Start Early

Thursday, May 18, 2017

By Mo Perry

Equity work comes in many forms, even strategic planning. Start Early Funders share the process of working with MCF to bring an equity frame into their work.


The Start Early Funders Coalition for Children and Minnesota’s Future, a collaboration of more than 20 members of Minnesota’s philanthropic community, has been working since 2011 to ensure that all the state’s children have a strong and healthy start that prepares them to succeed in school and life. In 2016, Start Early worked with the Minnesota Council on Foundations to undertake a strategic planning process to help them build in a new focus on equity—economic, geographic and racial—and ensure that their efforts are reaching and benefiting all of Minnesota’s kids and their families.

Denise Mayott, executive director of the Sheltering Arms Foundation and co-chair of the Start Early Funders Coalition, says it became clear last year that it was time for Start Early to integrate notions of equity into its organizational framework. With the minority population of Minnesota growing four times faster than the white population (according to 2014 census data), Mayott says, “We couldn’t not deal with equity. We took a look at where we were and realized we had a long way to go.”

When Start Early approached MCF with the question of how to integrate a new emphasis on equity, they also expressed a desire to better understand how their stakeholders currently perceived their work and areas of opportunity. “We started with surveying their full membership, as well as external stakeholders,” says MCF Alfonso Wenker, MCF vice president, who facilitated feedback-gathering sessions with various pockets of Start Early’s membership. “It started to become clear that the organization’s limited focus was a potential barrier.”

Start Early was initially motivated by a concern for racial equity, but it became clear throughout the strategic planning process that economic and geographic equity also merited attention.

“We’re a statewide organization,” says Mayott, “and the issues in Greater Minnesota are sometimes different than those in the metro area.” For some communities, issues of poverty, isolation or limited resources are the biggest challenges faced by families with young children. “We couldn’t serve all our communities without a definition of ‘equity’ that took all three elements—racial, geographic and economic—into consideration.”

The stakeholders agreed that Start Early put the issue of whole-child wellbeing on the map locally, but in order to continue being a leader in the space, they would have to become more constituent-driven, convening people, research and activities around a whole range of determinants of success for children. The strategy refresh resulted in a renewed commitment to weave equity into all of the coalition’s strategies, using a race, place and economic lens and to broaden their scope to include all the factors that play into school readiness from birth onward.

“Through the strategic planning process, we came up with a clear understanding of the steps we had to take to make equity part of our work,” says Mayott, citing three distinct areas for action:

  • Create a vision and build a narrative for statewide leadership.
  • Build internal structures around equity and form a leadership succession plan.
  • Develop strategies around the whole child by strengthening all the elements that help support him or her in life and school, from birth onward.

“The idea of equity always had a place in our work at Start Early, but this process helped us elevate it to the number one focus of the organization,” says Mayott. “MCF has been really valuable for Start Early. They’ve done great work in lifting up equity as a focus for us and other philanthropic organizations in Minnesota, and they helped us sharpen our skills in this critical area.”