ILLINOIS SCHOOL BOARD JOURNAL
Foundations give funds, life to school projects
by Linda Dawson
Linda Dawson is IASB director/ editorial services and editor of The Illinois School Board Journal.
What do an online auction, a pizza war and an ugly dog contest have in common with graphing calculators, a steel drum band and a bus trip to a college campus? Without one of the first three as a fundraiser, none of the last three might have existed!
That’s because the calculators, the band and the bus trip were all funded by school foundations that rely on fundraising activities to provide “extras” that can be hard to fund for school districts under financial pressure.
The Illinois chapter of the National School Public Relation Association (INSPRA) sponsors an annual “Education Foundations Conference” each winter. The event, which drew 72 participants in 2012, allows INSPRA members who work with district foundations, or the foundation board members themselves, to gather for a day-long chance to learn from each other.
What they’re trying to learn involves subjects like how to focus their organizations on common goals, how to raise money more efficiently and how to recruit foundation board members who will help their cause.
Educational foundations to benefit local school districts are a fairly new phenomenon. According to Milli Christner of Foundation Innovation LLC and J.J. Baskin, president and founder of Education Capital, the vast majority of education foundations did not exist 20 years ago. Christner and Baskin presented survey results from more than 3,000 districts during the 2012 National School Boards Association annual conference in Boston.
They admit that information is difficult to come by because there is no central clearing house regarding educational foundations. Even two of the entities that serve as umbrella organizations for many such foundations — the National School Foundation Association and the American School Foundation Alliance — are only 7 and 2 years old, respectively.
NSFA designates 12 members out of 54 named Illinois education foundations on its website. ASFA shows 28 member school foundations in Illinois, including one that is a member of both groups and four that are on the NSFA list but not as members.
And that’s exactly why Christner and Baskin conducted their study: to get a better picture of how many educational foundations have been formed to help local districts.
Although all the numbers are not available as yet, they still have been able to identify eight important characteristics of what makes a foundation successful.
1. Successful foundations are “owned” by their communities . Even though certain founders or a school administrator spearhead the foundation’s creation, it must become an ingrained part of the community as a whole in order to survive when a founder or an integral board member leaves.
2. While educational foundations often look to grants from other foundations to sustain funding, the majority of successful foundations rely on money from individuals . Baskin and Christner said 73 percent of all philanthropic giving comes from individuals, according to Giving USA, a collaborative initiative of Giving USA Foundation™ and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.
When considering donors, they said, education foundations should not overlook district employees who can sometimes be the most reliable and consistent sources of funds.
3. While the foundation may begin under the auspices of the district, it can be like a child needing to grow up and go out on its own . “ Independence takes time to reach, but it is a good sign,” they said, that the foundation is viable and growing.
4. The most sustainable and established foundations create a strong memo of understanding between the district and the foundation, and they also adhere to standard accounting practices to maintain donor confidence . Posting annual reports of income and outgo will convey good stewardship of funds.
5. The strongest foundation boards, not unlike strong school boards, make certain that new board members receive timely and appropriate training in how to be board members . While there is no minimum or maximum for the number of educational foundation board members, around 20 seems to be the most efficient.
6. It is more important to have foundation staff and board members who are knowledgeable about non-profit, philanthropic work rather than school experts . Paid staff, they said, should be paid on a scale with other professional fundraisers, which can be different than paid school staff.
7. One of the biggest keys to sustainability for the foundation is to have diverse revenue streams . While some organizations rely on one large fundraiser per year, others have found a way to tap into individual and corporate giving as well as multiple events that appeal to different sectors of the community. Wise foundations find what is successful and seek to make it better each year.
8. No school district and no community are the same . While affluent districts may have been some of the first to create educational foundations, that doesn’t mean they can’t be successful in a district or community of any size.
One foundation’s story
Speaking at the INSPRA Foundations Conference, Jim Szczepaniak relayed what it took to revitalize a foundation in Niles THSD 219.
The District 219 Education Foundation for Excellence had originally been formed as a non-profit organization to help a student theater group fund a trip abroad, he said. While it survived for a few years to help the fine arts booster club and some related activities, it was dormant for a few years until 2007, when a group of parents saw it as a vehicle to help the district.
By 2010-11, the foundation was helping to fund approximately $38,000 in grants to students in financial need. In order to raise the money, the group has streamlined its fundraising efforts — dropping a labor-intensive golf outing in favor of a new, low-overhead, low-cost “pizza war” that has drawn high participation and great community involvement.
In the process, the D-219 foundation broadened its base of support by adding two teachers and four students to its board of directors. That has, in turn, increased awareness of what the foundation is and what it does. It also has partnered with the school’s main fundraising program, a dance marathon, to get 10 percent of each year’s proceeds — establishing another stable revenue stream.
As mentioned in the eight important characteristics above, the D-219 foundation also has an annual faculty/staff charity contribution drive.
A new idea for success
One of the newest foundation ideas in Illinois is taking place in DuPage County where a high school district and its feeder schools have recognized the advantages of working together.
While DuPage HSD 88, School District 45 and Salt Creek SD 48 all had their own foundations, they decided that they could each benefit from an umbrella foundation. And that’s how Partnership for Inspired Education (PIE) was born. Since then, the other feeder district — Addison SD 4 — has also joined the umbrella group, which is currently planning its fall fundraiser.
