Education foundations have evolved and found their footing in Idaho

A former teacher, Cindy Bechinksi remembers groveling for money for a new set of novels for her students, and eventually just buying them herself.

Over the years, she paid out of her own pocket for art supplies, math workbooks, and an innovative vocabulary program.

She noticed that other districts had education foundations to help teachers pay for special projects or classroom supplies, and her Moscow School District did not. She vowed that if the community still didn’t have one by the time she retired, she’d start one herself.

And that’s exactly what she did.

The Moscow Education Foundation is now in its seventh year and has funded over $30,000 worth of grants for about 50 teachers. It joins a host of other education foundations across the state that – all together – have raised and donated millions of dollars to their local schools over the years. Now, most mid-sized and large communities have them – and even some tiny rural towns have joined the fray.

The foundations rely on volunteers (and sometimes a barebones paid staff), endowments, corporate sponsorships, and community goodwill to close the gap between the funds a district gets from the state and the funds it needs to better support teachers and learners.

They operate on the belief that if they give communities a chance to donate more money to education, they’ll do it.

“We’re giving people an opportunity to make a difference,” Bechinksi said. “It takes a village to raise a child.”

Education foundations have struggled to find their place and purpose over the years, but have ultimately become sophisticated fundraising engines. Yet even as they’ve spread across the state and become rooted in their communities, they are often overlooked, unseen contributors. And that needs to change.

As teachers resort to crowdfunding to get the supplies they need, Idaho’s education foundations are grappling to get themselves in the spotlight and come to the rescue.

How do foundations use their money exactly? Read more here.

How foundations have evolved and found their footing

Mark Havens is an expert on education foundations. Now the executive director of Interlink, a nonprofit that helps elders and those with disabilities live independently in their own homes, he was in on the ground floor when education foundations were popping up in Idaho.

Havens helped establish the Lewiston Independent Foundation for Education decades ago and wrote a book – Dream Big: Creating and Growing Your School Foundation – to help others do the same in their own communities. He also worked as a consultant helping education foundations across the country to get set up.

In those early days, founders had a lot of questions:

  • Should they hire paid staffers or rely on volunteers?
  • Was their sole purpose to raise money?
  • Should they be independent of the school district they supported or be enmeshed within them?

“Every school district has to figure that out for themselves,” Havens said.

But, he did advise foundations to find a purpose beyond raising money.

“The purpose of a school foundation is no more to raise money than the purpose of a school district is to collect taxes,” he often would say. “Money is just a means to an end.”

Instead, he said foundations should function as ambassadors for the school district who could build bridges to non-parent audiences. And that started with well-chosen board members who had corporate ties.

Plus, foundations had to find a way to fundraise that was not in competition with PTAs or booster clubs. They had to play on their unique strengths – like their longevity, their ability to invest in a stock portfolio, and their ability to pursue estate gifts.

“You have to differentiate your foundation and its role in the community,” he said.

But, he cautioned foundations not to get in a position where districts were relying on them to make ends meet. Instead, the funds foundations offer should be like an unexpected bonus. And the foundation’s board of directors and donors should be deciding how money is spent.

“Don’t just raise money and hand it to a superintendent,” he said. “A school district doesn’t need a foundation to do that; it can just hire a grant writer.”

Today’s foundations spend their money on grants for teachers, scholarships for students, staff recognition programs, and innovation in education. 

But, to effectively raise and disperse that money, a foundation has to be well-organized — and in the way that makes the most sense for its community.

PAFE supports a reading initiative called the “lucky puppy” program. All first graders get a stuffed puppy to serve as their non-judgmental reading buddy. As they read more, they earn accessories for their dog – like a collar, dog tag, and blanket. Photo courtesy of Amy Longanecker.

Staffing and independence are other considerations

One of the first decisions for foundations is whether to operate independently of the school district they support.

Many are separate entities from schools districts; the Twin Falls School District Education Foundation, Sandpoint’s Panhandle Alliance for Education, the Lewiston Independent Foundation for Education, and the Moscow Education Foundation are a few. That gives them some freedoms they wouldn’t have otherwise – like the ability to invest in a stock portfolio, or distance from any district-level politics.

But others are intertwined with their districts, like Pocatello/Chubbuck’s School District 25 Education Foundation and the Boise Public Schools Foundation. The latter foundations both have staff members whose salaries are paid by the school district. But while the Boise School District pays the salaries for four full-time foundation staff members, the foundation’s funding is still separate.

That brings up another question at hand – whether to pay staff to run a foundation or be entirely volunteer-based.

PAFE started out with just volunteers, but quickly recognized the need for dedicated staff.

“We wanted it to be sustainable, and you can’t do that with just volunteers for very long at all,” said Mindy Cameron, one of PAFE’s founders.

PAFE now has one full-time and two part-time employees.  The organization’s endowment covers the salaries and overhead costs, so every dollar contributed goes to educators and students.

Twin Falls and Lewiston’s foundation have paid staff members as well. Some, like Moscow’s foundation, pull it off with just volunteers.

Once organization and staffing are ironed out, there’s another mountain to climb – how to get community members involved and aware of foundations.

