From Michael Feigelson - Bernard van Leer Foundation on what business can do for children and why it matters.
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Investing in young children makes good business sense
In 2007, The Lancet medical journal published an article stating that more than 200 million children under five fail to reach their potential in cognitive development because of poverty, poor health and nutrition, and lack of responsive caregiving. This statistic made the rounds in the worlds of public health, education and other segments of society generally focused on the welfare of our youngest citizens. Unfortunately, it did not achieve the same degree of penetration among one of the most powerful global communities - business leaders. Why?
The more I have spoken with business leaders around the world, the more I have come to believe the answer is related to how we tell the story. Frequently, those of us who spend our days consumed with Lancet articles and the like have committed the all too common mistake of trying to convince others to engage in an issue we love for the same reasons that moved us to action. Instead, we should have been focusing on connecting to the intrinsic motivations that move business leaders everyday. We need to explain why young children are good for business.
First, investing in young children is good for the brand. Edelman’s annual global good purpose study has found that consumers increasingly expect leading corporations to stand for more than profits. In the last round of the survey (2012), five of the top six social causes signaled by consumers as important had a direct impact on young children’s development. When consumers associate a brand with support for young children, it can help a company stand out from its competitors.
Second, investing in employees’ young children is good for productivity and the retention of talent. Research in the United States by the Families and Work Institute and the Society for Human Resource Management found that when offered family friendly, flexible work arrangements, employees were more engaged in their work and likely to stay with their employer. Flexible working arrangements also led to less home interference with work. These findings held for high and low wage employees.
Third, investing in young children is good for workforce development. Frequently, business leaders highlight education as the focus of their corporate social responsibility. While this should be applauded, most business leaders are not starting young enough. Brain researchers at Harvard University have found early childhood experiences - well before children reach school age - have a lifelong effect on the development of skills in increasing demand in the 21st century workforce such as creative problem solving and the ability to work in teams.
Fourth, investing in young children is good for international competitiveness. Longitudinal studies in the United States have found that parent support and pre-school programs have achieved returns of [US]$4 - $9 per $1 invested, through increased earnings and reductions in crime and welfare spending. More recently, findings from Jamaica found that consistent parent support visits to families with babies and toddlers led to higher IQs, fewer signs of depression, less involvement in fights and a 25% increase in income 20 years after the programme ended.
As more data from around the world emerges and new generations of workers seek to live and do well at once, investments in young children are slowly making it into decisions about where to work and what to buy. This is progress. However, they are still far away from making it into the equation to establish a country’s credit rating, the valuation of an IPO [initial public stock offering] or in helping identify which political leaders are pro-business. Once we get there, we will know we’ve made the case.
On the topic of investing in young children, Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckman said, "it is a rare public policy initiative that promotes fairness and social justice and at the same time promotes productivity in the economy and in society at large." Whether through corporate social responsibility, progressive human resource policies or by lending their voice to advocate for public investment in the youngest citizens - business leaders can help move us toward the kinds of societies that we all envision - ones that are both prosperous and peaceful.
Michael Feigelson - Bernard van Leer Foundation (@mfeigelson1) is the interim executive director for the Bernard Van Leer Foundation and serves on the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Behavior.