Learning to Give, Philanthropy education resources that teach giving and civic engagement

Children's Defense Fund

By Megan E. Ray

Graduate Student, Indiana University at Bloomington


The Children's Defense Fund is a private, national nonprofit organization dedicated to improving children's lives. The mission of the CDF is "to Leave No Child Behind® and to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start, and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities" (Children's Defense Fund Home Page). The CDF takes a holistic approach to children's issues; its services include specific resources for parents, such as information on childcare, health insurance, mental health, and violence among youth. It also coordinates several different outreach campaigns and coalition-building organizations, including a specific organizing group for African Americans called the Black Community Crusade for Children. Legislation, training, programs, and policy development are all methods the CDF employs to advocate for children (Ibid.). The CDF is headquartered in Washington, D.C., and maintains offices in several additional locations, including California, Ohio, Minnesota, Mississippi, New York, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas.

Historic Roots

On 24 May 1973, the Children's Defense Fund was founded by Marian Wright Edelman to "seek reforms in the education, classification, treatment and care of children who are served by a variety of public and private institutions" ("Children's Defense Fund" 1973, 260). CDF was originally conceived as part of the Washington Research Project and, until 1977, CDF was a part of this project (Siegel 1995).

With a long history of involvement in the civil rights movement, Edelman saw the Children's Defense Fund as a way to create change. She stated, "The country was tired of the concerns of the sixties. When you talked about poor people or black people, you faced a shrinking audience. I got the idea that children might be a very effective way to broaden the base for change" (cited in Lewis). It was in these early years that Edelman created the CDF logo, which consists of a child's drawing and the prayer, "Dear Lord . . . be good to me . . . The sea is so wide . . . and my boat is so small" (Siegel 1995, 103).

In 1977, CDF led a campaign to obtain school access for disabled children. Drawing on the nonviolent protest methods of the civil rights movement, through sit-ins and demonstrations, CDF supporters helped convince the secretaries of health, education, and welfare that 1973 legislation "prohibiting discrimination by recipients of public funds" was important. Based on the work of CDF and cooperating organizations, regulations designed to give the disabled equal rights were enacted, allowing one million disabled children to attend public school (Siegel 1995).

Throughout the 1980s, CDF sought to mitigate the effects of government cutbacks in programs and policies that served children and their families. The organization and other advocacy groups were able to effect some change, most notably the inclusion of pregnant women under Medicaid in 1984. In 1987, the combined efforts of multiple organizations led the Reagan administration to increase tenfold the budget for children's health and education (Ibid.).

During the 1990s, CDF influenced the passage of the Act for Better Child Care (ABC). In navigating the challenges of a partisan Congress, the bill lost momentum until 1990, when it finally passed. It allocated funds toward childcare, setting a tone of "federal responsibility" for child welfare (Ibid., 118). Edelman, who has served as CDF's president since its founding, stated in a 1988 speech, "Our goal . . . is to see if we can encourage our leaders across the political spectrum to make preventative investment in children and families the cornerstone of domestic policy in the coming era" (Edelman 1989, 290).

The Clinton administration enabled the most powerful successes of CDF to date. A deep commitment to children's issues was shared by Hillary Rodham Clinton, a college friend of Edelman's. This political backing yielded improvements such as an increase in the Earned Income Tax Credit, which provided more support to working parents. Other legislation enacted during this time period included the Childhood Hunger Prevention Act and the Family and Medical Leave Act. Funding was also increased for the Head Start program and for child immunization (Siegel 1995).

Legislation is a powerful change agent employed by the Children's Defense Fund. Through the leadership of Marian Wright Edelman, CDF has diligently kept watch on the status of children in the United States. In forty years, the organization has become established as a powerful, authoritative voice, an entity that uses research, leadership, and social networks to accomplish its goals. As the legislative effort continues, CDF has begun to create more grassroots components in the form of training and awareness-raising efforts.

CDF has a powerful record of social and political action. Initiatives that it has been directly involved in include the Education for All Handicapped Children Act and the 1990 child-care legislation (Ibid.). In addition, the organization provides an organizing framework for many child and family-centered non-profits. Its staff includes community relations professionals, policy experts, lawyers, and researchers (Ibid.).

Ongoing CDF initiatives address a number of key issues challenging children's health today. The organization implements the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP). This program allows states to create health insurance options for families with incomes too high for Medicaid eligibility but too low to pay for private insurance (CDF "What are CHIP"). In addition, the Child Watch Visitation Program works with community leaders to create awareness of the struggles facing children in the leaders' own areas. The program includes "on-site visits. briefings by public policy experts. [and] experiential activities" (CDF "Child Watch"). Observing and interacting with local children and families helps inspire these leaders to take action.

The Black Community Crusade for Children, led by "a 23-person Working Committee of African American educators, policy makers, and community leaders," is another arm of the Children's Defense Fund (CDF "The Black Community"). A primary goal of the program is to "tap into and strengthen the strong Black community tradition of self-help" (Ibid.). Several programs are housed under this initiative, including the Student Leadership Network for Children (SLNC), which organizes the Ella Baker Child Policy Training Institute.

Freedom Schools provide high school and college-age students the opportunity to work with children who are "5 to 18 years old for six to eight weeks," teaching "reading, conflict resolution, and social action in activity-based curricula" (Haley Farm "Freedom"). These college-age students are trained to take up the cause of children through "intensive community service and child advocacy leadership training" that they receive as part of the Ella Baker Child Policy Training Institute (Ibid.). After their experiences at the institute, these students become "teachers, counselors, and role models for disadvantaged children in Freedom Schools" (Ibid.). Freedom Schools have served over 23,000 children.

A governmental program that CDF advocates for regularly is Head Start. Created in 1965 by the Office of Economic Opportunity, Head Start serves to "help kids from low-income families get ready for kindergarten" (Edelman "Interview"). A national program, Head Start has served over 20 million children through a range of services that help children with reading and preparation for school (Ibid.). Currently, Head Start is "locally administered by community-based non-profit organizations and school systems" (Head Start Bureau).

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

The Children's Defense Fund receives no government funding; instead, it is supported by donations from individuals and grants from businesses and foundations (CDF "About Us"). A key strategy is coalition-building with communities, individuals, and institutions concerned with youth welfare. By creating a national agenda for children's issues, CDF allows churches, schools, and other organizations to combine their resources to advocate for children in poverty.

CDF has a strong connection with religious organizations and has sponsored initiatives such as "National Observance of Children's Sabbaths," "Congregations to Leave No Child Behind," and the "Samuel Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy Ministry" (CDF "Moral Start"). In addition, CDF lists a host of related child and family-oriented organizations on its Web site, including government agencies. While CDF only cites formal relationships with two of these organizations, the backgrounds and affiliations of the staff of these nonprofits clearly demonstrate a great deal of overlap and collaboration.

Key Related Ideas

  • Advocacy : Supporting or speaking in favor of something (often a cause, an organization, a group, or a policy)

  • Child welfare : Concern with the health and education of children.

  • Civil rights : The rights belonging to a citizen of a country; in America, the Thirteenth and Fourteenth amendments and subsequent acts of Congress ensured specific fundamental freedoms and privileges including the right to legal, economic, educational, and social equality.

  • Civil Rights movement : Most often associated with the mid-twentieth century American movement to ensure civil rights for African Americans.

  • Coalition-building : Constructing or convening alliances of organizations, people, or groups interested in accomplishing specific goals.

Important People Related to the Topic

Ella Baker (1903-1986): Baker called for the conference of student leaders that led to the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1960. She was an advocate of grassroots organization that connected local leaders with the issues facing communities in the south in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Baker's commitment inspired Edelman to become involved in social justice (Siegel 1995; Balfour "Ella").

Hillary Rodham Clinton (1947- ): Longtime friend of Marian Wright Edelman, United States Senator since 2001, First Lady, and wife of former President Bill Clinton. Senator

Hillary Rodham Clinton (continued) Clinton worked closely with Edelman and the vision of CDF during her husband's presidency (Siegel 1995). Clinton's association with CDF began early in her legal career when she served one year as its staff attorney. Continuing to stay involved, she has served as chair of the CDF board as well ( Encarta "Clinton").

Marian Wright Edelman (1939 - ): President and founder of the Children's Defense Fund; lawyer, activist, author, and children's rights advocate. Marian Wright was born the daughter of a Baptist minister. Her parents reflected both a strong religious faith and modeled and taught an ethic of service to others. " During the Civil Rights movement, she aided African Americans in the south as they asserted their right to vote, and helped bring visibility to the poor living conditions and starvation facing southern black children and families. In 1973, she founded the Children's Defense Fund as the leading advocate for children's and families' rights" (Spencer "Briefing Papers: Marian"). Her work through CDF continues to bring visibility to "the disparity in health care, education, and other social services, particularly, for minority children and families" (Ibid.).

Peter Edelman (1938 - ): Husband of Marian Wright Edelman, professor at Georgetown Law School (CDF "Marian"). His investigation of child poverty as an aide to Robert Kennedy allowed him to meet Marian Wright, who shared his passion for child health. His research areas include poverty, constitutional law, juvenile justice, and welfare. His book, Searching for America's Heart: RFK and the Renewal of Hope , was published in 2001 (Georgetown Law).

Related Nonprofit Organizations

100% Campaign: The 100% Campaign is "a collaborative effort of Children Now, Children's Defense Fund, and The Children's Partnerships" designed "to ensure that all of California's children obtain the health coverage they need to grow up healthy and strong" (100% Campaign). The organization utilizes "partnerships with the broadest.range of community groups and leaders, public education, new research, outreach, and policy analysis" to pursue health care of California children (Ibid.).