Jean Hockensmith, community relations coordinator for SD 45, said each of the original foundations retains its own financial structure, and PIE then has its own account. The feeder districts and high school district can fundraise themselves and keep those funds. PIE has a signature event as well as relying on contributions.
The main goal, according to Hockensmith and Donna Cain, chair of the PIE board, is not to burn people out. They also want to continually ask: What can we do that will benefit all the children in the community?
PIE has four board members from each of the districts, one of whom must be a school board member.
Keeping it going
A January story in the SouthtownStar featured a number of south suburban foundations and the work they are doing.
“Across the country and the Southland,” the article said, “school foundations … are making up for financial shortfalls, filling in budget gaps and providing classroom extras. Their gifts come in a variety of shapes and sizes — as big as a football field and as small as a library book.”
Local school superintendents were quoted as calling foundations “priceless.”
But educational foundations do come at a price — time and commitment.
Many fall into what foundation surveyors Christner and Baskin would classify as “start-ups” or “emerging.”
Start-ups, they said, tend to be newer with very strong ties to the school district. These foundations generally do not raise large sums of money and spend a majority of their funds on “booster” activities, like teacher recognition programs.
Emerging foundations are those that rely less on the district and possibly have a growing, specialized staff. In addition to their events, they are beginning to move into annual giving campaigns, contacting individual and business donors in the private sector. Their giving, too, expands into classroom grants and campus projects.
The goal for most, however, would be to reach the established/sustaining level, where the foundation becomes independent from the district and more community oriented and reliant. These foundations, they said, “have a diverse philanthropic base including a major event, annual campaigns, planned giving and estate planning, and major gift programs.”
Moving from a start-up to an established level takes thought and planning, according to a trio of speakers at the INSPRA foundations conference.
Michelle Sherburn, president of Merlin Solutions, said foundation boards, like school boards, need to make certain that they are focused on the right things.
“We have a tendency to focus on things that are urgent but not necessarily important,” Sherburn said. “Foundation boards need to ask: what do we really need for a break through to fulfill the dream for what we want our foundation to be?”
That, she said, takes strategic planning and creation of SMART goals … those that are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely.
In addition to a strategic plan, said Greg Diethrich, executive director of the Stevenson High School Foundation, a foundation needs to have written policies and procedures, a board member recruitment plan, an orientation plan for new members, job descriptions for officers and board members, and a good meeting structure and culture.
Just as with the school board, he said, it’s important to use time in meetings effectively. That also includes making certain that board members remain interested in the foundation’s mission.
“If they aren’t interested,” Diethrich said, “maybe it’s time to roll them off the board.”
He cautioned that foundations should be selective about those they approach to be on their boards. Instead of looking for high profile names, his advice was to look for people of influence and affluence who also have a passion for the foundation’s mission.
Moving to the next level
Even though things in a foundation seem to be going well, said Ron Schild, a former member of the Naperville (CUSD 203) Education Foundation (NEF) board, it may be time to take a step back and really look at where you are and where you really want to be.
“We needed to change our strategy to make the foundation grow,” he said.
Even though the foundation was efficient, effective and independent, the money being spent was aimed at both ends of the spectrum — those students who needed remedial help and those who were in Advance Placement classes. The average students, he said, were not getting much extra help.
With assistance from business partners, the NEF started a Study Skills Academy program in each of the district’s 14 elementary schools. The academies, which operate after school, help cultivate solid study habits so that children become lifelong learners. Cable television provider Comcast stepped forward in 2006 so that the academies could expand into all five junior high schools. And in 2007, a new fundraiser — Yuks for Youth — enabled NEF to expand into the two high schools as well.
“People give because of their passion,” Schild said, echoing Diethrich’s message. And it’s the same message carried on the National School Foundation Association website.
“There is an old fundraising adage which goes ‘People don’t give because of the school’s need to have; they give based on their need to give,’” said the answer to a frequently asked question about why people give. “Good fundraisers must determine those interests and try to match them with the needs of your school district.”
Umbrella organizations emerging
Because the vast majority of public school educational foundations did not exist 20 years ago, it follows that organizations seeking to help them prosper are relatively new as well.
The American Schools Foundation Association (ASFA) was founded in 2010 and has its offices at 155 North Wacker in Chicago. Its website is http://www.asfalliance.org . The National School Boards Association and Illinois Association of School Boards are listed among its member organizations and Michael Johnson, IASB executive director emeritus, has been serving as vice chair of ASFA.
The organization’s mission is “to build a nationwide community of education foundations, and to serve those foundations by providing essential and timely information through resources, tools and guidance to advance public education in the United States.”
According to information on the National School Foundations Association (NSFA) website at http://www.schoolfoundations.org, the group formed in April 2005 when the Association of Education Foundations merged with the National Center for Public and Private School Foundations, which was founded in 2002. The Iowa Association of School Boards was designated to oversee NSFA growth and development.
The mission of the organization is listed as “dedicated to encouraging K-12 school and school foundation personnel in the very rewarding and important process of establishing, developing and maintaining school foundations.”
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