How to Find, Align, Generate, and Activate financing for children in the face of emergency

2020 was looking promising. You were trucking along, making great strides in understanding current funding and working with colleagues to identify gaps and start conversations about how to fill them. You were thinking collectively about how to ensure the best outcomes for children with the dollars you invest. And then COVID-19 happened. Well in case we had forgotten, this is what makes being human interesting. We can pick ourselves up, reassess, and find new ways of working.

So in that spirit, I offer the following advice. Not because I know what to do but because the act of picking myself up, thinking about what I’ve learned and seen over the last 46 years and how it could be applied in this situation, and using some of the tools that we have made (but not necessarily used because things just weren’t that bad yet) is something I can do. I have organized the advice into Children’s Funding Project’s strategic financing levers of Find, Align, Generate, and Activate and provided action steps to consider for the immediate, midterm, and long term:

  • Find: Having a clear picture of your full investments in children and youth.
  • Align: Making policy decisions that encourage the most efficient and effective use of funding we already have
  • Generate: Understanding our options and increasing revenue where we can to fill gaps in federal, state, and local funding.
  • Activate: Adopting measures to ensure maximum impact of and access to funds.

Please reach out to Children’s Funding Project if you are interested in learning more about where your community is in the process or how to continue to build momentum for children and youth services. We can do this!

‘Find’: Having a clear picture of your full investments in children and youth.

Short term (1 month)
  • If you have already done a fiscal map or children’s budget analysis, USE IT. This data gives an excellent bird’s eye view of what funding you have to work with and what funding you need to protect. You can use your fiscal map to identify what outcome and service areas may be particularly vulnerable or to better understand what streams you are currently tapping into that can now be used more flexibly.
Midterm (within 6 months)
  • If you have not yet done a fiscal map of children’s funding in your state or community, talk to us about how to get a simple version done soon. Let’s get down on paper (now) what the most recent funding levels look like including the amount of funding from state, local and federal sources, numbers of children being served and what services/outcomes are being funded. If the 2008 recession and subsequent ARRA funding is any indicator, we will have large new federal funding that will help states and communities for a couple of years. During that time, however, state and local funding will be supplanted. We want to make sure everyone has a baseline understanding of what was being funded in 2019 in order to advocate for regrowth to current levels more quickly than we did after the last recession. Also, it’s important and will be helpful to compile the amounts coming in to your state or community from the new stimulus bills.
Long term (within 1-2 years)
  • Because of the likelihood of a recession, we will have to remain vigilant in tracking the trends in overall funding and from different levels of government. Once you have completed a fiscal map, it is easy to update the data with new budget information. Remind people of where we were headed with funding levels from all sources before all of this started. Also, continue to use the fiscal data to inform how to allocate funds in subsequent budget years. If you are interested in instilling the practice of a ‘children’s budget’ into your state/locality, we can help. We will need to take all measures we can to quickly mitigate the effects on our child and youth sectors.

‘Align’: Making policy decisions that encourage the most efficient and effective use of funding we already have.

Due to COVID-19, systems are being forced to find new and creative ways to work together and maximize resources. Relaxed funding stream requirements create opportunities for flexibility, as well as increased efficiency.

Short term (1 month)
  • We developed a tool to help you get started in understanding the past month’s astounding increase in flexibility of federal funding streams that support children and youth: Navigating New and Flexible Funding Streams for Kids During COVID-19. Use the tool, gather your agency leaders, and think about how you can use flexibility to meet the unique needs of your state or community in this moment. Are there opportunities to adjust state and local funding requirements to allow for similar increases in flexibility or to support maximization of federal funding flexibility?
  • One way that local communities are maximizing alignment in the short term is by creating virtual “funder tables” where both public and private funders coordinate to reduce resource gaps and overlaps. A key strategy that local funder tables are employing is the creation of universal, one-page emergency funding applications that service providers can use to reach multiple funders simultaneously. 
  • If you are a part of your local children’s cabinet, chances are you are working double-time to keep a pulse on the constant changes and emergent needs within your government and community. Be adamant about virtually convening your members. Find ways to demonstrate the myriad benefits of this cross-sector collaboration, such as being a communication hub for families and providers in a time of chaos, and reducing duplicate efforts.
Midterm (within 6 months)
  • Your teams have likely already been demonstrating “alignment” as they work collaboratively to meet immediate needs. You may be following the old adage of ‘just do it and ask for forgiveness later’, strange bedfellows may be forming (from an appropriate social distance), and utilization of your children’s cabinet as a hub may feel more critical than ever. How can you document some of the ways you are doing things that seem to be working better? Who can you task to work on this from their dining room table?
Long term (within 1-2 years)

As we start to come out of this, there will be a fork in the road: will we attempt to go back to business as usual or… knowing what we know now, will we identify an entirely different way of working together?

  • Use your assessment of these newfound flexibilities in funding and your examples of how things worked better to institutionalize them: create MOUs to solidify new collaborative relationships; make a permanent seat at the table for formerly-strange bedfellows; align reporting methods and requirements across systems.
  • If you struggled to leverage the flexibilities of certain funding streams or wished to have a better coordination of children and youth serving efforts and priorities, advocate to form a children’s cabinet or similar coordinating body. Having a working cabinet will benefit your community’s ‘normal’ programs as well as help you be more prepared for future unforeseen disruptions. These kinds of cross-agency leadership bodies have a shared set of goals and indicators they measure and are made for sharing resources and aligning service delivery with one another.

‘Generate’: Understanding our options and increasing revenue where we can to fill gaps in federal, state, and local funding.

