First Children's Finance

Report date
April 2015

What has been most instrumental to your progress?

The MN Project works region by region to address rural child care issues and develop community solution action plans, engage regional business leaders in early care and education issues and align training and technical assistance to rural child care businesses. The facilitation of community-based solution action planning processes in 6 rural communities across Greater Minnesota has been our greatest success, and our greatest source of learning during the first year of our grant. Crafting messages to engage the private sector, economic development authorities, and community leaders in child care issues has been instrumental in creating an awareness of child care as an economic development strategy for rural communities. The result has been an increased awareness of preserving child care slots, incentivizing new child care providers to join the field and supporting the small child care businesses that are critical component of the local economy. The Star Tribune featured our project here:, and NPR’s Marketplace:
In addition to facilitating community processes, First Children’s Finance has also provided one-on-one business consulting, training and resources to family child care providers and child care centers in rural communities through our Business Learning Cohorts. As the cohorts have formed, we are gaining even stronger insight into the unique needs of rural child care businesses. We’re using that knowledge to create new business analysis tools that will assist business owners to use enrollment and financial data to inform business decision-making. We are also seeking additional ways for child care businesses to access information online; in the second year of our grant activity, we’ll be piloting online Business Learning Cohorts for providers and creating a series of webinars dedicated to child care business issues. We produced a video highlighting one of the most innovative success stories from our project and shared it on our project webpage By sharing our progress and stories from communities across Minnesota, we’re spurring additional rural communities to begin conversations about rural child care and develop innovative, homegrown solutions.

Key lessons learned

In the first year of the >MN Project, we validated the premise we used to design this work: in order to effectively engage rural communities, it takes time to build trusting relationships. To be successful, having a regular physical presence in each community is critically important. Because this project covers the far corners of the state, this can be a logistical challenge: the sheer amount of hours spent driving can be quite challenging.
The >MN Project has grown significantly in its first year, and we have experienced an increased demand from rural communities who would like to join the project. It has been difficult to respond to the number of communities would like to participate due to limited resources and personnel. It is quite clear that rural communities are beginning to understand the link between child care and a strong local economy, and it is imperative that we continue to study and share successful examples from communities that have created workable solutions.
First Children’s Finance was asked to replicate the >MN Project in the Navajo and Apache Counties of Arizona, and we contracted with Summit Healthcare in Show Low, Arizona in the fall of 2014. The >MN Project is ambitious, and although another department of our organization spearheaded the effort in Arizona, it forced our Minnesota work to become even more formalized. This opportunity forced us to build comprehensive support systems and infrastructure to support our innovation, at an advanced rate. The benefit has been that the >MN Project has become a formal model for our work in Minnesota on an accelerated timeline. We anticipate that this model of working with rural communities within a child care and economic development framework has national implications for First Children’s Finance.

Reflections on inclusive, collaborative or resourceful problem-solving

Although all three elements are critical to our community-based process, resourcefulness plays an integral role in the >MN Project. The working philosophy of our project is that rural communities are resources unto themselves, and have the flexibility and innovative spirit required solve their own challenges. This messaging is clear throughout our entire process, and we find that rural communities resonate with this foundational aspect of our project. Communities in Greater MN have tired of “experts” from the Twin Cities diagnosing their communities without spending any time in them. Too often decisions that impact rural child care policy are made in the Twin Cities, without thought to the burdens created on small, but vital, child care businesses in rural areas.
The connections between child care and economic development are real, and as we’ve carried this message throughout our work in Minnesota, we’ve witnessed communities coming together to create successful solutions using the resources and leveraging relationships that already exist.

Understanding the problem

Our process has reinforced the need to address rural child care challenges from a community-based perspective. This was the premise we based our program design on, and it continues to be true as the >MN Project partners with multiple rural communities. The needs of rural communities are great—we hear almost monthly from a new community asking for resources or assistance. It will be important for us to document successful models that are working in rural communities in Minnesota. We find that communities are at a crisis point with child care, and we no longer have to explain the link between employment, the economy and child care. Rural communities understand that the availability of high quality child care is critical to attracting and retaining young families.