School Partnerships: Aiming for Lasting Change

Despite economic and geopolitical turmoil, education remains one of the top concerns for many Americans, according to a recent Washington Post/ABC news poll.

It’s only logical that philanthropists nationwide want to improve the education that children in their communities receive. However, it can be difficult for individual donors—or even a group of donors—to understand where a relatively small amount of funding can have the greatest impact on the quality of education in their local schools.

Fortunately, community foundations have found some innovative ways to help. Through partnerships with school districts, community foundations are helping donors to produce lasting, positive changes in their school systems.

Supporting Teacher Initiatives
Baton Rouge Area Foundation (BRAF) is one of the community foundations around the country supporting broad educational goals in its area. One of BRAF’s latest projects—“The Teachers Fellows Program”—provides funding to seasoned educators so they can travel to schools in other states, study those schools’ best practices, and bring that knowledge back home. " Supporting knowledge sharing is one of the best ways to meaningfully impact the quality of education over the long term,” says Ashley Shelton, head of grantmaking for Baton Rouge Area Foundation.

The fellows program builds on a tradition of partnership between BRAF and local schools. As early as 1989, BRAF launched its Academic Distinction Fund (ADF) in partnership with local school authorities and the Citizen’s Taskforce, a group that works with local educational issues. The foundation’s ADF raised funds, which were then matched by dollars from the school board. Early dollars were used to support teacher-driven projects such as “The Learning Garden,” a specially designed program to introduce kids to the wonders of nature. The program also paid special consideration to disabled children.

Producing Lasting Change
Gulf Coast Community Foundation of Venice (GCCFV) in Sarasota County, Fla., also looks for broad-based ways to help local schools, in part because its local school board considers individual grants only a patchwork solution for the problems it faces. "We bought laptops and books and provided program funding for programs but the efforts seemed fragmented,” says Mike Bigner, vice president for program services. “We wanted a more comprehensive solution that would provide long-term results.”

During the 2000-1 school year, GCCFV launched the Strategic Grantmaking in Education program. The initiative’s mission is to help schools better communicate and share resources with other schools in their district and to improve principal and teacher skills to positively effect student achievement. Last year, GCCFV gave out grants of up to $30,000 to 11 schools, with most of the funding supporting mentorship programs and teacher training.

The Strategic Grantmaking In Education program was a natural extension of GCCFV’s original education effort: “The Educational Partnership.” That effort, launched in 1998, was one of the first based on the idea that funds do not have to go directly to schools in order to benefit them. The Education Partnership paid for outside consultants that could provide school districts with training and advice on best practices. "We became a trusted friend to school districts, which is what they needed most, and helped donors to become involved in an effort that had the potential to produce lasting change," says Bigner.

Connecting Donors with School Districts
The Dallas Foundation has worked with its school district for more than a decade. The foundation’s latest effort, called the Excellence in Education Fund, is patterned after a donor-advised fund. Initiated last year by Mike Moses, the school district superintendent, the fund has raised $30,000 for programs such as scholarships. The Dallas Foundation acts as a link between donors and the school district, keeping both sides apprised and involved.

Like many urban districts, the Dallas public school system has had its share of leadership challenges in recent years, says Michelle Monse, associate director of The Dallas Foundation. One of the recent missions of her organization has been to help ease the concerns of potential donors, including the business community, that their support of public schools would not be lost in political turmoil. “The community foundation’s involvement has helped to reassure donors that their money will be managed effectively and put to good use,” Monse says.

By partnering with local school districts, community foundations are in a unique position to help donors support local schools in creative ways. The programs that have already been developed are turning dollars, no matter how limited, into lasting educational improvements.

Caroline Heine

Posted at 1:00 AM, Dec 17, 2008 in Education | Philanthropic Strategy | Permalink | Comment