Fundraising dilemma for Aspen schools
December 3, 2008
ASPEN ” Should donors to the Aspen School District have the opportunity to shape programs or curriculum? Or, should they be able to name a building if the gift is large enough?
To iron out the district’s guidelines concerning directed giving, the Aspen School Board and the Aspen Education Foundation met Wednesday.
Tension can arise when public institutions accept private funds, acknowledged Cindy Kahn, the new executive director of the Aspen Education Foundation (AEF), the nonprofit fundraising arm of the Aspen School District. A former major gifts officer with the University of Wisconsin, Kahn said she has become “incredibly familiar” with the issues that can arise when a public institution accepts money from private donors.
“I understand that this has been a thorny issue in the past here,” she said.
According to Aspen School Board member Fred Peirce, in fact, AEF was created, in part, because of the influx of community giving after the 1998 School Finance Act tightened district budgets. Many residents, he said, began giving money to Aspen schools ” or even to specific teachers ” expecting a say in the use, or even special treatment, in return.
“It was becoming disruptive,” he said. “AEF became the buffer so that the money wasn’t coming to schools with strings attached.”
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But even as she acknowledged the potential thorny issues, Kahn contended that private fundraising has become essential as public funding for schools dwindles.
In 2001, a survey by Creating Foundations for American Schools found nearly one-third of public school districts had created a nonprofit fundraising arm. And in Colorado, Kahn said, foundations have become particularly important. The state ranks 42nd in the nation in per-pupil funding.
“The difference between [fundraising at] a K-12 and a university is nothing, except that K-12s are behind in their evolution,” Kahn said.
She suggested K-12 schools have been slower to realize they will have to turn to private fundraising to supplement dwindling public funds.
Kahn further suggested that accepting private donations may require K-12 schools to start considering strategies such as named buildings, which universities have been using for years.
“You can’t go to someone without being armed with every single piece of ammunition that you need,” she said.
Asked for the board’s concerns about fundraising, board member Elizabeth Parker listed her top two, which were seconded by fellow board member Charla Belinski: accepting funds without letting the donor direct the use, and determining how donors will be recognized.
“Private donors expect varying levels of recognition,” Parker said.
But the Aspen School Board, she said, has always had concerns about naming donors because of the number of residents who pay property taxes that help fund the district.
On the issue of directing funds, board members gave the example of a previous donor who had wanted to give $10,000 of seed money to start a Japanese language program in the district. Since the district didn’t feel it could continue to fund the program, it turned the donor down.
But Kahn pointed out that statistically, when donors who are denied the opportunity to fund a program about which they’re passionate, the gift typically decreases by 18 percent and the donors rarely give again.
In the case of the proposed Japanese language program, Kahn said she would have asked the donor to endow the program with enough money to keep it going.
And if a $10 million endowment was too expensive, she would have directed the donor to the school’s list of needs, to see if the contributor could identify an actual district need he’d be willing to fund, she said.
As proposed by Kahn, the “needs list” would be generated by teachers and other staff members, with input from principals and other administrators. When major donors come in with the desire to give a directed gift, she said, they could be directed to the list to find a need that matches their wish.
But she acknowledged gifts may not be funded in the order they are ranked by
the district ” a reality over which Superintendent Diana Sirko expressed concern.
“Where does that really stop?” asked Sirko. “It’s a slippery slope.”
But Kahn pointed out the vast majority of donors will give without trying to direct the funds ” and she has said before that those unrestricted funds will all go toward filling the district’s greatest needs.
Wednesday’s discussion will be used to create a Memo of Understanding between the school district and AEF to guide AEF’s fundraising efforts.