Sharing is Caring. And Also Empowering.

Like a permanent marker, a high-quality early education makes an indelible impact on the healthy brain development of young children. This healthy development is the foundation for lifelong learning and educational success. But for the people who deliver this foundational experience, low wages and lack of small business expertise can make a challenging job seem impossible.  So who supports the early education provider?

In addition to providing a safe learning environment, engaging families in their child’s development, training staff and delivering research-based curriculum, many early education providers are also responsible for the business side of their programs. This requirement stresses already time-starved educators and caregivers for the additional time and resources needed to run their small business effectively.  This tension between running a business and enriching children is the reason United Way recently launched the innovative Shared Services initiative. Shared Services provides support for early education providers in low-income communities in three key ways: 1) Providing educators with small business support and training; 2) Giving members greater collective bargaining power with vendors; and 3) Providing discounted services to employees, easing the burden of traditionally low wages.

Seeded by a grant of $30,000 from the Cambridge Community Foundation, United Way launched Shared Services of Massachusetts with a 14-program pilot in Cambridge and Somerville last October. The initiative combines a web platform offering a range of resources, monthly meetings where participating programs share information, and partnerships to facilitate services with local insurance, utility and property management providers along with IT, finance and marketing support.

A STRONG TRACK RECORD of support for early education providers

The Massachusetts model is based on the success of the State Early Learning Alliance (SELA) in New Hampshire, which was launched by United Way of the Greater Seacoast in 2011.

In its first six months, SELA participating programs saved $84,000 in operating costs and reallocated those funds to workforce development and classroom improvements. Today, participating members save an average of $5,000 – $10,000 annually, and employees and families are each saving $500 – $1,000 annually. Additionally, 64 teachers have benefited from college credit courses, 12 programs have participated in business management training, and the average turnover of participating programs has decreased to between 7 and 15 percent, compared to the national average of 35 percent.

“During my 25-plus years managing a multi-site early childhood agency, one of the most challenging parts of the job was related to facility needs,” said Cellissa Hoyt, Director of SELA New Hampshire. “All our early childhood sites were in facilities not designed for our use and considered “fixer uppers” in every way. This truly was a game changer for me.”


United Way’s Shared Services pilot in Massachusetts is seeing real returns. Through the partnership with Great North Property Management Company, participating programs have realized major discounts on business insurance and pressing property management needs including a roof replacement, window repair and discounted cell phone plans for their employees.

A partnership with The Alliance for Nonprofit Growth and Opportunity (TANGO) programs provides access to discounted dental insurance and a host of other HR services and free seminars. The initiative has also partnered with Lesley University to recruit substitutes and is working with Bunker Hill Community College to finalize a similar partnership.

“Those who run early education and care programs, during the school day or during the critically important out of school times, wear multiple hats – from plumber to bookkeeper, to instructional leader,” said Lisa Kuh, Director of Early Education at Somerville Public Schools, Capuano Early Childhood Center. “Easing day-to-day operations resulting in savings that can be put back into programming benefits everyone in the center, and the community.”

For early education employees, Shared Services provides tangible financial relief. In Massachusetts, the median annual salary for the 90,000 child care workers is only $25,000, according to a report released earlier this year. That’s only $700 above the poverty level for a family of four. More than 39% of the early childhood workforce in the Commonwealth is on public assistance and more than 13% live in poverty. At the same time, the number of child care providers serving low-income children is declining, putting additional stress on those that remain.

The model has also received funding and support from the Birth-to-3rd-Grade Partnership at Cambridge Public Schools. “The Partnership sees it as a way to help early education and care providers save time and money that can then be used to improve program quality,” said Lei-Anne Ellis, Early Childhood Director of the Partnership.

The Boston Foundation, Eastern Bank and the Hogan Foundation recently awarded United Way critical funding to expand the Shared Services model into the City of Boston in the coming months. The most recent estimates suggest family child care providers make up 15-20% of Boston’s total child care capacity.

“Family child care centers serve an important market for parents,” said Sunindiya Bhalla, Senior Director for Community Impact at United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley. “They can serve parents who work non-traditional hours and can serve infants and children with special needs – a service that traditional center-based care is often not equipped to deliver. Finally, they disproportionately serve low-income families and families of color.

“Given this track record of success, United Way is confident that a similar effort will be successful, scalable and sustainable in Massachusetts.”