Dr. Stan Levenson  

A new fundraising strategy for public schools

By Stan Levenson

Our public schools are in financial trouble and everyone knows it. The cost of providing a world-class education has gone well beyond taxpayer dollars. Worthwhile programs like music, art, physical education, and foreign languages have been curtailed or eliminated. Sports and other extracurricular activities have also taken a hit, and neighborhood schools have been shut down. Most disturbing is that in many areas of the country, the ax is falling on core academic programs, and the trend is likely to continue. For years, colleges and universities -especially public institution- have struggled under similar budgetary constraints. But they have found a way to keep class sizes down, hire and retain high-quality staff, add buildings and grounds, and expand important academic and nonacademic programs.

How do they do it? By organizing highly sophisticated development offices, hiring experienced fundraisers, and raising billions of dollars. They see the development office as a profit center that goes after big grants and gifts to augment building programs, sports programs, creative and performing arts pro-grams, and other vital programs that make for world-class institutions. In essence, they have become big-time fundraisers.

In 2004, more than $240 billion was contributed to worthy causes across America. Of this amount, approximately $31 billion (13 percent) went to education-second only to religion in grants and gifts received. More than 80 percent of all contributions, including bequests, came from individual donors. That's $170 billion. What does all this mean to public schools trying to bring in outside monies? It means that the schools need to learn how to pursue individual donors as never before.

Bake sales, candy sales, carnivals, and car washes create a sense of community for a school or district, but these labor-intensive, time-consuming, fundraising activities can no longer carry the burden for our financially strapped schools. Public schools must turn their attention to more lucrative and efficient ways of raising big buckets of money. They must learn how the colleges, universities, and private schools do it.

When I teach a class or speak to groups around the country, I always ask if any of the participants attended private or religious schools. Usually, a number of hands go up. Then I ask if the schools have ever asked them for money. Answer: All the time. How about their colleges and universities? All the time. Finally, I ask if they ever hear from the public schools they attended. Silence.

Why don't public schools go after major gifts from individual donors? I believe it's because most educators and school board members don't know how to ask for these gifts. I also believe that, as tax supported institutions, school districts expect to be adequately funded by their state and federal governments. This, of course, has not been the case.
Over the years, I have learned that individuals don't want to give their money away, but they do want to invest in worthy causes that change people's lives. And few causes are more worthy and more life altering than public education. Our task as fundraisers is to help people understand that their cash and non-cash gifts can change the lives of children for generations to come.

Many prospective givers are graduates of the public schools, live or work in our communities, and have children or grandchildren attending our schools. They want to see the public schools succeed and will help in any way they can -if they're asked.


If your district wants to launch a major fundraising effort, the superintendent should assume a leadership role. This includes hiring a competent, experienced development office staff, including at least one person who has successful experience soliciting big grants and gifts from wealthy individuals. The superintendent should also serve as the liaison between the development office staff and the district and school foundations, if there are any. While there is no one formula for how to coordinate and facilitate this effort, taking the time to work out an organizational structure based on your district's vision, goals, and objectives will be time well spent. In either case, the development office, if properly managed, should become a profit center in two to three years.

In addition, the superintendent should be personally involved in soliciting big grants and gifts from individual donors in and outside the school district, including school board members who have the means to make such gifts. Just as college and university presidents do, the district's CEO should meet with high-profile and wealthy individuals in the community as well as corporate and foundation leaders.

Board members, for their part, should be strong supporters and advocates of a big-time fundraising effort in their district. They should approve of the establishment of a development office and should hold the office accountable for becoming a profit center within a specified time frame.

Board members should encourage the superintendent and development office staff to personally go after big grants and gifts from individual donors. They should also contribute some of their own funds, if possible, and assist in identifying and soliciting others in the community who are interested in contributing to the schools and have the means to do so.


A new strategy for public school fundraising is the capital campaign. Generally covering a specified number of years, capital campaigns have loftier goals than annual campaigns, and the results are more visible. An example would be a five-year capital campaign to raise $10 million for a performing arts center at a new high school.

A good way to launch a capital campaign is to identify someone in the community to make a "lead gift" and then offer to name the new facility in honor of the donor or the donor's family. This is done all the time in the private schools, colleges, and universities. Why not the public schools?

Once the lead gift is made, you can offer funding opportunities for naming other portions of the facility. In the case of a performing arts center, donors can be recognized for funding the main lobby, the stage, the lighting, the dressing rooms, the seats, and so on.

The opportunity for recognition and service is why capital campaigns have such great appeal to prospective donors and why many donors are motivated to make major contributions. Public schools should take a close look at this fundraising opportunity. Having a school building, a ball field, or a seat in a little theater named after them is a wonderful way for families to leave a lasting legacy.


Making a charitable gift of cash or non-cash assets to the schools as part of a donor's overall estate plan is called planned giving. While gifts of cash are always welcome, gifts of stock, bonds, shares in mutual funds, a home or farm property, vacant land, vacation or rental property, commercial property, life insurance, and other non-cash gifts can also be made.

