One-of-a-Kind Fund-Raising Office Helps Schools in Pittsburgh Pursue a 'Vision'

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Pittsburgh--When the Pittsburgh Board of Education last month approved a one-year campaign to raise $15 million for the district's at-risk students, eyebrows were raised in philanthropic organizations throughout the country.

Soliciting private support for specific projects has become commonplace in the nation's financially strapped and enterprising school districts.

But, observers agree, establishing a general fund--in Pittsburgh's case, for programs for disadvantaged students--and asking for money from individuals and the community at large, as well as from philanthropic foundations, is almost unheard of.

Some say it cannot be done. They argue that individuals will not put up money for an institution that already gets a large chunk of their taxes.

Some say it should not be done. They argue that the district is gambling with the education of at-risk students by placing a public responsibility into unreliable private hands.

But here in Iron City--where buildings once blackened with steel-mill soot now gleam like new, and where the public schools have what may be the only full-time development office in the country--there is a feeling that anything is possible.

"It's different, it's new, and change always threatens people," conceded James Cusimano, associate director of private funds for the district's office of development. "But the benefits will far outweigh the risks."

While the mere existence of Pittsburgh's development office is unique, observers say, its accomplishments are what make it most impressive.

"There are some people who have some development efforts in place," said Joseph Scherer, executive director of the National School Public Relations Association, "but nothing of this magnitude."

While Pittsburgh's development office may be one of a kind, he said, its approach to school funding will likely be embraced by other districts in the not so distant future.

"Private schools have been doing this for a long time," Mr. Scherer noted. "Public schools are just starting, and it's going to grow."

The Pittsburgh office has raised $25.8 million--about 92 percent of the total from private sources--in its six-year existence. Of that private support, 69 percent has come from national sources, undercutting arguments that Pittsburgh's rich array of corporate and family foundations has distorted the office's successes.

Moreover, the return on the district's investment has been enormous. Taxpayers spend about $162,000 a year to operate the office, which, in turn, raises about $4 million for programs in the district.

The rest of the development office's $270,000 annual budget is covered by interest from the long-term grants it wins and from administration costs typically written into those grants.

District officials stress, however, that the office and its highly praised director, Philip B. Parr, are about more than money.

"It's about much more than grant proposals," said Ron Sofo, administrative assistant to Superintendent Richard C. Wallace Jr. "It's about vision."

In 1984, Mr. Wallace asked the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, a business-community group, to help raise $500,000 for the Schenley High School Teacher Center, a staff-development initiative.

Conference officials decided instead to give Mr. Wallace a development officer to handle the task. The conference, using $25,000 from Mellon Bank, found and hired Mr. Parr, a health- and human-services management consultant, to head the campaign.

In one year, Mr. Parr raised $1.5 million, three times what was expected, and an impressed school board hired him in 1985 to head a full-time office of development.

Two things made the effort unique, said David Bergholtz, executive director of the George Gund Foundation in Cleveland.

"One, the private sector seeded it and gave it a chance to fluorish right next to the superintendent's side," he said, "and two, it was successful as hell."

From the beginning, the question of what could be funded with private money and what should remain in the public domain has dogged the development office's efforts--and rightfully so, Mr. Parr says.

"It's a good question to ask," he conceded.

The attention has forced the office to draw up strict guidelines on the use of private monies, Mr. Parr and local observers said.

Only pilot projects considered too risky or innovative for tax dollars can be funded privately, Mr. Parr said. If those projects prove successful--like the development office itself--they must be taken over by the district's general operating budget.

Mr. Parr also pointed out that the office's approximately $4-million-a-year take is only "a drop in the bucket" for a district with a $330-million annual budget.

Nevertheless, at times the district has come close to straying over the line between public responsibility and private enterprise, Mr. Parr said. It has been the savvy philanthropic community that has always pushed it back.

"Funding sources are fairly astute these days," he said. "I've never seen a funding source want to finance general operations, because it's a bottomless pit. You'd just keep coming back."

During the campaign for the teacher center, he recalled, Mr. Wallace approached local philanthropies to endow chairs at the center as a means of attracting the best teachers in the country. But the donors sensed that they were being asked to pay salaries--a public responsibility--and they refused.

The snub ensured that innovation would remain the development office's principal mission. Mr. Parr said the office's operating theory has become: "Focus on programs and ideas, and the dollars will follow."

That focus has placed the development office in the center of Pittsburgh's widely reported school-reform experiments. To keep the development office alive, Mr. Parr explained, there must be a constant stream of new ideas to sell.

"We really view Phil Parr and his office as 'change agents,' working with people in the district to identify problems, and pose solutions, then search for the venture capital to see if the solutions work," said Nancy Bunt, director of the Allegheny Conference Education Fund. ''And they've been very effective in my view."

