting this foundation, it was clear to us that we wanted to be doing the real hands-on work; we didn’t have any interest in figuring out the best place to invest and manage the fund. So it’s been really nice from that perspective. Amazingly, we were deciding this just at a moment when the Boston Foundation was really digging in deep on the issue of early childhood. Why have a DAF at Boston Foundation as opposed to the other places where there are options? It really had to do with the program piece that the Foundation’s been doing the last few years.
LI: The Foundation had a series of Friday morning coffees to hear from various grantees in the early childhood space doing cross-sector work. That led to other research roundtables, which the Boston Foundation has also pulled together. Long story short is that these events convened a lot of stakeholders across the spectrum in early childhood in Massachusetts. We would attend these meetings and we were able to get to know a lot of the faces and names.
It’s a wonderful community. We always say we were interested in the DAF at the Boston Foundation because we wanted to do all of the work that a foundation does without any of the paperwork, and that has been really nice. But there are also ancillary effects, such as the community that the Boston Foundation has brought together and continues to help build in early childhood in Massachusetts. So it’s been a very great connection.
TBF: What’s coming up in the next six months or year and what are your strategic goals beyond that?
LI: We have monthly meetings with our Somerville counterparts and as we’re learning about the work, we’re hoping to be thought partners as well as funders. That’s at the heart of our place-based work. For instance, we’re helping to grow an existing home visiting program. The home visitors are multilingual and they’re members of the community they serve. They go into homes that have newborns and bring a welcome bag. It’s an amazing gateway into the early childhood services that the city provides. They want to reach every baby in Somerville. It’s a real hands-on, nuts and bolts program, but it changes lives.
MB: We’re supporting that program, called “SomerBaby,” as they’re dramatically ramping up the staffing. That’s one of the pieces of the grant that we made. The Boston Foundation is also talking about hosting a series of workshops for other communities thinking about this in similar ways so that people are not reinventing the wheel. The goal is to fund some innovative models to develop infrastructure. The Commonwealth needs proof points for what this might look like at the local level. Ultimately, of course, this has to be publicly funded. Can you imagine a situation where K–12 wasn’t publicly funded?Visit our Early Childhood page at tbf.org/earlychildhood to learn more about the Foundation's growing work in the sector.