Education foundations want the public to know: we exist

Though education foundations have been in Idaho for about 30 years, they are still flying under the radar – and that’s a problem. After all, without a public to make donations, there’s no foundation.

“We’re all pretty quiet,” said Jennifer Henderson, executive director for the Boise Public Schools Foundation. “Most of us don’t have gargantuan budgets – or any budgets – for promotion. It’s just word of mouth.”

Henderson is also on the board for the National Association of Education Foundations, and said that increasing visibility is a struggle for many groups in Idaho and across the country.

Courtney Fisher, director of Pocatello/Chubbuck’s School District 25 Education Foundation, said she hopes to raise awareness of the group by presenting at schools’ staff meetings this year. It’s important that teachers and administrators know about their local nonprofit – how to donate and how to be supported by it.

Stephanie Hudson, executive director of the Twin Falls School District Education Foundation, said her foundation reaches out to anybody from those who have kids in the district to those who were alumnus 30 years ago. People are passionate about supporting education when they have an opportunity to do so, she said.

But John Pool, the new president of the Moscow Education Foundation, said it’s important to reach out to more than those already connected to the district.

“We can’t just preach to the choir, we’ve got to preach to everybody,” — John Pool, president of the Moscow Education Foundation, on community outreach

“We can’t just preach to the choir, we’ve got to preach to everybody,” he said. “Before I was a member of the board (last fall) I had never even heard of (the Moscow Education Foundation) before.”

Increasing public awareness is one of Pool’s top priorities as he takes the reins from founder and former president Bechinski.

Havens would say that’s a smart move.

He said it’s essential for districts to have a support base that’s beyond those already involved in education, like parents. That’s where foundations should come in.

“Most school districts are not good at speaking to non-parent audiences, but when three-fourths of the population has no direct tie to your school or district, someone needs to be talking to them,” Havens said. “School foundations can really play that role to be an ambassador for the school to the non-parent population.”

Sandpoint’s Panhandle Alliance for Education (PAFE) has been especially effective at garnering donations from the non-parent population – and even from those who only have second homes in the community.

They attribute their success in part to their diverse board of directors, which acts as a doorway to more donors and stakeholders.

Idaho businesses are pivotal to education foundations’ success

Kelly Prior, the president and CEO of Litehouse Foods, has been critical in his role as PAFE’s board president. Each year, the organization – which is headquartered in Sandpoint and was founded by two former Idaho teachers – hosts two major events, a golf tournament and a lakeside gala.

The golf tournament doubles as a corporate retreat for Litehouse’s suppliers, but also generates significant funds for the foundation.

“It’s the right thing to do for the kids in the community, but then it also creates a strong community for employee owners here in Sandpoint,” Prior said.

Another major national company, Coldwater Creek, used to be headquartered in Sandpoint as well. The company’s then president and CMO Georgia Shonk-Simmons was “instrumental” in helping to get PAFE off the ground, Mindy Cameron, one of PAFE’s founders, said.

Together, they created a vision for the foundation. It would eschew car washes and bake sales and instead host “classy”, high-dollar events; it would recruit businesses; and it would involve men (at the time, women were more likely to be involved in charity work).

” … We feel that it is necessary to have a foundation such as PAFE that can really help raise money locally to support the additional needs that the school district has and to really elevate the educational experience for the students and provide opportunities they wouldn’t have otherwise.” — Kelly Prior, president and CEO of Litehouse Foods

In 2014, the company went bankrupt and shuttered its Sandpoint doors. Litehouse was already involved in PAFE, so it stepped in and took over the major events Coldwater Creek was sponsoring, like the golf tournament.

Micron, which is headquartered in Boise, also supports a number of education foundations in the state through its employee matching gifts and grant programs. Since 2001, it’s donated over $2 million to education foundations.

“(Foundations) provide a more coordinated approach to giving to education because they have the entire district level view instead of a singular school or classroom,” Dee Mooney, executive director of The Micron Foundation, said. “The foundations function on the front lines of education in many respects and are very much worth contributing to.”

But even in communities that aren’t home to a major corporation’s headquarters, local businesses are there to help out.

In Pocatello, it’s a medical center and a credit union. In Moscow, it’s an orthodontist’s office and a plastic recycling business.  In Twin Falls, a local car dealership and a few banks are among donors.

Those relationships with local businesses just make sense. After all, good schools help those companies to recruit and retain talent, Longanecker said.

Like PAFE, a number of foundations host large fundraisers like galas and golf tournaments, often sponsored by local businesses. But some, run primarily on volunteer efforts, are shifting toward simpler fundraising efforts.

Through a group effort of volunteers, community members, and business parters, these organizations are doing what they can to invest in Idaho’s kids. It’s a lot of work, but Henderson said all the effort is worth it in the end.

“Schools are the great leveler where everybody has the same opportunities,” she said. “If we can provide something that will make that class extra interesting or impact one student so their learning is better, or deeper, or richer, that’s what it’s all about.”

Carly Flandro

About Carly Flandro

Reporter Carly Flandro works in EdNews’ East Idaho bureau. A former high school English teacher, she writes about teaching, learning, diversity, and equity. You can follow Flandro on Twitter @idahoedcarly and send her news tips at [email protected]

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