As the pandemic spills into a third calendar year, foundations continue to balance their role in addressing the relentless impact of COVID-19 with the need to support their core work. That’s an especially freighted equation when future generations are at stake.
Since 1986, the LEGO Foundation has been engaged in equipping children with the building blocks to meet the daunting challenges of the 21st century. When those formative years began unspooling against the backdrop of a global pandemic, the foundation immediately deployed funding that centered upon existing partnerships and its bedrock belief in the power of play in early childhood development.
Over time, as the education of a full 90% of the world’s children abruptly ground to a halt, the foundation came to see the pandemic as a “child rights crisis” with the potential to set back years of progress on child development, and ramifications that “may well be felt for generations.”
Realizing that the rules of engagement had changed, LEGO took a look at the ways COVID-19 was “crushing under-resourced, fragile health systems,” and “attacking the way children access education, the way their families earn an income to cover their needs, and how safe they feel in their homes, communities and countries,” according to the foundation.
That led to a second round of funding that Sarah Bouchie, chief impact officer of the LEGO Foundation, said struck a balance between meeting the prerequisites of conducting its work and reinforcing socio-economic skills and resilience.
Here’s how the foundation’s support, totaling more than $250 million, has played out by continuing to help children become creative and engaged lifelong learners, while navigating the constantly changing underpinnings of young lives.
In March 2020, as the pandemic first spread around the globe, the LEGO Foundation committed $50 million to address the consequences impacting children already within the foundation’s networks. Bouchie said its first round of funding focused almost exclusively on existing partners.
Support rolled out through three groupings: Education Cannot Wait, an existing partner whose work was complicated by the virus, and other charity partners in places where LEGO has a significant presence.
Education Cannot Wait had long been a trusted conduit, with initiatives like a 2019 partnership of $12.5 million to stabilize the educational circumstances of 75 million children then living in crisis settings globally. Two years later, in April, the organization described the LEGO Foundation as its largest private-sector donor, following a $15 million emergency response gift that brought the overall total to $27.5 million.
Bouchie said an example of a partner whose work was complicated by COVID-19 was Sugira Murango (Family Strengthening) in Rwanda, which delivers programming in home settings to support parent-child interactions and better health outcomes. Despite the risks, community-based volunteers were “trying hard” to get local work off the ground without the benefit of PPE protections like face masks and hand sanitizer.
In June, LEGO announced a total $30 million pledge to Global Partnerships for Education (GPE) Fund, to drive inclusive access to quality education for all children, regardless of circumstances. Seven million of that was considered a pandemic booster shot, to provide “extra support for teaching and learning opportunities despite ancillary difficulties.”
The LEGO Group also supported charity partners in its areas of “significant presence,” a geography that spans 30 countries around the world.
To reach children during lockdown, the foundation leaned on vehicles like radio and television. It also considered ways to reach kids in places where broadband access isn’t a reality, through smartphones and play kits. These and other tactics were cited in the first round of reports on what partners were learning, and informed the second round of its work.
Striking a balance
At the Global Citizen Live event in September 2021, the LEGO Foundation’s support for the pandemic’s fallout on children climbed by $150 million, to a total of $200 million.
The foundation’s board had seen a role for itself in the larger pandemic recovery. Bouchie said they recognized “an extraordinary situation,” and that the foundation “should play a part in it,” and hoped that stepping up would inspire further collaboration and support.
Leadership kept two truths front of mind. In the short term, COVID had pushed “the largest number of students out of school, ever.” And in the long term, the generation of kids missing out today will be ill-equipped to build creative solutions for the future.
The focus expanded to stem lost learning and create stability at home. Of the total $150 million commitment, $80 million supported partnerships to combat the learning gaps coming out of COVID, while $70 million addressed public health roadblocks.
The LEGO Foundation became UNICEF’s single largest private sector contributor with a $70 million donation to support families impacted by the epidemic, and advocate for accelerating vaccine equity. UNICEF’s in-country work within the COVAX Facility will ensure vaccines reach social care stabilizers for children, like primary caregivers and educators, and expand from there. In making the announcement, the LEGO Foundation’s new CEO Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen shared a view held by many: “No one is safe until everyone is safe.”
The $80 million supported new and existing partners like BRAC, the Bangladesh-based international development organization. BRAC’s support builds on an initial $4.7 million, three-year partnership announced in 2016 to develop a quality play-based program aimed at three- to five-year-olds in Bangladesh, Tanzania and Uganda.
Erum Mariam, executive director of BRAC Institute of Educational Development at BRAC University, said that funding will help “support a greater focus on early childhood development and improving the mental health of children and their caregivers” in the three countries. It will also sustain the delivery of Play Lab’s “remote and digital playful learning experiences” for young children and their families “as we navigate the pandemic.”
For context on the size of the $200 million commitment, there’s been a significant upswing in the foundation’s overall investments through time. The LEGO Foundation measures its progress through “total activity level,” which includes both grant payments and program and administration costs, to better capture full costs, including ancillary support like research. That annual figure has risen steadily in recent years, from roughly $57 million in 2016 to $214 million in 2020. Foundation grants aimed at COVID last year alone totaled nearly $60 million, both paid and pending.
The foundation is bringing the resilience it hopes to build in children to bear in future funding, and will continue to change with the circumstances. Bouchie said that funding will include long-term interventions to shape “kids who can cope with setbacks,” as well as building social skills and the ability to bounce back.
She also said that “now, more than ever,” the foundation recognizes the school-to-home continuum and the importance of reinforcing skills in both places by siblings, neighbors and parents.
Moving forward, the LEGO Foundation is also actively looking for new collaborations to help children. Thomas Kirk Kristiansen, chair of the foundation’s governing board and a fourth-generation representative of LEGO’s owner family, said, “It’s our hope that others will see this as a high priority for investments. If we do not all invest now, we risk significant setbacks in child development, which will impact us all for generations.”