Beyond Money: Benefits of an Education Foundation

Fund raising is fine, but true value may be in bridge building by Mark M. Havens

Fact: The U.S. population is aging.

Fact: Households with children attending public schools are becoming an ever-smaller percentage of the U.S. population.

Fact: Most school districts still function as though parents are their largest constituency.

Widening Gap

While U.S. schools today enroll a record number of students, the number of households that do not have children in school outnumber families with school children by more than 2 to 1. And this gap is widening.

Should educators and school officials be concerned about this growing differential? You bet!

Patrick Jackson, the late public relations adviser and practitioner, used to chide school officials by reminding them that the true customers of public schools are not the parents who send us their children or the businesses that employ our graduates. Rather, he would say, our key stakeholders are the taxpayers who send us their money to operate our schools and who have the power to vote "yes" or "no" at the ballot box. They are the owners of our school systems.

What are American schools doing to communicate to and build relationships with these owners, especially those who don't have school-age children? One of the most powerful and effective tools schools can use to build relationships with this group is the education foundation.

While school foundations vary in their roles and activities, a school foundation is defined here as a private not-for-profit entity, usually incorporated under appropriate state laws or under the sponsorship of another private non-profit, which is governed by a board of directors separate and distinct from the educational entity for which it was created to support.

Many, if not most, school foundations were established as fund-raising arms of the school district. Indeed, many were set up in the wake of unsuccessful efforts to pass a bond or levy measure or after a particularly nasty round of budget cuts.

However, when the vision of these foundations becomes too narrow and expectations are too high, their results are often disappointing. Successful school foundations realize that their most effective role and benefits derive from goals beyond mere fund raising.

Growing Phenomenon

Many private and parochial elementary and secondary schools have had school foundations for decades and often rely on their fund-raising prowess to generate a large percentage of their institutional budgets. In contrast, public school foundations generally are not held responsible for providing a substantial portion of their school district's budget.

Public school foundations and local education funds had their genesis in large, urban school districts. The San Francisco Education Foundation, founded in 1979, was an early leader and model in this arena.

In 1982, the Public Education Fund, now the Public Education Network, received a grant from the Ford Foundation to assist in the creation of nearly 50 local education funds in urban and impoverished rural areas. PEN provided—and continues to provide—valuable support and guidance to its member institutions through networking, information and other resources.

In other communities, school foundations grew from local efforts entirely separate from their school district. Founders included corporate leaders, chambers of commerce, colleges and universities, other local charities, parent groups, booster clubs and alumni groups. However, the impetus for creating most foundations has arisen from school boards and school districts themselves.

No definitive count or central registry of public school foundations exists in the United States. Best estimates now put the number at well over 3,000. They operate in school districts with hundreds of thousands of students as well as districts with just a few hundred pupils. Indeed, in a few states, including Florida and Oklahoma, nearly every school district has organized a foundation.

In some locations, such as San Diego, Calif., and Pocatello, Idaho, individual schools have their own foundation, in addition to districtwide foundations. States such as West Virginia and Arizona have created statewide public school foundations to promote excellence in public schools.

Beyond Funds

School districts do not need foundations to raise money. American schools have been raising private funds for over a century through performances, product sales and other fund-raising activities. And now they also write and secure government and private grants that sometimes total millions of dollars.

So why would a school district want or need a school foundation if it is perfectly capable of raising its own private funds? The purpose of a school foundation is no more to raise money than the purpose of a school district is to collect taxes.

The most successful school foundations use fund raising simply as a means to an end. What that end is depends on the characteristics and needs of the school district and the community it serves.

School foundations are not based on a single model. Although they share some features, each foundation is unique. Foundations derive their purposes and roles from the groups that create them. These purposes and roles vary widely, and once established, they dictate most aspects of the foundation's operations. It is against these purposes that the foundation's success will be judged, so they should be clearly defined.

Some foundations define their role as an advocate for public education and school improvement. They use their resources and fund-raising abilities to be active partners in school reform campaigns, which they often initiate. They value their independence and freedom from education politics. The Public Education Network is a leader in this approach.

Many school foundations find their mission in promoting positive public relations for their schools. Foundations can be a valuable tool in a school district's communication efforts. "A foundation is, in essence, an awareness campaign," says Connie Blaney, public relations director for the Norman, Okla., school district. "Our foundation serves as an advocate in the community and a partner with our schools. It is great public relations for the Norman public schools."

Dean Thornton, a retired president of the Boeing Corp., co-founded the Seattle Alliance for Education. He echoes this sentiment from the point of view of a business leader. "Our foundation has helped improve the image of the Seattle public schools. Foundations can help with this effort in areas where the state is delinquent in its support of public education."

Foundations can build bridges between schools and the public, especially community sectors that have been previously overlooked. "Foundations bring in a whole different set of patrons with whom we get to work. They find out more about our school district," says Marsha Chappelow, assistant superintendent of communication services for the Blue Valley School District in Overland Park, Kan. "You are educating patrons as well as fund raising from them."

Reaching Out

Our communities are filled with people and organizations who don't have direct connections in our schools and yet whose support is indispensable if public schools are to be successful. As parents become an ever-smaller percentage of our population and nonstudent households increase in number and influence, school districts must modify their public relations efforts in conjunction with this shift.

Chappelow cites senior citizens and empty nesters among the key groups that schools must reach out to. A school foundation can be a valuable player in building bridges to these targeted groups.

Putting senior citizens on your foundation board is a first step in reaching out to this particular group. School foundations also have funded or operated senior volunteer programs in schools, while others have created or sponsored intergenerational programs such as "senior proms."

