I was honored to serve as a keynote speaker at the California Consortium of Education Foundations annual conference at Stanford University last month. Attendees included representatives from school districts and foundations all over Northern and Central California (a similar gathering for Southern California was held a week prior in Anaheim).
What was remarkable about this group was the wide disparity in size and structure of the foundations represented. Whereas a few had full-time staff, highly engaged boards, and strong public presence, others had no staff at all and are being run solely by volunteers serving on a small board. One thing all held in common, though, is the knowledge that our public schools must be supported by private gifts and other revenue sources beyond state budget dollars if we are to adequately provide staffing, professional development, and programs and services to ensure that all children have an opportunity to succeed.
It is important to note, as one speaker at the conference did very eloquently, that the passage of Proposition 30 last fall did not replenish any coffers for school districts statewide. It simply prevented even greater cuts (as much as $6 billion more) than they had already experienced in the preceding years. Thus the argument that Proposition 30 saved our schools or fixed what was broken is a fallacy. It simply stopped further damage, but it is incumbent upon school leaders to identify ways to generate increased revenue to meet the needs in our schools that simply can’t otherwise be fulfilled by state budget dollars.
While it may seem to foolish to compare K-12 public school foundations to higher education fundraising efforts, there are some lessons to be learned from what succeeds in higher education. After all, fundraising is fundraising, whether the target donor is an alumnus of a university or a parent of a gradeschooler. In either instance, to find success we must present clear, articulate messaging about the importance and impact of donor dollars, tell compelling stories about the good those dollars do, and make it easy and even exciting for a donor to contribute.
And ultimately, fundraising at any level and for any cause is about relationships. Our success in attracting greater annual support, in developing major gifts, and in securing planned gifts is all contingent upon our ability to develop relationships between the organization (a school district and its foundation) and the prospective donors (i.e. parents, community supporters, local businesses). The $4.8 million estate gift landed by the Santa Monica-Malibu Education Foundation last summer is one example of how important relationships are, and at the same time affirmation that these types of gifts aren’t solely reserved for big universities or centuries-old private colleges. They can and do happen for K-12 systems too, if we put in the time, effort, and resources required to make the case and develop the relationships that lead to such gifts – just as our colleagues at the higher education level do.
Just as public universities lagged behind private ones in developing sophisticated fundraising efforts (and many are still wrestling with just that), public K-12 school districts have lagged behind their private counterparts and higher education institutions in general in establishing strong foundations that can seek philanthropic support. With the devastating cuts to public education in California in recent years – cuts that won’t be replaced by Proposition 30 or any other mechanism – the time is now for K-12 districts to truly invest effort and resources to diversify forms of support for critical programs and services that enable children to thrive in the classroom and out of it.