Because of the size and potential impact of such gifts on an estate, donors should be counseled to consult with their professional advisers before completing the process. Additionally, the school district should consult with its legal advisers before setting up a planned giving program and develop policies to receive and administer such gifts.


In soliciting grants and gifts, it's important to distinguish between annual gifts and major gifts.
Annual gifts -like public radio membership pledges- are solicited frequently and used for the institution's ongoing and supplementary work. The decision to give an annual gift is usually made at the time of the request. Because these gifts are given on a yearly basis, they are smaller than major gifts. New donors are solicited each year in an annual campaign, and previous donors are courted to increase their contributions from the previous year.

Usually, spouses do not have to be consulted when approaching these donors, and monies are given out of the donor's income. These gifts can be solicited by a volunteer or staff member, and while personal visits would be desirable, they are usually not necessary. Gifts of cash are the most common gifts received in an annual campaign.

Annual campaigns often involve phonathons, telethons, direct mail solicitations, e-mail and website solicitations, auctions, dinner dances, and group meetings with service organizations. Special events like golf tournaments, tennis tournaments, and marathons are also used.

Major gifts, on the other hand, generally entail contributions of $25,000 or more from an individual or family. These gifts are usually solicited for endowment purposes or for scholarships, buildings and grounds, equipment, and any specific programs that need a large infusion of money. These gifts are asked for infrequently and can be spread over three to five years.


If you are looking for major gifts, you'll get them by meeting with prospects in person. For those who are new to fundraising, you should understand that it is easier to get people to give than it is to ask for the gift. Learning how to ask is key to big-time fundraising. Always remember, if you don't ask, you won't get!

Before your school district embarks on a program to solicit grants and gifts from individual donors, it's important to go through a training program that prepares everyone involved for the task at hand. Excellent training programs and publications are available for this purpose; see the box for some suggestions.

When you set up an appointment to secure a major gift, learn everything there is to know about your prospects, including their giving history in the community, whether they have children or grandchildren in the schools, their interests and hobbies, the universities they attended, and other relevant information. Asking for the right size gift is very important and should be well researched and thought out. You don't want to ask for too little or too much, though most people are flattered when you ask for a somewhat bigger gift than they were considering.

Setting up a visit with a prospective donor (not an appointment) to secure the gift can be difficult. In Asking, fundraiser Jerold Panas provides techniques and sample letters to help you schedule the visit. Once that's done, you're well on your way to securing the gift.

If you're asking for a major gift, be sure the prospect's spouse is present. And don't go alone or unprepared. These visits are usually done in pairs and should be rehearsed ahead of time. Learning how to respond to objections, how to ask for the right size gift, and how to respond to being put off by your prospects can make all the difference, so rehearse these scenarios ahead of time with a consultant or knowledgeable staff person.

Include the superintendent and a volunteer or other staff member or school board member when calling on prospects. Sometimes an accountant or a tax attorney should be invited to join the group. Count on visits of 45 minutes to an hour, and count on at least two visits to secure a major gift. The first visit is a time to be a good listener -not to solicit money. By listening, you can discover the prospect's needs and interests, and later you can target your request accordingly. The first visit is also the time to establish rapport with your prospect and to show your energy, commitment, and enthusiasm for the project. It is during the second or third visit that you ask for the money.

Decisions on giving usually come from the gut. The family making the gift feels a sense of commitment, excitement, and affection for the organization and the cause. Family members see themselves changing students' lives and making a major impact on their education.

There are thousands of people all over this country who want to experience the joy and elation of giving major gifts of cash and non-cash to the schools, and many want to become personally involved in your cause. Learning how to ask for these gifts will reap major rewards. Colleges, universities, and private schools have been doing it for years. Why not the public schools?


Burnett, Ken. Relationship Fundraising. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002.
The Chronicle of Philanthropy. P.O. Box 1989, Marion, OH 43305-1989; (614) 382-3322; http:// philanthropy.com.
The Foundation Center. 75 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY10003-3076; www.fdncenter.org.
Levenson, Stanley. "A Bigger Piece of the Pie." Principal Leadership, Jan. 2003, pp. 14-18.
Levenson, Stanley. "Beyond the Bake Sale." American School Board Journal, May 2003, pp. 37-39.
Levenson, Stanley. How to Get Grants and Gifts for the Public Schools. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2002.
Levenson, Stanley. "Moving a School District Into Big-Time Fundraising." The School Administrator, Dec. 2001,
p.33. Panas, Jerold. Asking. Medfield, Mass.: Emerson & Church, 2003. Panas, Jerold. Finders Keepers. Chicago: Bonus Books, 1999.
Panas, Jerold. Mega Gifts. Medfield, Mass.: Emerson & Church, 2005.

Stan Levenson ([email protected]); is a fundraising consultant to public schools. A former teacher, administrator, and university professor, he is the author of How to Get Grants and Gifts for the Public Schools, (Allyn & Bacon), and the forthcoming Big-Time Fundraising for Today's Schools (Corwin Press).
Reprinted with permission from American School Board Journal, February 2006 American School Board Journal/February 2006 31 © 2006 National School Boards Association. All rights reserved.


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