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Q & A: Monica Duncan, Director of Early Childhood Services, IFF


IFF, a nonpofit community development finance institution, is a key partner for the Kresge Early Years for Success (KEYS): Detroit iniatitive, a $20-million commitment to improve Detroit’s early childhood systems. Monica Duncan is IFF’s director for early childhood services in Detroit, and we asked her how she approaches her work, what IFF is working on now and how she sees early childhood systems improving in 2017.

Q:  First off, tell us what IFF’s mission is all about. How are you working on early childhood outcomes in Detroit?

A: Founded in 1988, IFF’s vision is to provide comprehensive solutions with transformational outcomes in low-income and special needs communities throughout the Midwest. Consistent with this vision, IFF has strategically approached its work in Detroit’s early childhood care and education sector by comprehensively applying its integrated expertise in research and public policy, real estate services, financing and community development to address short-term facility challenges while crafting long-term recommendations.  IFF also works with a full spectrum of nonprofit organizations that support healthy communities that are critical to long-term outcomes for children and families.

Monica Duncan, Director of Early Childhood Services at IFF, reads to children at the Little Scholar’s Child Development Center in Detroit’s Northend neighborhood.

During the past three years, IFF has continued to work in partnership with local foundation partners and early childhood providers, with a primary focus on facilities, to improve the existing early childhood system and to advocate for long-term improvements.

In 2017, IFF will continue to support high-quality early childhood education providers with more extensive subsidized real-estate consulting services, flexible financing, and grant administration, while advocating for additional investment in capacity building and policy shifts to better align resources for the ecosystem.

Q: What are the key concerns you hear from the community about early childhood care in Detroit?  

A: Providers continue to voice concerns about:

  • Identifying, securing and maintaining high-quality facilities
  • Challenges with landlords, poor leases and building maintenance
  • Complexity associated with blending funding streams, limited state subsidy, managing co-pays, and accessing other funding sources/partners
  • Staffing, especially retention and turnover
  • Access to quality professional development opportunities (costs and topic variety are hindrances)
  • Maintaining enrollment
  • Accessing technical assistance and capital for facility/programmatic improvements and growth

Q: IFF released a report about a year ago showing that there is a major gap in the number of childcare seats vs. the number of children who need them. What will it take to close this gap? 

A: IFF, in partnership with Kresge and other local foundation partners, continues to work diligently to create opportunities for Detroit care providers to access the necessary capital, facilities assessments, renovation expertise and other supports needed to increase quality options for families.  This work is focused on supporting high-quality providers dealing with facilities challenges in the interest of preserving and/or expanding capacity and helping providers develop thoughtful, long-term facilities plans. IFF also works proactively to respond to the ongoing facilities and financing needs of Detroit care providers by serving in a leadership role of connecting and leveraging government, philanthropic and CDFI resources and by highlighting the urgency to direct targeted investment to all high-quality provider types throughout the city.

Q: One exampls of that work is the Learning Spaces program, which Kresge supports and launched earlier this year to help early care centers make needed renovations and building improvements. Now the program is expanding with a new $1 million grant announecd this week. How has the program made a difference so far?

A: The IFF and Kresge Learning Spaces Grant program was designed to complement the various early childhood education quality improvement efforts and offer providers direct access to grant funding for equipment, emergency repairs and other building improvements.  Qualifying providers, including home-based caregivers and nonprofits that have achieved a three-star rating or higher in the Great Start to Quality rating system, have the opportunity to apply for grants ranging from $5,000 to $15,000. Kresge’s investment fills an important gap for providers by providing brick-and-mortar grants for small but critical projects. To date, 20 applications have been received and more than $104,000 has been disbursed to improve facility quality and expand services to families. Examples include things like funding for building repairs (emergency roof repairs, new flooring, classroom and playground equipment) as well as life-safety building modifications (fire-rated doors, egress windows, security doors, security equipment, etc.).  IFF also complements the grant funds with professional real estate consulting expertise and financing to thoughtfully evaluate each provider’s situation and help them to develop a comprehensive plan. Through these supports, providers have identified long-term facility challenges and are actively planning for growth and expansion.

Q: In November, Kresge partnered with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to launch Hope Starts Here, a citywide visioning and planning process for early childhood. IFF is a critical partner for that work. Explain IFF’s role and what your organization uniquely brings to the process.

A: IFF has a long history of supporting and leading comprehensive community development efforts and special initiatives in the nonprofit sector across the Midwest, leveraging its significant experience as a nonprofit intermediary that works exclusively with other nonprofits to address facilities and financing challenges in a data driven manner.  IFF’s has deployed more than $40 million in capital in Michigan, has conducted two early childhood education needs assessments in Southeast Michigan, and actively supports nonprofits, including early childhood education providers, with professional real estate consulting services.  For Hope Starts Here, IFF developed and led the RFP process to select the consulting team leading the work, FSG and EarlyWorks, LLC, and is now administering the contract on behalf of the foundations and supporting the effort with staffing, knowledge sharing and coordination.

Q: Finally, why are you personally doing this work? What gets you excited to get to work each day?

A: Who would not want to do this work? Preserving and creating quality facilities for children to learn, grow and thrive is not only enjoyable but has long-term rewards. Beautiful, quality early childhood care and education facilities are inspiring and can leave such a lasting imprint of fond memories and educational standards for children, families, staff and the local community.  In addition, the team of people that I work with are supportive, intelligent and dedicated to ensuring that facility transformation happens across the communities that we serve. We experience the pleasure of partnering with committed organizations and citizens to bring visible change. And if that were not enough, the smiles, waves and spontaneous hugs that I receive from children when visiting child care organizations are absolutely priceless!