Guest Column

Reaching the Tipping Point in Community Support

by Terry Grier and Kent Peterson

During the past four years, school districts have faced an onslaught of criticism, negative press, declining support and failed referenda. Building and maintaining support has become a critically important goal of anyone in public education.

One North Carolina county seems to have reached what Malcolm Gladwell in his bestseller, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, defines as a “tipping point” in public support. Through a variety of leadership efforts and some serendipity, the Guilford County Public Schools, with 67,000 students and 107 schools, have seen an increase in foundation support for new programs, an expansion of business and industry involvement and contributions and renewed community support for new referendums.

Located in the state’s Greensboro-High Point region, Guilford County had been hit hard with the loss of thousands of jobs in the 1990s, leading to decreased support for local schools. Several referendums failed at the polls.

Moral Backing

An initial turning point occurred in 1999 when six foundations supported a major study of the local economy that highlighted the need for improvements in the county schools. This report was followed by discussions and joint planning among foundations, business leaders and the new superintendent. The Commitment to Excellence Council was formed to provide financial support, human capital and moral reinforcement for the district’s school improvement efforts.

Over several years the council spurred a dramatic increase in community support, foundation contributions to innovative programs and a more positive view of the school system. The community passed $500 million in spending referendums to build and renovate schools, ending a 20-year drought. The foundation and business community are providing $1.3 million a year in support for innovative programs and recognition for school accomplishments.

These experiences have taught us several things about generating community, foundation and business support during difficult times.

Build on past project support. Find projects from prior superintendents that can be developed further and that foundations have liked. Don’t always feel you have to start over. The previous superintendent in Guilford had formed a partnership with a local foundation and the Center for Creative Leadership to provide team leadership training for 20 of the district’s schools. We modified the model and it continued to be used.

Understand the interests and mission of funders. Before even approaching a funder, you need to know their core values, defined mission and history. It was clear that one business was not interested in funding scholarships but had a strong interest in technology. The result was $50,000 toward the TechGirls Summer Camp.

Identify different forms of support. Businesses, foundations and community organizations can offer sundry types of backing. Some may give products (an auto dealer donated new cars for an awards program); others provide employee volunteers.

Honest Feedback

Focus on results and demonstrate results. Every organization today wants to see results and data that supports those results, so talk about defined outcomes. We meet annually with the Commitment to Excellence group and present members with a report on our successes and weaknesses. Funders deeply value feedback on the impact of their money and our honesty if a program is not delivering the desired results.

Use outside money for creative, innovative, out-of-the box ideas. School boards often are reluctant to spend taxpayer money for highly innovative ideas. Seek foundation or business support for all or part of innovative programs, freeing up money internally for other pilot projects. Know precisely how much money you’ll need; poor projections will decrease credibility.

Build requests on a long-term vision and mission. Foundations especially prefer to contribute to a long-range vision that is tied to strong values. Know what that will look like and be prepared to paint a picture of what the support will mean to the district. The vision of the district leadership and the vision of the funder need to be compatible.

Sharing Gratitude

Give credit to donors, and celebrate their contributions to kids. Providing letters from your office, notes from the school board and personal thanks are important. But having the students and staff who have benefited from the external support thank the sponsor remains the most powerful message. Share their gratitude through a videotape, a formal ceremony and/or letters from students.

Know what you will trade off. Funders may not have enough resources for the entire program, so know which you can change or trade off. If a funder cannot support your project at the level requested, be prepared to adjust your proposal or suggest they join another partner in meeting your funding request. However, if you decide to explore a joint partnership, you must know the companies or foundations involved—their values, missions and the relationship between their CEOs. Without a proper match, you could lose both future partners.

Understand that people give money to people. When establishing these types of partnerships, superintendents make the mistake of sending representatives in their place to foundation directors or to businesses to request financial support. The personal relationships that a superintendent forms with foundation and business executives are key to establishing strong, productive partnerships. We found time to have lunch or attend local events with the key executives.

Academic Gains

In summary, every district administrator can help reach the tipping point in community support. Working with a wide variety of leaders can make the difference. During the past four years, partly due to the increased support, math and reading scores in Guilford County have improved, the dropout rate has decreased, and the achievement gap has lessened.

The financial commitment of our business and foundation community, along with their volunteer efforts and spiritual support, has been instrumental in tipping our district toward academic excellence.

Terry Grier is the superintendent of Guilford County Schools, 402 Kimberly Drive, Greensboro, NC 27408. E-mail: Peterson is a professor of educational leadership and policy analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is the co-author of Shaping School Culture: The Heart of Leadership.