Stand for Children: A CDF affiliate that "encourages individuals to improve children's lives. Its mission is to identify, train, and connect local children's activists engaging in advocacy, awareness-raising, and service initiatives on an ongoing basis" (CDF "Useful").

SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee): Formed in 1960, this organization was created to "advance the 'sit-in' movement, a protest technique.to fighting all forms of segregation" ( Encarta African 2000 ). Edelman was present at the founding of SNCC; it influenced her passion for local efforts to address national problems. The organization was essentially defunct by 1970.

Related Web Sites

The Children's Defense Fund Web site , at http://www.childrensdefense.org , contains information on the organization's programs, founder, history, and current initiatives, as well as resources for families and public policy explanations.

The Web site for Haley Farm (A Home for the Movement to Leave No Child Behind), at http://www.haleyfarm.org/home.html , provides information on the "home" where college age leaders interested in working with youth are trained. CDF owns this 157-acre farm located in Clinton, Tennessee. The farm, originally owned by Roots author Alex Haley, is a place to help renew and encourage those who work for social justice for children. It houses several important programs for CDF, including Freedom Schools and the Proctor Institute. The Freedom Schools are "inspired by the Civil Rights Movement's Freedom Summer of 1964 when community leaders organized Black Americans to register to vote" (Haley Farm "Freedom"). The program has trained over 6000 high school and college-age servant-leaders (people who serve first and then lead in order to increase service to institutions and individuals). These young leaders, in turn, teach "children ages 5 to 18 for six to eight weeks, integrating reading, conflict resolution, and social action in activity-based curricula" (Ibid.). The Proctor Institute was "established in 1995 with the goal of raising up men and women for the task of leadership within each faith tradition" and allows participants the opportunity to "explore how faith relates to children and advocacy; hear inspiring preaching; gain solid, up-to-date information on children's needs; and acquire new skills and strategies to help children and strengthen families" (Haley Farm "Proctor").

Bibliography and Internet Sources

100% Campaign. Home Page. 100% Campaign. http://www.100percentcampaign.org/ .

Balfour, Lawrie. "Ella J. Baker." North Carolina State University. (As published in Encarta Africana 2000). http://www.ncsu.edu/chass/mds/ellabio.html .

Children's Defense Fund. "About Us." Children's Defense Fund. http://www.childrensdefense.org/about/default.aspx.

Children's Defense Fund. "The Black Community Crusade for Children." Children's Defense Fund. http://www.childrensdefense.org/bccc/.

Children's Defense Fund. "Child Watch Visitation Program: What is the Child Watch Visitation Program?" Children's Defense Fund. http://www.childrensdefense.org/childwatch/whatis.asp [no longer available]

Children's Defense Fund. "Marian Wright Edelman's Public Life." Children's Defense Fund. http://www.childrensdefense.org/about/mwe.aspx.

Children's Defense Fund. "Moral Start." Children's Defense Fund. http://www.childrensdefense.org/religiousaction/default.asp.

Children's Defense Fund. "Useful Links." Children's Defense Fund. http://www.childrensdefense.org/links.aspx.

Children's Defense Fund. "What are CHIP & Medicaid?" Children's Defense Fund. http://www.childrensdefense.org/childhealth/chip/faqs.asp [no longer available]

"Children's Defense Fund: An Interview with Marian Wright Edelman," Young Children 28 (1973): 5, 260-264.

Edelman, Marian Wright. "Children and Child Care," Journal of Negro Education 58 (1989): 3, 288-296.

Edeman, Marian Wright. "Interview: Marian Wright Edelman on the Bush Administration's Plan to Hand Control of Head Start Program to States." Interview by Tavis Smiley. National Public Radio. Transcript, 6 March 2003. http://www.npr.org .

Encarta Africana 2000. History of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee . Microsoft Corp. http://www.ncsu.edu/chass/mds/sncchist.html .

Encarta. "Clinton, Hillary Rodham." Microsoft Corp. http://encarta.msn.com/encnet/refpages/

Georgetown Law. "Faculty: Peter B. Edelman." Georgetown University Law Center http://www.law.georgetown.edu/curriculum/tab_faculty.cfm?Status=Faculty&Detail=246.

Haley Farm. "Freedom Schools." Children's Defense Fund. http://www.haleyfarm.org/freedom.html .

Haley Farm. "Proctor Institute." Children's Defense Fund. http://www.haleyfarm.org/proctor.html

Head Start Bureau. "Head Start History." U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/hsb/about/history.htm .

Lewis, Jone Johnson. Women's History: Marian Wright Edelman . About.com. http://womenshistory.about.com/library/qu/blquedel.htm .

Siegel, Beatrice. Marian Wright Edelman: The Making of a Crusader. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995. ISBN: 0027826295.

Spencer, Michele Rodger. "Briefing Papers: Marian Wright Edelman." Learning to Give. http://www.learningtogive.org/papers/people/