The office has become integrated into every facet of the district's operations. Members of the development staff are not allowed to write project proposals, nor are other district staff members allowed to submit proposals without input from the development office.

"Development is really about selling ideas," Mr. Parr said. "But it's also about program planning."

"We could sit here in development and dream up all these nice programs," he added, "but when the rubber hit the road, there would be no fit."

Before Mr. Parr's arrival, program grants came to Pittsburgh by "happenstance," according to Anne Marshall, the district's associate director of staff development.

Like school administrators nationwide, Pittsburgh officials were not familiar with the wide range of grants available, she said, nor were they versed in the art of proposal writing.

Today, members of the central staff are taught grant-seeking strategies and proposal-writing, and they are kept abreast of new opportunities as they become available. The changes have allowed Pittsburgh to win grants other districts did not even know existed.

Last February, for instance, when the National Center on Family Literacy announced that it would expand its literacy program to five new cities, districts had just nine days to draft proposals. The efforts of the development office played no small part in winning Pittsburgh one of the slots, district observers say.

The office has also taken charge of innovative projects that department heads--bogged down in day-to-day responsibilities--have not had time to handle.

When a federal grant for a dropout demonstration project became available last January, the district office decided to ask the schools to draft a proposal that would cross the lines between elementary, junior-high, and high schools, said Mr. Sofo of the superintendent's office.

Most education-grant proposals, he said, come from districts' central offices with no school-level consultation. If the grant comes through, the project is foisted on unsuspecting school officials who are often reluctant to participate.

The Pittsburgh schools enlisted the help of development staff members to supervise their school-based approach to dropout prevention, Mr. Sofo said. Absent the help, there would have been no one to coordinate such a time-consuming approach.

With so much money flowing into Pittsburgh's schools from the outside, district officials have found themselves the target of charges that education priorities have been bent to meet requirements placed on the use of available funds, district officials admit.

But they hotly deny it has happened.

According to Karen McIntyre, the district's director of child development, some development offices--especially in higher education--operate on the principle that, "here's a pot of money; we need a pot of money; do anything you can to get that pot of money."

But, she said, in Pittsburgh, the development office demands that each department come up with a wish list for special projects. If funds become available, they must be able to be used for something on that list.

As for contributors shaping policy, district officials and observers say cooperation between the community and the district's administration is a positive step, not negative interference.

The district's multiracial, multicultural, multiethnic education--or Triple M--project has taken an integrationist approach to multicultural education that has been "most definitely" shaped by corporate and philanthropic donors, said Stanley Denton, the program's director.

Over the past three years, 75 percent of its funding has come from private sources, he said.

Such generosity may not have been so forthcoming had the district opted for such controversial programs as separate academies for black males, like those now being planned in several large districts, Mr. Denton said.

But the national praise that has been heaped on the Pittsburgh approach, observers say, shows how positive public-private partnerships can be.

"It's good," Mr. Scherer of the National School Public Relations Association said. "The district has to build a case and go directly to the people and say, 'Is this what you want to do?"'

"It's a built-in assessment system," he added.

Pittsburgh's development office may stand alone now, but its approach to school funding is an idea whose time is rapidly approaching, Mr. Scherer said.

Burgeoning competition for public funds has forced fund-raising to become increasingly sophisticated, Mr. Scherer added. Exploding health-care and human-services costs have drawn numerous public agencies into the game, he said.

If education wants money for innovation, he said, it will have to jump in, too.

For the time being, however, it appears that most districts are content to rely on tax revenues, Mr. Parr said.

The Pittsburgh Foundation is considering conducting a survey of school-improvement agendas in Allegheny County to explain why so few funding proposals have come out of the county's school districts, said Joseph F. Dominic, the community foundation's program officer for education.

But Pittsburgh district officials say they think they know why.

"It's basically the legacy of the tax dollar," Mr. Parr said. "School systems see themselves functioning on established revenue sources, and it isn't in their world view that philanthropy can play a role in education."

According to Ms. McIntyre, the district's director of child development, some districts still do not see a need to innovate. As long as there is no reform agenda, she said, there will be no substantial outside support.

But like Mr. Scherer, Mr. Parr sees district- and school-level educators opening up to change, and that will mean stiffer competition for him.

That is why the newest campaign will be taken directly to the public, as well as to philanthropic organizations, he said.

"We need to take the initiative and go to the individuals and talk about needs," he said, "the community's needs and the school's needs."

The district was the first in the country last fall to canvass wealthy individuals about their willingness to give directly to the schools. Satisfied with the results, the district is now planning the campaign that could begin this fall.

"This is a watershed for us," Mr. Cusimano of the development office said, "and we know it's going to be watched very closely."

Vol. 10, Issue 26, Page 1, 15

Published in Print: March 20, 1991, as One-of-a-Kind Fund-Raising Office Helps Schools in Pittsburgh
Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories