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A Bigger Piece of the Pie

Fundraising for Local Public Schools

By Dr. Stan Levenson

Originally published in Principal Leadership, January 2003

Secondary school principals are mighty busy these days, and obtaining grants and gifts for their schools is becoming a major part of their job descriptions. While public schools have been struggling to meet the needs of all students, private schools, colleges, universities, and nonprofit organizations have been successfully raising billions of dollars each year by tapping into corporations, foundations, the government, and most important, private citizens, for large grants and gifts.

Using sophisticated fundraising techniques taught in workshops and courses all over the country, a number of secondary school principals and others are looking beyond their traditional funding sources—bake sales, pizza and candy sales, and car washes—and are learning more-sophisticated techniques for raising millions of dollars for their public schools. Sitting idle while private schools, colleges, universities, and nonprofit organizations reap all the rewards is not an option. If public schools are to compete for needed dollars, they must aggressively apply the fundraising strategies used so effectively by these other organizations.

Corporate Giving

Corporations provide support to schools through private foundations and direct-giving programs. Many corporations are interested in forming partnerships with schools, contributing money and equipment, and providing technical assistance. These separate legal entities maintain close ties with their parent organizations, and their giving philosophies mirror company priorities and interests. It is important to understand that corporations typically contribute in the communities where their employees live and work. Be sure to check out the corporations in your community and become familiar with their giving priorities.

Foundation Giving

There are two types of foundation grants: independent foundation grants and community foundation grants. Independent foundation grants are nongovernmental grants. They usually have a principal fund or endowment; are managed by a board of trustees or directors; and give cash and gifts to nonprofit organizations, including schools. Independent foundations are interested in funding "excellence" in the public schools through programs that bring about positive change or enhance and supplement existing programs. When applying for a foundation grant, you should try to match your needs to the foundation's interests. Usually, it is easier to get a foundation grant from a local foundation or a foundation within your state or region than from a national foundation.

Community foundations are financially supported by individuals, businesses, and organizations in specific communities or regions around the country. Many community foundations are interested in funding programs that improve teaching and learning in their communities. A number of community foundations have set up mini-grant programs for teachers. Others have provided grants and gifts to schools and school districts outright. Become familiar with community foundations in your locale and open lines of communication with them.

The Foundation Center's website ( posts prospect research related to corporations and foundations and is an excellent resource. Other useful websites are,, and

Government Grant Opportunities

Many government grant opportunities are designed for schools and districts with large numbers of minority students or large numbers of non-English speakers and limited-English speakers, schools that have serious academic and social needs, and schools that have large numbers of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch programs. Government grant programs are usually offered once a year, and have specific timelines and deadlines for submitting applications. In addition to programs funded by the U.S. Department of Education and the state departments of education, funding opportunities for public schools exist at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Individual Giving and the Public Schools

Individual solicitation of major grants and gifts from wealthy individuals and others is practically nonexistent in the public schools, yet more than 82% of all external grants and gifts comes from individuals. Every day of every year, people are giving to good causes. Why not the public schools? I believe that one of the main reasons the public schools have not solicited individual gifts is that principals, teachers, parents, and others don't know how to ask for them. Much can be learned from private schools, colleges, universities, and nonprofit organizations, as well as from consultants who specialize in this area. Although individual solicitation of grants and gifts takes some time, training, and sophistication, the schools and school districts that pursue this avenue of fundraising will reap major rewards.

Local Educational Foundations

One of the hottest trends in schools and school districts across the country is setting up a local educational foundation (LEF), or a local education fund. If your school or district does not have an educational foundation at this time, you should consider setting one up. Some school or district foundations are beginning to raise serious dollars. Others are just getting started. These foundations are usually nonprofit 501(c)(3) organizations that are tax-exempt third parties raising monies for the schools.

A number of local education foundations across the country are becoming more astute and serious about their role as fundraisers. In some cases, executive directors have been employed to provide fundraising leadership on a full-time basis. In other instances, full-time or part-time grant writers and consultants have been employed to seek out funding opportunities for school districts. In other situations, volunteers are recruited to assist in the fundraising effort.

The Transfer of Wealth in America

When it comes to studying and understanding wealth in America, I am excited by the research and writings of Paul Schervisch and John Havens of the Welfare Research Institute at Boston College. The statistics coming out of their offices on the transfer of wealth in the United States are truly astonishing. For example, Schervisch (2002) reports that in the next 50 years, $40.6 trillion dollars will change hands. That is, $40.6 trillion will be inherited by many people living today, including their children and their grandchildren. Schervisch points out that his figures are low estimates, basing them on a meager 2% growth rate. He indicates that with a growth rate of 3%, $73 trillion will transfer, and with a growth rate of 4%, $136 trillion will transfer. If Schervisch is correct in his projections, more people are going to be inheriting more wealth than ever before—and looking for places to give. Why not the public schools?

