About Us

Published October 1, 2015

Our history

Since its inception, the Bernard van Leer Foundation has worked in more than 50 countries and invested over half a billion dollars toward our mission:

“To improve opportunities for young children growing up in circumstances of social and economic disadvantage”.


Bernard van Leer was an entrepreneur who built a large global packaging company. After witnessing the destruction of World War II, Bernard was inspired to invest in improving society and started the Foundation in 1949 with a wide range of philanthropic activities. After Bernard passed away in 1958, his son Oscar took over the packaging company and the Foundation.

Investing in young children

Oscar focused the Foundation on young children. He believed that giving all children a fair start in life was not only good for them, but also crucial to building peaceful, prosperous and creative societies. In the last 20 years, experts from fields as diverse as public health, economics and neuroscience have provided empirical evidence for Oscar’s belief. One of the most well-known examples is research by Nobel Laureate James Heckman showing how investing in disadvantaged young children and families results in improved health and education outcomes, higher incomes, less crime and reduced welfare spending.

Over the past half century, the Foundation has worked closely with a wide range of innovators and researchers to find better ways to meet the needs of young children and has supported governments to build national systems of service delivery that continue to impact the lives of millions of young children and their families each year.

Global knowledge, local solutions

Today, more and more governments, international organizations, businesses and foundations are seeing the importance of investing in the earliest years of life. With growing support, the debate is shifting from ‘why invest’ toward ‘how to invest’ to get the biggest impact for the most children. This is the critical question for the 21st century.

To help answer this question, the Foundation focuses on developing and sharing global knowledge and solutions for young children. This work is underpinned by our engagement in a set of core countries that together reflect global diversity in economic, geographic and cultural terms. Currently, these include Brazil, India, Israel, Netherlands, Turkey and Peru. We are also reviewing our presence in sub-Saharan Africa with the intention of working in at least one country in that region in the coming years.

In 2016, we will also launch a new global programme characterized by a limited set of time bound partnerships that allow us to tap into centres of excellence around the world and to spread what we are learning to help serve young children in countries where we do not plan to have a long-term presence.

Board of Trustees

The fiduciary responsibility for fulfilling the vision and mission of the Foundation, as laid down in the Articles of Association, resides with the Board of Trustees. The Board’s oversight role includes appointing the Executive Director, evaluating his performance, and approving the strategic plans and the annual financial and operational plans. The Board meets at least four times per year.

The Board of Trustees is currently composed of eight members. The Board appoints its own members, who serve a maximum of three 4-year terms. The members of the Board of the Bernard van Leer Foundation are also on the Board of the Van Leer Group Foundation.

Our Income

The Bernard van Leer Foundation receives its income from the Van Leer Group Foundation to fulfil its mission. The Van Leer Group Foundation derives its income from a global portfolio of diversified investments. As an independent, private foundation that does not rely on government funds or public donations, the Bernard van Leer Foundation is uniquely positioned to take risks on promising ideas that are not yet proven, to act with agility when time-sensitive opportunities for impact emerge, and to make commitments to long term processes of social change.

Executive Director

Michael Feigelson (@mfeigelson1) has spent the last 15 years focused on working with governments, civil society and business to improve opportunities for children and youth. He joined the Foundation as a Programme Officer in 2007. He then held the positions of Programme Manager, Programme Director and Interim Executive Director.

Michael has degrees from Wesleyan and Princeton Universities where he spent much of his time focused on understanding the impact of social and economic policies on children and families; he serves on the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Behaviour; and – most importantly – he is the proud new father of a beautiful baby girl who reminds him every day of the importance, the challenges, and the joy that comes with a child’s early years.

Read Michael Feigelson’s complete biography