My own school foundation in Lewiston, Idaho, launched an intergenerational cookbook project that entailed junior high students interviewing senior citizens to collect old family recipes and the history behind them. The students compiled these stories and recipes into a book, and sales of the cookbook generated three times more revenue than what it cost the foundation to produce. But it was the relationships that were created through this project that mattered most.

Other groups to target might include: public officials, retired school employees, high school alumni, parents of pre-schoolers, spouses and families of school employees, single persons, clergy, real estate agents, local celebrities, small business owners, large corporate officials, regional community leaders, economic development groups, civic organizations, philanthropists, foundations and higher education institutions.

Few school districts by themselves have the resources to effectively and regularly reach out to all of these groups. And yet these groups constitute a majority of our patrons and have the potential to help or hinder the work of our schools.

Forging Relations

Relationships are the most important thing a school foundation can build, according to Phyllis G. Kaplan, a professor in the educational psychology department at California State University at Hayward. "Long after the computer you purchase is in a landfill or that book you buy gathers dust on a shelf, the relationships your foundation creates will leave a legacy that will forever affect the lives of children," Kaplan says.

How do foundations lay the groundwork and then build these relationships?

Foundations can create speakers bureaus that bring people of all walks of life into our schools to share their experiences with students. The school foundation in Lewiston, Idaho, sponsors an annual program called "A Taste of Teaching" during American Education Week. The foundation works with the schools to invite hundreds of local citizens into our classrooms to present a lesson and learn what a day is like in the life of a teacher.

To develop relationships with local businesses, foundations can work with them to arrange field trips for students and teachers to places they might otherwise not have access to. They can create apprenticeship positions and job-shadowing programs. They can create business roundtable groups to help advise the superintendent.

Foundations can promote career and college planning and award scholarships to students interested in pursuing particular careers. The Metropolitan Nashville Public Education Foundation, for example, worked with 9th- and 10th-grade students, their parents and their teachers to promote conversations and activities that would increase the students' opportunities to attend college.

School foundations can be the catalysts to create high school alumni associations, retired employee organizations and preschool PTAs. They can open dialogue with local media outlets to ensure adequate and proper coverage of public education.

The education foundation in Nashville, for example, researched and printed a guide to the school district budget that helps deepen the community's understanding of and involvement in setting budget priorities for schools.

Foundations can help welcome new families to the community. They can convene town meetings and discussion groups to help plan for school district growth.

The Lincoln, Neb., Public Schools Foundation partnered with the Gallup Organization to survey community members about what constitutes a quality education. Their report, "Lincoln Speaks," helps provide a blueprint to a public engagement program in which the foundation remains actively involved.

Another role for school foundations is in the recruitment, retention and recognition of quality staff members. This role may include everything from sponsoring awards ceremonies for outstanding and retiring teachers to providing support for professional development programs.

The Seattle Alliance was instrumental in helping recruit the late John Stanford, a retired Army general, to Seattle as superintendent. In fact, Dean Thornton, a founder of the Seattle Alliance, served as chairman of the recruitment committee.

In its early years, the Foundation for Orange County Public Schools in Orlando, Fla., deemed assisting with teacher recruitment to be one of its main goals. The foundation developed a program to grow its own teachers by awarding loans to promising students who go to college to become teachers. If the students returned to teach in the Orange County Public Schools, their loan was forgiven. The majority did return, according to Nancy Peed, executive director of the foundation.

A Board Beginning

The most important relationship a foundation helps foster is that between the school district and the members of the foundation board.

Foundation board members typically are community leaders, activists and public education supporters. If the board is to truly reflect the community it serves, then it will have an adequate percentage of retired people, senior citizens and nonparents, in addition to parents and school staff members.

About two-thirds of the membership should be persons who do not have children presently enrolled in school. Consequently, board members may come to their position without in-depth knowledge of the school system.

"The relationship that is built between the school district and the foundation board members is very important," says Blaney, school public relations director in Norman, Okla. "These community members are demonstrating their support for students and teachers and are making a commitment to education." It is crucial that school officials build a relationship of trust and take time to educate them about the important issues facing public education, she adds.

Foundation board members are willing to contribute their time and talent to help the foundation and the school district achieve their respective goals. So how can school districts actively support their foundation?

"There needs to be a reciprocal relationship that provides support both ways," says Chappelow of the Blue Valley Schools in Kansas. "The foundation should support the goals of the district, and both entities must work cooperatively to start or sustain support of valuable educational programs."

This mutual support was illustrated in Seattle, when the Seattle Public Schools and the Seattle Alliance for Education worked together to establish The Principal Leadership Institute in 1996. The program helps provide Seattle principals with the skills necessary to serve as effective instructional leaders and CEOs of their schools.

Blaney maintains that trust plays a big role in a school foundation's success. "You cannot have a successful foundation without strong support, trust and friendship between the foundation board, the school board and school administrators. You cannot have conflict. Each group must support and respect the work of the others."

Can a school foundation achieve success without raising money? Certainly, as long as it defines its mission in terms of connections instead of cash. The work of a school foundation is as much friend raising as it is fund raising.

Foundations will never supplant large amounts of tax dollars. It's time to redefine the purpose of foundations to focus on community relationships instead of money. The benefits are immeasurable.

Mark Havens is community relations director for Independent School District 1, 3317 12th St., Lewiston, Idaho 83501 and the author of Dream Big: Creating and Growing Your School Foundation. E-mail: mark@lewiston.k12.id.us