Zero to Eight Emphasis

Child development expert, Jack Shonkoff, explains adverse childhood experiences.

The Duke Endowment is charged by its founder, James B. Duke, to attend to the needs of North Carolina and South Carolina “along physical, mental and spiritual lines.” As times and challenges change, the Endowment must continually adapt if it hopes to produce maximum impact in fulfilling that mandate.

Fresh strategies are needed today, as complex social problems trouble cities and towns across the Carolinas. Too many families live in poverty. Too many schools are struggling to educate children. And the opioid epidemic is ravaging entire communities.

Against this difficult backdrop, the Endowment has identified a promising new strategy for confronting the challenges crippling today’s families and communities. Recent advances in brain science indicate that early preventative intervention stands as a far more effective remedy to stubborn social ills than after-the-fact remediation. By attacking childhood challenges before they grow into adult-sized social problems, the Endowment aims to spur better outcomes for families and communities across the Carolinas. An Endowment-wide strategic emphasis on early childhood issues, particularly those affecting children ages 0-8, puts that theory into action.


Community indicators concerning child health, learning and poverty suggest social challenges abound in the Carolinas, and that the American Dream remains out of reach for far too many. Just one-third of children born into North Carolina families making less than $25,000 annually rise into middle- and upper-income levels as adults. In South Carolina, poverty rates for black and Latino children are about three times as high as those for white children.

Addressing those challenges requires a proactive, strategic approach. Modern brain science suggests the logical way to get in front of these problems is to confront them in early childhood, before they take root. Recent advances in neuroscience show that early human experiences help “wire” the developing brain circuits in life-altering ways.

Constant, unrelenting negative experiences – toxic stress – in early childhood affect a developing brain in ways that can herald lifelong learning and behavior problems, according to Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child. Conversely, brain science research also shows that exposure to loving, nurturing adults stimulates children’s brains in positive ways, priming them for better outcomes in life.

Early childhood experts say the implications are clear: The Carolinas and the nation can reap major gains by “moving upstream” of social ills and addressing early signs as they present in children.

“Right before our eyes is an exploding revolution in biology,” Jack Shonkoff, head of the Center on the Developing Child, said during a 2014 speech at Duke University. “We should use that science to set a higher bar.”


The Endowment’s strategic emphasis on early childhood issues will be executed in two ways: through the existing four grantmaking program areas and through select "place-based" and related grantmaking initiatives.

Program Area Grantmaking

The new emphasis means expanded early childhood grantmaking across the Endowment’s existing program areas and strategies. Effective investments in early childhood will advance each program area’s work by helping families become physically healthy, emotionally tight-knit, spiritually strong and educationally prepared. Each grantmaking area has committed to more activity supporting the birth to age 8 population to capitalize on the rapid development – and the high potential for impact – during this period of life.

To be clear, this new focus amplifies the Endowment’s existing strategies and initiatives; it doesn’t replace them. For example, the work of the Child and Family Well-Being program area – including its efforts to help children who are aging out of the foster care system – will continue. Other program areas will continue to fund programs supporting teens, adults and seniors.

Place-Based Grantmaking

The Endowment also plans to work with specific communities that are targeting services for children ages 0 to 8. The centerpiece of the Endowment’s current “place-based” early childhood grantmaking is its partnership with Ready for School, Ready for Life in Guilford County, N.C. The Endowment is supporting place-based initiatives in Charlotte, N.C., Spartanburg, S.C., and Charleston, S.C., as well. The Endowment is also funding selected organizations that assist other community-based efforts across the Carolinas.

Want more information? See this list of frequently asked questions.

Areas of Work

  • Prevention and early intervention for at-risk children

    To equip children and families with skills to ensure that children reach developmental milestones to lead successful lives.

  • Out-of-home care for youth

    To drive child welfare systems toward greater accountability for child well-being.

  • Quality and safety of health care

    Improving the quality and safety of health care delivery

  • Access to health care

    Improving health by increasing access to comprehensive care

  • Prevention

    Expanding programs to promote health and prevent disease

  • Academic excellence

    Enhancing academic excellence through program and campus development

  • Educational access and success

    Increasing educational access and supporting a learning environment that promotes achievement

  • Campus and community engagement

    Promoting a culture of service, collaboration and engagement among schools and communities

  • Rural church development

    Building the infrastructure and capacity of United Methodist churches to enhance ministry and mission

  • Clergy leadership

    Strengthening United Methodist churches by improving the quality and effectiveness of church leadership

  • Congregational outreach

    Engaging United Methodist congregations in programs that serve their communities