Examples of Grants and Gifts

About eight years ago, the late Walter Annenberg, one of the world's great philanthropists and a good friend of public education, started the corporate and foundation ball rolling by making the largest individual gift to public education, more than $1.1 billion. The Annenberg Challenge was established to strengthen urban and rural schools, arts education, and raise the quality of teaching in many school districts across the country.

Since Annenberg's gift was made, a number of individuals, foundations, and corporations have made outstanding contributions, including:

  • Bill and Melinda Gates, who have given more than $500 million to public schools through their foundation. They are interested at this time in smaller, more personalized schools; in staff development for teachers and administrators; and in technology.
  • The Wallace-Readers Digest Funds, which has pledged more than $150 million over five years to improve the leadership of public schools and school districts. The money has been focused on efforts to recruit, train, and retain high-quality principals and superintendents.
  • The Lilly Endowment, which has shown increased interest in public education in Indiana. Recently, they awarded a literacy grant of almost $5 million to Clay Community Schools in Knightsville, IN, as well as another grant of almost $5 million for technology-based programs in K-12 to the Southwestern Career Center in Versailles, IN.
  • The Broad Foundation in Los Angeles, which is giving millions of dollars in grants and gifts to urban school districts across the United States to build K-12 educational leadership capacity; strengthen union management; and support aggressive, system-wide strategies that increase student achievement.
  • Bell South Foundation in Atlanta, GA, which awarded more than $144 thousand to the school board of Miami-Dade County, FL, for the Power to Learn Program, as well as another $65 thousand to the Birmingham City (AL) Schools for its strategic plan for teacher professional development.
  • Former Netscape CEO, Jim Barksdale, and his wife, Sally, who created a $100 million endowment to advance literacy in the schools in their home state of Mississippi.
  • Retired Wal-Mart Corporation president, Ferold Arend, and his wife, Jane, who gave a $5 million gift to build an art center at Bentonville (AR) High School, and an associate Wal-Mart executive, Jack Shewmaker, and his family, who added an additional $1 million to equip the center.
  • The Packard Foundation, headquartered in Los Altos, CA, which gave the Sacramento City Unified School District $2.5 million a year for three years to provide schools with reading coaches at the elementary school level.

Do's and Don'ts

Now that I have provided some background information, I will share some information and advice to help you pursue grants and gifts.

Three Costly Mistakes to Avoid

Failing to read instructions carefully. When preparing a government grant application or any application, it is absolutely essential that you read the instructions very carefully. The instructions set the parameters for your grant proposal and provide you with direction for completing each page of the application.

Bottom Line: Read the instructions carefully and have someone else read the instructions as well.

Disregarding specific topic areas. If you disregard specific topic areas that are required by the funding agency, you are asking for a denial of your funding request.

Bottom line: It is essential to address every specific topic area that the funding agency requires in your application for funding.

Ignoring deadlines. If you miss a deadline for any grant application, you might as well kiss the grant good-bye. The grant application deadline is the most basic requirement of the application process. Before you mail your grant application package, determine whether it must arrive in a specific office by a specific date and time or simply has to be postmarked by a specific date.

Bottom line: Don't miss the deadline under any circumstances.

Secrets of Successful Grant Writers

  1. They educate themselves by enrolling in at least one course or workshop taught by an experienced fundraiser who has had success writing grant proposals. Fundraisers who have been on the firing line have a great deal of practical experience to share and you will benefit from their experience.
  2. They do comprehensive prospect research on the Web; in journals, newspapers, newsletters, and magazines; and through personal contacts to identify funding opportunities in advance so they have adequate lead time to prepare and complete their applications.
  3. They are familiar with the basic rules of proposal writing and know how to work with stakeholders in large and small group settings to get the feedback and content they need to put the application together.
  4. They network constantly with teachers, administrators, parents, community members, school board members, subject-matter specialists, other grant writers, external evaluators, and experts from colleges and universities who can help formulate and write a successful grant application and can lend their names, affiliations, and expertise to the task at hand.
  5. They know that a superior application will state a project vision clearly and concisely; will document the needs convincingly; and will have overarching goals, measurable objectives, clearly stated activities, a comprehensive evaluation plan, and a realistic budget. Keep in mind that in most cases, the application must be creative, unique, convincing, and capture the imagination of the readers.
  6. They understand that the competition for obtaining grants is very keen, but they know they have the best chance for success if they prepare the proposal properly, follow directions precisely, respond to what the funding agency is looking for, and meet the application deadline.

