During the first week of October, teams from 23 communities from 10 states convened in San Antonio, TX, for the fourth national Children’s Funding Institute. The Children’s Funding Institute, presented by Children’s Funding Project and Funding the Next Generation, is a training event for communities interested in establishing voter-approved children’s funds.

The Children’s Funding Institute serves multiple purposes. First, it is a space for communities to convene teams, map out an action plan for creating a voter-approved children’s fund, learn from peers, and connect with experts. The institute is also a time to celebrate the successes of our institute alumni, evaluate recent losses and setbacks, and assess the opportunities and challenges of the upcoming election cycles. The institute is the only convening that brings together managers of existing voter-approved children’s funds, communities with a potential voter-approved children’s fund on an upcoming ballot, and the experts who support the policy planning and campaign process. As such, the biennial event is also a time to take stock of the ever-evolving vision and strategies of the local children’s funding movement. Below we share the top takeaways from this year’s event.

1. “Be unrelenting in walking toward the danger.” Dr. Sarah Baray, CEO, Pre-K 4 SA

Many of our staff were inspired by the words of Dr. Sarah Baray, who manages Pre-K 4 SA, the voter-approved children’s fund in San Antonio. She encouraged everyone not to avoid the challenges that come with this work and instead find ways to reach out and include community members who aren’t our typical collaborators. Trevor Storrs, who recently won a campaign for dedicated early childhood funding in Anchorage, AK, reaffirmed this sentiment, highlighting the crucial role that both Democratic and Republican campaign staff and consultants played in the success of Anchorage’s Proposition 14.

2. “Our fight is really about democracy.” Margaret Brodkin, founder and director, Funding the Next Generation

Over the course of the institute, attendees and faculty continuously drew connections between individual community efforts to secure dedicated funding for children and larger movements for the health and well-being of democracy. Event co-host and Funding the Next Generation Founder Margaret Brodkin explained, “It’s about getting our government to reflect the values of people, the huge percentages that want to help kids. We are fighting the fight for democracy.” Jesus Sanchez, a leader from Pomona Kids First in California, illustrated this point as he told the story of how his community’s campaign grew from the work of mothers who dove deep into their city’s budget to better understand how funding works, who budgets it, who has decision-making power, and the amount needed to fund the programs they want to implement. Sanchez explained that the root of his community’s campaign for a voter-approved children’s fund is the larger need to ensure that public funding aligns with community values as part of a healthy democracy.

3. “If you have some proof points you can cut through the noise.” Michele Watson, CEO, Florida Alliance of Children’s Councils and Trusts

Several faculty members discussed the threats that funding for kids faces in the current political climate. Michele Watson of the Florida Alliance of Children’s Councils and Trusts explained that “the threat is the political landscape has changed. … We used to have candidates that used to run on real policy platforms and we’re seeing a lot more running on rhetoric and you have to find a way to cut through that noise and … connect personally with that person’s true intentions.” Watson articulated the value of securing “seed funding” for small wins or pilot projects that can act as proof points. Leaders of successful existing voter-approved children’s funds agreed, underlining the importance of continuing to focus on staying true to the values and purpose of the fund as designed, even in an environment with constant pressure to pivot.

4. “This work has a trickle up effect.” Elizabeth Gaines, founder and CEO, Children’s Funding Project

The most obvious result of a campaign to establish a voter-approved children’s fund is an increase in dedicated funding for children and youth in a single community. Institute attendees, however, mused on the broader impacts of campaigns for voter-approved children’s funds, whether they win or lose. “Organizing matters and even if the best outcome isn’t achieved, there’s been so many wins along the way,” said Christina Gilbert of the San Joaquin County Children’s Alliance. “We’ve built relationships and we’ve built trust,” she added about continuing to persevere after campaign losses. Attendees also discussed the connection between campaign wins in individual communities and larger-scale impacts, such as the spread of efforts to increase funding for children and youth across states, as seen for decades in Florida, California, Missouri, and Colorado.

5. “Now’s the time.” September Jarrett, program officer, education, Heising-Simons Foundation

“Now is the time” is a consistent theme of the Children’s Funding Institute every year, but each year we find we must combat new reasons that advocates are being discouraged from asking for more funding for kids. Dave Metz, pollster and president of FM3 Research, said the economy is one of the most common reasons advocates are being told that now is not the time to raise taxes, but it might also be one of the reasons why now is the time to demand more money for kids. “The threat is just the cost of living right now. It’s a threat not only for early childhood but any public service that matters, “ Metz said. “But it also means that the need is greater. Families are stretched to the limit, and we see that recognition of that need.” September Jarrett of Heising-Simons added, “It’s never the right time for kids. You are here. You have the beginning of the network and the knowledge and now’s the time.”

Our 2023 Children’s Funding Institute brought together a diverse group of communities from across the country to collaborate and tackle the challenging landscape of funding for children and youth. As the obligation and spending deadlines for American Rescue Plan funding approach, communities and states need plans to ensure they do not lose their progress toward funding equitable access to high-quality opportunities for all children. If these lessons from our institute have sparked your interest in learning more, please visit childrensfundingproject.org/voter-approved-childrens-funds.

Olivia Allen is co-founder and strategy director at Children’s Funding Project and the lead organizer of the Children’s Funding Institute.