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High impact philanthropy for a child’s first 1,000 days — a funder’s brief

August 5, 2015 Category: Funding

The period between when a child is born and when he or she turn eight years old is full of both opportunities and potential pitfalls for his or her development. While it has traditionally been the job of parents and caretakers to help children navigate through this crucial period, the Center for High Impact Philanthropy is making the case that there is also a role for philanthropy.

The University of Pennsylvania-based research group has put out a series of “funder’s briefs” over the last year on how philanthropic organizations can better serve children during their early development. The briefs approach the problem from different angles and then provide recommendations for how funders can have the most impact.

The latest brief, titled “Ensure a Healthy Start: Prevent and Reduce Childhood Exposure to Harmful Chemicals,” looks at the problem of early childhood exposure to toxic chemicals, such as lead, methylmercury, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which are among the most pervasive found in children and pregnant women. Overexposure to these toxins can lead to learning disabilities, loss of IQ, impairment of sight or hearing, and a range of behavioral issues.

Citing recent research, the brief states that “while children’s brains continue to develop into adulthood and beyond, influences on this earliest period of brain development, including maternal health during pregnancy, can have particularly profound and lifelong effects.”

From birth to age two, a period often called “the first 1,000 days,” children develop their neurological abilities rapidly, making exposure at this time more detrimental in the long-run. Children in this age range also engage in more “hand-to-mouth activities” and have higher rates of eating and drinking, further exposing them to toxins.

According to the brief, there are three primary ways that funders can help.

First, prevent and reduce exposure to toxins by supporting reductions of known harmful chemicals in the built, consumer and natural environments. That covers everything from promoting safer seafood consumption to investing in the cleanup of old industrial sites.

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The brief cited one successful program, the Healthy Homes Collaborative, based in Los Angeles, that visits families to help them understand the importance of city-required lead inspections. The program has helped raise the number of city inspectors that are allowed to enter homes and make an assessment.

Second, the brief recommends that philanthropies partner with advocacy efforts to expand the regulations of chemicals at the local, state and federal level. The Toxic Substances Control Act, passed in 1976, regulates harmful chemicals, but it has not been significantly amended since its inception. By working with advocates, such as Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, funders could help expand the scope of the act and drive change at the policy level, according to the brief.

Finally, the brief recommends that funders invest in research. The science of how toxins impact early development is still growing, and a better understanding is needed to truly address the problem. Groups like the Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences are studying the link between toxin exposure and its detrimental effects later in life.

Whatever the approach, the brief concludes, the “ultimate impact is the same – healthier kids who are better able to achieve their full potential and a stronger society.”

Image via Flickr User Joel

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