Don't Overlook Corporate and Foundation Grants

Corporations and foundations are interested in providing grants and gifts to schools, and many teachers and administrators have not yet discovered these funding opportunities, which decreases your competition for these funds. There are other benefits to pursuing corporate and foundation grants. For example, most corporate and foundation funding agencies require an application of only 1 to 10 pages, although the federal government requires an application of about 50 pages or more. This is reason enough to apply to corporations and foundations. Teachers and administrators are very busy people and so are program officers and other staff members at the funding agencies. Corporations and foundations have discovered that by keeping their applications brief, everybody wins.

Further, most corporations and foundations fund programs more than once a year. Some of these agencies grant funds four times a year, and others make decisions every time the board meets, which could be monthly. The funding timetables are much more favorable than once-a-year government funding timetables. If you miss a government grant application deadline, or if your application is turned down, you are out of luck for an entire year. If you miss a corporate or foundation deadline or are turned down, you have an opportunity to apply in another month or two or can take your application elsewhere.

A New Fundraising Strategy for Public Schools

We all know that private schools, colleges, universities, and nonprofit organizations have been pursuing individual donors for years. We also know that more than 82% of all external funding to these entities comes from individual donors. Wouldn't it be wonderful if you learned how to solicit big-time gifts from wealthy people and others in your community? Here is some background information to get you started.

Annual Campaigns

Annual campaigns are ongoing yearly appeals that provide supplementary support. Gifts tend to be smaller than capital campaign gifts, which have loftier goals. New donors are solicited each year in an annual campaign and previous donors are courted to increase their contributions. Some of the fundraising approaches used in annual campaigns are phone-a-thons, telethons, direct-mail solicitations, e-mail solicitations; auctions, dinner meetings, breakfast meeting and luncheons; group meetings with service organizations and other organizations, such as the Rotary Club, the Kiwanis Club, parent-teacher-student organizations, and the Optimist Club; special events like golf tournaments, tennis tournaments, marathons, half-marathons, and walks; and website solicitations, either on your own website or on other websites that have been designed for this purpose.

Capital Campaigns

Capital campaigns have loftier goals than annual campaigns, therefore gift requests are set far higher than annual appeals. Capital campaigns are very new to the public schools. Some districts are beginning to recognize this tremendous potential resource for external fundraising. Time frames in capital campaigns are generally extended, such as a three-year campaign (or a five-year campaign) to build a new creative and performing arts center. Prospects are asked to pledge a certain amount of money over time. Capital campaigns are an exciting time for a school community because the goals are tangible and the results are highly visible.

I have found that identifying someone in the community to make a "lead gift" before the campaign officially begins is a good way to get started. One way to obtain a lead gift is to provide the opportunity for the donor to have a facility on campus named in his or her family's honor. This is done all the time in private schools, colleges, and universities. Why not the public schools? Once the lead gift is made, funding opportunities for naming other portions of the performing arts center should be made available. Donors can also receive public recognition for funding the main lobby, the stage, the lighting, dressing rooms, the seats, and other things. 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.

What Is Planned Giving?

Any discussion of individual solicitation should include planned giving, which is the process of making a charitable gift of cash or non-cash assets to one or more nonprofit organizations, including the public schools. Such a gift usually requires consideration and planning in light of the donor's overall estate plan and tax situation. Legal documents that must be completed should be made part of the overall estate plan of the donor.

Although 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 be made to the schools. Because of the size and potential effect of such gifts on an estate, a donor should consult with his or her professional advisers before completing the process. In addition, district personnel should consult with their legal advisers concerning the implementation of a planned giving program and develop policies to receive and administer such gifts.

If you need help, there are consultants available throughout the country who are experts in one or more of these areas. There are books, tapes, periodicals, other materials and CD-ROMs in public libraries and the regional libraries of the Foundation Center. Publications, such as the Chronicle of Philanthropy and Planned Giving Today, can be very helpful, and there are websites that provide information and expertise. Finally, I recommended that you contact development offices in private schools, colleges, universities, and nonprofit organizations in your area and ask to meet with them in their offices to discover how they are organized and how they might be of assistance to you.


These are exciting times for fundraising efforts in public schools. We are at the threshold of a major boom in philanthropy never seen before. With proper training, leadership, and vision, public schools can grab a larger piece of the fundraising pie.


Schervisch, P. (2002, March 3). The transfer of wealth. The Boston Globe.

About the author and his writings

Stan Levenson, a former teacher, administrator, and university professor, is a fund-raising consultant to public schools. He is the author of two books on fundraising for schools.

Dr. Stan Levenson, Big-Time Fundraising for Today's Schools, published by Corwin Press in 2006.

Dr. Stan Levenson, How to Get Grants and Gifts for the Public Schools, published by Allyn & Bacon in 2002.

A number of Dr. Levenson's articles appear in our fund-raising and grant writing section. More information is also available on his website,

This article is © 2003 Stanley Levenson, Ph.D. Permission is granted to make individual copies for your colleagues provided that credit is given to the author. Teens2Teams warmly thanks Dr. Levenson for his permission to republish the article.

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