Stan Levenson, a fund-raising consultant, often asks audiences at his lectures if they ever hear from the colleges or universities they attended. Of course, the crowd acknowledges. How about private schools they attended? Yes. Do they ask for donations? He doesn't even have to wait for the answer to that one.
"Every day, people are giving to good causes," says Levenson, whose clients are educators. "Why not public schools?"
Alumni of universities and private schools have been hit up for years -- most have entire departments devoted to fund-raising, called development offices -- but public schools are only starting to pursue fund-raising strategies that go "beyond the bake sale," as Levenson might say. With New York City facing tight budgets and increased pressure to provide a quality basic education to more than one million students, many members of the public school community think they have little choice but to seek private help.
When it comes to having successful alumni with deep pockets, elite public schools like Stuyvesant High School have the potential to go toe-to-toe with private educational powerhouses such as the Peddie School in New Jersey, which raised over $1.25 million in 2002. While most New York City public schools do not have the donor pool of a Peddie or a Stuyvesant, relying instead on traditional fund-raising events like carnivals and bake sales, some have begun to launch pledge drives and mail campaigns to fill in the gaps left by shortfalls in public funding. To boost such efforts, the Department of Education has launched a web site (Fund For Public Schools) where alumni of city schools can find out how to donate time or money.
The Parents Association at PS 87 on Manhattan's Upper West Side, raised approximately $300,000 in grants and donations. While the Department of Education reviews the Parents Association budget, it gives the school wide discretion in fundraising.
From a pledge drive, to auctioning off the chance to be principal for a day, to holding a neighborhood street fair and talent shows by parents and students, PS 87's fund-raising efforts help the school meet basic needs. The money buys Band-Aids and paper towels for the nurse's office, helps pay the school librarian and the "lice lady," and funds the arts program. The association's funds also cover the salaries of two kindergarten aides.
"It's pretty stark, what you'd have to do without" if there was no fund-raising, says Fredda Rosen, co-president of the elementary school's Parents Association. "You'd have reading and math."
While schools have always done fund-raising, the demand for outside money has increased. "There has always been fund-raising for public schools, but in the past, it's been for window-dressing," says Howie Schaffer, media director for the Public Education Network, a Washington-based group that lobbies for increased funding for public schools. "Now, the situation is so dire and the pain of the financial cuts is so acute that you're seeing these [funds] move into programs."
PS 87 benefits from having a cross-section of wealthy, middle class and working class families, nearly 50 percent of whom contributed to the pledge drive last year. But many schools, including those where the need may be greatest, are not so fortunate. And so some critics worry that the increased reliance on grassroots fund-raising broadens the gap between "have" and "have-not" districts.
"The danger is that if we allow elected officials to cut budgets, then only wealthy communities can ease that pain," says Schaffer.
In 1997, parents at PS 41 in fairly affluent Greenwich Village raised $46,000 to keep a teacher and hold class size down. Then-Chancellor Rudy Crew balked at the move, saying he was concerned about the effect using private funds to pay salaries of regular classroom teachers "would have on the sore issue of equity for all children throughout the system." Crew eventually compromised, saying the teacher could stay but that the community school district -- not the parents -- would pay the salary.
But issues of equity remain. While PS 87's Parents Association raises money for arts programs, one elementary school teacher on Staten Island is desperate for basic classroom supplies like notebooks, scissors, tape, glue and markers. One hundred percent of the students at the school qualify for free lunches. On the DonorsChoose web site, the instructor pleads for help: "Many children have a difficult time buying these supplies...this can cause missing work, as well as lack of self-esteem. Our students should not have to feel disadvantaged when it comes to their education."
DonorsChoose is a nonprofit that helps such underfunded schools find donors willing to pay for specific programs. Rich Yudhishthu, a teacher at Wings Academy in the Bronx, is director of operations of the web site. He and his staff review thousands of proposals from New York teachers looking for everything from "baby-think-it-over dolls" for a pregnancy prevention program, to erasers and chalk. Once a proposal is approved (and Yudhishthu notes that nearly all legitimate requests are), it is posted online in the hopes that a donor will fund it. The system is a kind of E-bay for the civic minded, boosted by word of mouth and some high-profile publicity from a profile on the Oprah Winfrey show.
Once a proposal is sponsored, DonorsChoose purchases the materials and gets them to the school, along with a disposable camera and a self-addressed stamped envelope in which to send photos of the funds in action, thank-you notes from students and a report from the instructor. Since the program's inception in the spring of 2000, over 700 proposals have been funded. More than half the faculty members at IS 125 in the South Bronx have had proposals funded.
Some fund-raising consultants believe city-wide efforts such as DonorsChoose are likely to be more productive than traditional school-based carnivals and book sales. But Levenson, the fund-raising consultant, advises individual public schools to ratchet up their fund-raising as well, setting aside some of their regular budget for a development office, much like private schools and universities do, to tap into successful alumni, parents, friends or community members. "In 18 months or two years," Levinson says, "these people's salaries will pay for themselves."
But for those in the thick of school fund-raising, Levenson ignores a valued result of more traditional grassroots fund-raisers: Community-building. "It makes the children feel like their schools matter," says Jean Joachim, former vice president of PS 87's Parents' Association, and author of Beyond the Bake Sale: The Ultimate School Fund-raising Book.