A Champion for Gumby Philanthropy: Lisa Klein Leaves a Legacy of Growth and Success Fueled by Vision and Flexibility

When the founders of the Alliance for Early Success (then the Birth to Five Policy Alliance) named its first Executive Director in 2008, the organization seemed to be taking a chance on a leader without a traditional policy background. But anyone who knew Lisa Klein knew the move was all upside. A PhD in Psychology/Child Development and a Vice President of Early Education at the Kauffman Foundation, Lisa knew early childhood supports backward and forward.

But what would prove most powerful was her leadership style. “You can only lead if others follow,” Lisa says. “You have to set a clear vision, create a strong culture, and then get out of the way and let folks make it happen.” This would apply to the Alliance team and its network of state and national allies. Lisa says. “We take the lead from state allies because they know more about their state’s need and what opportunity to seize than we ever could — or should. And we provide access to technical expertise at no cost to help them as they want and need it.”

Her idea was to create a re-granting organization that is highly responsive to grantee partner’s pressures, opportunities, needs and offers a spectrum of supports beyond funding. According to Lisa, grantmaking is both art and science. You do your homework and take smart risks. You can never plan for everything, so you set aside funds for what she fondly called RR: rapid response. You start down one path and may find you better take the fork in the road. Some investments will be winners. Some will fall short.

For Lisa, “Gumby r Us” is the key to success. You change plans, allocations, or requirements in real time as circumstances dictate.

Lisa Klein leaves a legacy at the Alliance for Early Success.

Lisa Klein, PhD

Expanding the Focus

In 2008, Lisa took the helm and created an independent 501c3 with two team members – Helene Stebbins and Stephanie Clothier. They had been brought on by the Buffett Early Childhood with assistance from advisor Joan Lombardi. For three years, they had been strategically deploying investor funds to encourage state policies that could change the calculus for children through legislative, regulatory, and budgetary actions.

Lisa’s child-development expertise and the researcher in her told her that the period known as early childhood included children up through age eight, and that when fade-out occurred it was mostly because of the absence of a continuum of high-quality services to maintain gains. So Lisa began to make the case and in 2012, the Birth to Five Policy became the Alliance for Early Success and included supports for the expanded age range.

She also knew that children reach their full potential when they have good health/mental health, strong supportive families, and quality early learning experiences. Lisa led a process that resulted in the development of a theory of change and policy framework. The evidence-based policies in the Birth Through Eight State Policy Framework would guide all Alliance actions and investments and “let others know what the Alliance is about and what we hold ourselves accountable for achieving.”

The 50-State Strategy

If there’s a universal truth in philanthropy, it’s that the vast need in the world dwarfs the limited resources we have to address it. Finite resources mean investors must make smart allocation decisions and think creatively about how to have the greatest impact.

After working successfully in a handful of states, Lisa sought out new investors for the pooled fund, expanded the team, and by its tenth birthday in 2015, the Alliance was working with partners in 24 states.

But Lisa’s vision was all states. This would give the Alliance the deepest knowledge to share and the power to influence policies for young children and families all across the country.

Today, that vision has become reality. By the end of 2019 the Alliance had established partnerships in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, and in 2020 made grants in each one.

“Lisa has helped put the organization center stage in state early childhood policy advocacy,” says Alliance Board Chair Jessie Rasmussen, President of the Buffett Early Childhood Fund. “Lisa had a vision for an organization with the reach, strength, and expertise to impact outcomes for kids in all 50 states, and she has sure delivered.” 

What’s Next

Lisa is leaving the Alliance to lead Impact Fellows Action Fund (www.ifaction.org), which she founded to provide early-childhood advocates with political action funding — what she calls “the missing piece in the advocacy toolbox.”

“Almost every major cause in America leverages both nonprofit support and political activity to be successful,” Lisa says. “That’s because it takes both to make the structural, lasting change that can change lives for generations.”  

But crucial political action dollars aligned with advocacy are scarce in early childhood. The gap that Impact Fellows Action Fund will fill is providing savvy advocates with this type of funding. Similar to the model she led at the Alliance, Lisa believes they know better than anyone which state policymakers will support early childhood and the policies they should stand for.

On the Alliance’s tenth anniversary, the celebration book was titled A Wild Patience

Has Taken Us This Far, a reference to a poem by Adrienne Rich that describes the tension between ferocity and forbearance. For Lisa, wild patience is the key to success in early childhood policy advocacy. “We have to act with urgency because our country can’t afford one more child to fail, and we have to be in it for the long haul because it takes time to change the trajectory of the life of a child – especially those facing the greatest challenges.”

Since she’s admittedly more on the first side of the equation, she took to signing off her correspondence “With the Wildest of Patience, Lisa.”

There is no doubt much more to come, and the countless advocates, allies, experts, and investors who have worked with Lisa over the past 11 years at the Alliance for Early Success will all likely tell you to look out. Lisa’s wild patience will take her – and the nation’s youngest children and their families – much farther still.

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