Absolute necessity: the rise of local education foundations

By Marsha Boutelle, contributing writer

Long a staple of private schools and universities, local education foundations are becoming an increasingly significant source of support for public schools.

At one time, these foundations supported field trips and similar activities. Now, they pay some teacher salaries and stock classrooms with supplies.

Cause and effect

In 1989, concerned community members formed the Ashland Schools Foundation in expectation of deep cuts to property taxes they knew would severely impact education funding. Their concerns were borne out a year later with passage of Measure 5, the statewide property tax limitation measure. More than 20 years later, the Ashland Schools Foundation is thriving and Ashland schoolchildren are its beneficiaries.

“In this changing economic culture, public schools are having to make a paradigm switch, looking for funding outside the government sector,” says Ashland Schools Foundation Executive Director Susan Bacon.

Community funding “has traditionally been the realm of higher education and private elementary and secondary schools. But with the drastic cuts that have taken place in Oregon over the last two decades, public schools had to do something to try to plug some of the funding holes,” said Bacon.

Like almost all local education foundations, Ashland is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and operates independently of—but cooperatively with—the Ashland School District. Over the years, the ultimate destination of the dollars it raises from individuals and businesses has narrowed in focus due to the scarcity of government funds schools receive. And for anyone who worries that schools will not receive full state funding if a local education foundation provides assistance, Bacon says it isn’t so. No limits exist for funds—in the form of gifts—that flow to a district from a foundation.

“When we began over 20 years ago, we were raising money for enrichment activities—mainly classroom-based grants for hands-on projects involving students,” Bacon says.

“As funding was degraded by the state over the years, we increased our fundraising efforts and began funding more core needs—entire programs at schools and eventually staff such as teachers and reading specialists. State funding cuts have now become so drastic that we have had to suspend most of our program and project grants and are almost exclusively funding staff positions. We don’t want it to be that way but, as class sizes have risen, we have shifted our focus to trying to keep those numbers as low as possible,” she said.

Created in 1993, the Eugene Education Fund focuses on “The Basics and Beyond,” its slogan and mission for contributing to Eugene’s 4J school district.

“At the time, we thought it novel for K-12 education… though old hat at public universities where development efforts and separate legal foundations have been in place for decades,” says David Meredith, Eugene Education Foundation executive director.

“Our intent was to provide a way to give in support of all schools by fulfilling grant requests or in support of a particular school or program by forwarding donor-earmarked gifts every fiscal quarter,” Meredith says.

“No school, especially no low-SES school, should be left behind for lack of an avenue to support it,” he added. The Eugene foundation “serves as an umbrella to accept gifts to any school. No portion of a gift goes to EEF operations, though five percent goes into our grant-making fund to all schools,” Meredith says.

Create a blueprint, then build

Local education foundations can use a variety of business models to interact with their districts and communities. Ashland’s Bacon says the most important questions a foundation’s founding members should tackle are, “What is our mission?” What are we hoping to raise money for?” The answers will drive, to some degree, the business model, she says. For example, does the foundation want to hire more teachers, create a classroom grant program, limit its gifts to core academics or the arts or include sports and facilities? And founding members should decide whether the foundation board or a committee will decide how funds are used or whether it will allow donors to fulfill specific requests directly.

Additionally, well-managed foundations must interact with a number of constituencies: school districts, administrators, teachers, parents and other education-oriented organizations such as parent-teacher organizations and booster clubs. Cooperation is key, and competition with other entities’ fundraising efforts is to be avoided wherever possible.

“Sometimes we can avoid [competition], sometimes not,” Bacon says. “With Booster Club, for instance, we decided early on that we would not raise or grant money for anything to do with sports—we stick to academics. Since our missions do not overlap, neither does our fundraising. The reality is, some folks just like to give to sports, some like to give to academics or the arts, and some do both.

“With PTAs,” she adds, “it can be a bit trickier. It takes a joint effort of the school administration, the parent group leadership and the foundation board to work together and be respectful of each other’s efforts. There are many parents out there—particularly at the elementary level—who are only willing to give, or to give more, if it is directly to their child’s school. Those are the folks PTA is most effective with. Parents of children who have worked their way up through middle and high school or even graduated often understand a broader vision and the need for supporting schools on a district-wide effort. Those are the donors that make up the majority of the foundation’s supporters.

“The key to all of these groups working on fundraising in a tight community comes down to communication,” Bacon concludes. “It’s helpful if the district leadership can set up some fundraising rules or guidelines that also help delineate who can fundraise for what and when.”

Additional reading

The National School Foundation Association provides information, training and support to local education foundations, including a list of education foundations.