Whole District Fundraising

Critical Care

Development offices help raise money for K-12 districts

Stan Levenson

In these days of tight budgets, it’s imperative that the public schools learn how to bring in outside monies. For years, schools have been relying on modest fundraising approaches like bake sales, candy sales, and car washes. These time-consuming tactics, while helpful in the past, can no longer carry the burden of cash-strapped schools. 

Tax-supported state colleges and universities have faced similar budget constraints over the years. However, they have figured out ways to deliver world-class learning opportunities by establishing development offices that raise millions of dollars. We have much to learn from them. 

University development offices bring in more money than it costs to run them. Some of the smallest state colleges and universities in the country have at least 25 people working in their development offices. The larger state colleges and universities like the University of Michigan could have as many as 500 people working in development. These people know that development offices are good investments. 

Setting up

There is a small number of school districts around the country that have development offices. The size of these offices is minuscule compared to those in public colleges and universities. However, it’s important to note that they exist and, in some cases as school leaders see their value, expanding.

Some districts have development offices run by 501c3 district foundations. Most of these offices are small and have their own boards. Others are larger and have paid staff. Some district foundations are administered by volunteers working in development while others have larger staffs, depending on the size and needs of the district. 

I have discovered that once a development office is established and staffed by experienced, competent people, it takes about two years or less to become a profit center. 

The overarching goal of a development office in a school district should be to secure needed outside funding from corporations, foundations, the government, and individual donors to supplement and enhance world-class learning opportunities. 


In small school districts, the development office might consist of one or more staff members wearing many hats. In larger school districts, the staff might be organized in the following way or in a combination of ways. Here are some positions to consider:

The assistant superintendent for development or director of development has overall responsibility for the district’s total fundraising effort. This includes but is not limited to supervising the development office staff and serving as the liaison with school sites and school and district foundations. This person will have extensive fundraising experience at the school or district level or in a similar position.

The coordinator of corporate, foundation, and government grants is responsible for prospect research and works with school site personnel, volunteers, and grant writers, notifying them of available corporate, foundation, and government grants. The position requires extensive experience in prospect research and grant writing as well as experience in working with program officers from corporate, foundation, and government funders.

The director of individual giving is a key position with many opportunities to bring millions of dollars to the school district. In school districts with more than 10,000 students, additional staff with specializations should be employed. These specialties should include people with experience in annual campaigns, capital campaigns, planned giving, estate planning, and naming rights. 

The director will be responsible for supervising and directing this office and will work closely with the coordinator of alumni relations. While having extensive experience in individual giving, the director also will be responsible for training others to learn how to ask for big gifts. 

The coordinator of alumni relations will help keep in touch with alumni from kindergarten through 12th grade by working with principals and the director of individual giving. The coordinator will organize and implement a district-wide alumni association; involve alumni in the schools, show them love and caring, and make certain they understand the needs of the district; and also, stay in touch with retired teachers and principals in the district. They should be a part of the alumni outreach as well. 

Grant writers are essential. In school districts with more than 10,000 students, a cadre of full-time grant writers is needed. Some districts ask classroom teachers to write grant applications. I’m not a huge fan of this approach unless the teachers are given release time and have the expertise to compete with experienced grant writers around the country. Other school districts employ consultants to assist with grant writing. However, the goal is to have your own district staff of grant writers. However, I recommend that all teachers be encouraged to apply for mini-grants from funding agencies like and others.

Designate responsibility 

As you begin to plan a comprehensive K-12 fundraising effort that involves setting up a development office in your school district, it is important that roles and responsibilities be delineated to smoothly transition into this new money-making adventure. Here is a description for each person or group.

School board members: Individual school board members should be key players in the overall big-time fundraising effort including the establishment of a districtwide development office. Through your individual contacts, you can assist the development office in identifying and soliciting others in the community to give to the schools. 

By being staunch supporters and advocates for the schools, school board members might consider giving financially to the schools. Think of the splash you would make in your community if you gave financially to the schools. Most of us give to good causes all the time. Why not give to your own school district? Why not give to the wonderful cause you represent?

Superintendent: With the board’s blessing and approval, the superintendent should be the overall leader in a big-time fundraising effort including the establishment of a districtwide development office. This includes being responsible for the recruitment and employment of competent, experienced development office staff. The superintendent also will assist with acquiring major grants and gifts from corporations, foundations, the government, and individuals by meeting in person with potential donors and funders as needed on their turf, your turf, or in a neutral area. 

Principals: Principals are key players in the overall big-time fundraising effort. They can make or break a program by their attitude and their involvement. The more involved a principal gets in the individual giving program, the more money will flow in. I recommend that principals be part of the visitation team that meets with program officers and CEOs of corporations and foundations interested in funding a specific school.

Classroom teachers, specialists, coaches, and band directors: These staff members are at the heart of a big-time fundraising effort. They are on the firing line every day. They make the community proud of their involvement and commitment to kids. These people represent all the good that is going on in the schools. If individuals are going to give big money to the schools, they probably know one or more of these people through their kids or grandkids, have been influenced by their good work, and want to help out.

Parents and volunteers: They are very important team members in the total fundraising effort. If you involve them on your team, you will reap major rewards in time and money. Most parents want to help the schools that their children attend. Additionally, many parents and volunteers have very good contacts in the school community and know who the affluent people are. Having these contacts, they should be invited to communicate this information to the district, and make personal visits as assigned. Parents and volunteers should be encouraged to make their own contributions before they solicit others.

People with money: Wealthy people, especially those who are graduates of the public schools in your district or have taught or have been administrators in your schools, should be invited to take a role in both giving to the schools and in helping to solicit grants and gifts from their friends and family. Many of these people with money have children and grandchildren in the schools and would be receptive to giving a large gift in their behalf. Invite these people into the schools and involve them in your cause. Ask them to assume leadership positions. Tell them about the possibility for naming rights. 

Public schools have many supporters but have lagged behind when it comes to soliciting outside monies from corporations, foundations, the government, and individual donors. Millions of people have attended and graduated from public schools across the country. Many have children and grandchildren in the schools and want to give back to show their appreciation and support. 

These same people work for corporations, foundations, and the government. These same people are rooting for you to succeed. Go after them with gusto. Show them love and respect and involve them in your schools. The return on investment is going to blow your mind.

Stan Levenson ( has written numerous articles and books about K-12 fundraising. He has just published his first children’s book about fundraising, Juan and Gwen’s Big Fundraising Surprise. Follow him on Twitter @StanLevenson.


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