Five keys to a successful school foundation

If you’re looking for a way to create additional financial support and resources for your school district, you might consider starting a foundation.

Known as public school foundations or local education foundations, these organizations are, and should be, distinct from the school board and the district itself. In these days of budget cuts, rising expectations for schools, and decreasing tax revenues, foundations can provide a way to increase community participation through volunteer opportunities and stakeholder “buy-in” to your district.

According to the January 2004 edition of “Leadership Insider,” a supplement to the “National School Board” Association’s School Board News, local education foundations began to gain popularity in the 1980s as legislation limiting property taxes became more prevalent and districts were forced to find additional sources of funding. The current state of finances–declining tax revenues coupled with serious budget cuts–are once again making these foundations popular. The article in the supplement, entitled “Starting A School Foundation,” says a recent study shows there are now more than 4,800 school foundations across the United States, and “they vary in terms of staff size, budget, and reach.”

I contacted four individuals who are involved with education foundations to get their take on why now is a good time to start a foundation, what the biggest challenges are when starting one (no one said this is an easy process!), and what the role of education foundations should be. These individuals are:

  • Ginny Lays, the executive director of the Greencastle-Antrim Education Foundation and a consultant to the Fannett-Metal Education Foundation in Fannett-Metal School District, both in Pennsylvania;
  • Bob New, the president of the Educational Foundation Consulting Group, who works directly with school districts forming new and rejuvenating existing local education foundations; and
  • Orietta Schneider, the grant researcher, and Lisa Spittal, the co-president of the Putnam Valley Education Foundation in Putnam Valley, N.Y.

All of these individuals agreed on the role of a local education foundation–to raise needed community support (often in the form of fund-raising dollars) for a school district.

They also agreed that a foundation can provide significant financial support for your school district. A well-developed, well-run foundation has the potential to provide $50,000 or more in annual revenue from both cash and in-kind contributions–and often these contributions come with fewer strings attached than federal or state funding.

Foundations have other benefits as well. They can serve as vehicles to strengthen school and stakeholder relations, thereby making it easier for school leaders to win stakeholder buy-in for their education initiatives. They can provide volunteer opportunities (including fund-raising, planning, and board participation) for district parents and for people who do not have children, for example, and they can be channels for establishing or expanding school-business partnerships.

The experts I talked to identified the following five keys to starting and running a successful school foundation:

  • Keep the foundation separate. Make sure you draw a clear line between the foundation itself and the district, its leadership, and its school board. Though the foundation will exist to advance the goals of the district, it’s important for ethical and legal considerations to make a clear distinction between the two.
  • Plan thoroughly. Everyone involved in the project must clearly understand the mission and goals of the foundation, so they can work toward achieving the same goals. It’s a good idea to create a steering committee of individuals from varied backgrounds and with various perspectives to implement the planning stage of the foundation.
  • Choose your staff wisely. To maximize the potential of your foundation, its staff should have some fund development experience and should not be expected to run the foundation on a shoestring budget. A common mistake is to appoint former teachers or coaches in leadership roles. Although they might have the requisite “people” skills and an understanding of education, they don’t necessarily have the fund development skills to take the foundation in the right direction. Respondents all agreed that an effective fund development committee and board of directors will enhance a foundation’s capabilities.
  • Invest in the foundation’s success. District leaders should look at the potential for a local education foundation 10 years down the road and invest now in the foundation’s success by providing the appropriate resources, one expert advised.
  • Work together. Although separate, foundations and districts must partner with each other to maximize the revenue that is raised and the positive impact it will have on students and teachers. Communicate frequently with district leadership to ensure that everyone is on the same page.

For more information about starting a school foundation, you can download the January 2004 issue of “Leadership Insider” by following the link below. You can also contact Ginny Lays via eMail at, Bob New at, and Orietta Schneider at

Deborah Ward, CFRE, is an independent grant writing consultant. She welcomes questions at (717) 295-9437 or

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