Before COVID-19, Children’s Funding Project was preparing to assist a dozen communities in pursuit of November ballot measures focused on tax increases for kids. Amazingly, we have seen two successes since COVID began, an Anchorage, AK alcohol tax for early childhood and a Cuyahoga County, OH property tax increase for children’s services.

Additionally, the federal government has demonstrated its capacity to immediately generate and dole out resources to address the fallout of COVID-19 (see the latest version of Children’s Funding Project’s Emergency Funding Guide to learn more about the federal stimulus packages and their flexibilities). When there is a need, the country can find a way to meet it if enough pressure is applied. How can we continue to apply this pressure and lay the groundwork for future investment?

Short term (1 month)
  • Appeal to parents and the public about the value of the professionals that work with their children. Conduct a poll to determine whether your measure is still viable (note Anchorage and Cuyahoga!). Use Ballotpedia to understand changing state and local election rules.
  • Advocate for a federal bailout of the childcare industry. More than the airline, auto or hospitality industries, childcare providers and other nonprofits that serve our kids have few reserves and were struggling even prior to the pandemic due to insufficient investment. But don’t stop there, lobby state and local legislatures for emergency childcare funding to supplement federal emergency funding.
Midterm (within 6 months)
  • Think big. Now is not the time for piecemeal solutions. Treat this juncture as a clean slate and an opportunity to communicate the full cost of serving children and youth.
  • Lobby state legislatures to enable localities to use more progressive taxation options. It is critical that we think beyond the ‘go-to moves’ of sales and property taxes and look toward more innovative taxing mechanisms and other financing strategies.
  • Consider commissioning a poll to better understand where the public stands on revenue options and the importance of children’s services. See here for a guide on how to do so.
  • Start building a coalition of policymakers, business leaders, faith leaders, and other key community stakeholders that unifies around the message that federal, state, local and private resources must work together to fill gaps in funding for children and youth.
Long term (within 1-2 years)
  • Mount local and state ballot measures to raise revenue to fill gaps in funding for childcare, afterschool, and other child and youth services.
  • Ensure that any big ‘New Deal style’ physical infrastructure investments are tied to parallel social infrastructure investments.
  • Incorporate lessons learned from the COVID-19 fallout and make sure that any ballot measure or other strategic financing measure accounts for future emergencies and economic downturns. Stay tuned to CFP’s social channels for a guide on campaigning for, reauthorizing, and maintaining a children’s fund during economic recessions.

‘Activate’: Adopting measures to ensure maximum impact of and access to funds.

No matter what is happening in the world, our job is to make sure that funds earmarked for children are used fully and responsibly. This was true before COVID-19 and it is even truer now. Pre-COVID, that meant developing long-term strategic investment plans, designing an accountability infrastructure, and coordinating multiple stakeholders. Now, we must attempt to be just as diligent in a very different context: states and localities will have to figure out how to do more with less and providers will have to meet increasing need with potentially fewer or different resources.

Short term (1 month)
  • Don’t assume that someone else is doing the hard work of coordinating funding in your community. Find out or – if you’re positioned to do so – get to it yourself! Use your children’s cabinet, coordinating body, dedicated fund community board, etc. to help lead this charge. Minnesota’s children’s cabinet, for instance, has created this guide for its residents and is working on many fronts to coordinate and distribute funding.
  • If you have a local dedicated funding stream that has flexibility, you’re in luck. Many of these are nimbly supporting their networks of providers to keep working and be creative about how their community delivers services, reimburses for those services, and fills gaps where no other funding is available. We’ve put together a compilation of how these funds are finding creative ways of addressing COVID-19 here.
  • Remember to administer funding with the long game in mind. Many quick decisions are being made to repurpose funding for direct response to COVID-19, but we encourage you to pause before spreading resources too thin. We could be in this scenario for a while. Before you decide to buy PPE with the grant you were going to use this school year to ensure safe passages for youth to and from school, consider your options. Perhaps it would be better to ask for a no cost extension to your grant and apply those dollars to the fall school year? Maybe not, but make sure that you are considering the long-term in the short-term.
Midterm (within 6 months)
  • Determine where there are opportunities for better consolidating the flow of funding (see Align) and begin a process of implementing those. Our current method of funding children and family services is simultaneously scattershot and extremely complex.
  • This is the time for some serious revenue forecasting and reviewing of your overall budgets to support youth (and where a fiscal map comes in handy). What needs to be adjusted and what needs to be eliminated? How are you using performance and outcome data to direct resources and how do those targets need to change? The key here is to do your best and remember that the process of predicting needed changes and making them is an iterative one. If cuts need to be made it is always better to use a scalpel than an ax to do so.
Long term (within 1-2 years)
  • Because of all the unknowns clouding the horizon, it seems this is an area I can’t yet envision. In order to be at a place in one to two years that will allow your state or locality to effectively and accountably administer public dollars, you must be deeply engaged in whatever stage of the policy lever process that you’re in. If you haven’t yet mapped investments in youth, make sure that you are pursuing a fiscal map or children’s budget (see our Find post here). If you already know where your community is putting its dollars, great! Now is the time to do the challenging work of aligning funding and programming for children and youth to maximize efficiency of current investments (see Align) or lay the groundwork for a public dedicated fund to generate new dollars (see Generate). If you currently have a local dedicated fund, use this opportunity to reevaluate your current processes, practices, and infrastructure. What gaps or opportunities have become more evident as part of the COVID-19 crisis and how can you use that knowledge to improve your fund’s efficacy overall? It will take all of these levers as well as creative American spirit and ingenuity to determine how to activate children’s funding comprehensively, effectively, and transparently in the long run. I can’t wait to see the innovation!

Elizabeth Gaines is CEO of Children’s Funding Project.