Has your PTO made the acquaintance of a local education foundation? If so, you may have found a kindred organization that shares many of your goals and interests. LEFs provide financial support to enhance local education. These nonprofit foundations are likely to fund auxiliary academic projects such an artist in residence program or an after-school enrichment program. If your parent group has not yet been introduced to or partnered with an LEF, you may encounter one soon.

The LEF movement started in the early 1980s, and the number of LEFs continues to grow. The foundations are a lot like parent groups. They work with local schools to help them meet their goals. They raise funds for school projects. And they bring together school administrators, parents, and community members.

But there are a few key distinctions, says Susan Paddock, director of local education foundation outreach for the Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence. LEFs typically work with an entire school district rather than one school. They tend to solicit larger gifts than parent groups do and focus on donations from area businesses. Many LEFs operate with the purpose of building an endowment, a perpetual interest-bearing account. Foundation endowments range from a few thousand dollars to $2 million or $3 million. Typically, LEFs fund grants to teachers and schools with the interest from the endowments.

Bridging the Gap

In many communities, LEFs work in tandem with parent groups. When an LEF forms, it may ask members of individual parent groups to serve on its board. This automatically creates a high degree of communication and also allows the organizations to fund larger projects that might not be possible without serious collaboration between parent group and LEF.

Take Jenks, Okla., where Jenks Freshman Academy approached the Jenks Public Schools Foundation and requested funding for a satellite connection to French television to help students develop a better ear for the language. The amount of the request exceeded the foundation’s budget, but an alert high school PTO board member recognized the opportunity and asked the parent group to fund the balance. Now high school students in Jenks master the nuances of the language by watching French soap operas.

In Jenks, the foundation and school parent groups work together to pick up the slack for each other. With 10 separate schools in the district, it is difficult for the foundation to keep track of the needs of individual schools. A high school PTO representative checks with the foundation to see whether there are any gaps in the foundation’s funding before approving parent group funds for the high school. In this way, the organizations avoid duplication and prevent programs and projects from falling through the cracks.

In Washington Township, Ind., the education foundation offered a challenge grant to local parent groups. Explains Ginny Hacker, executive director of the Washington Township Schools Foundation: “We’ve challenged each PTO to raise $5,000. We’ll match that $5,000 and house the $10,000 endowment. Interest on the endowment—about $500 on $10,000 at current rates—will be returned to the local PTOs.” Seven of the 12 local PTOs jumped in right away, including the Eastwood Middle School PTO.

“We felt it was an offer we couldn’t refuse,” says former Eastwood PTO copresident Barb Taylor.

Raising the money proved to be quite a challenge. The PTO was in the middle of its annual fundraiser, and the foundation required that the parent group raise new money for the endowment. Taylor admits, “We were wondering what we got into and how we would accomplish our goal.” In the face of unforeseen obstacles, the parent group dumped a planned Monte Carlo endowment fundraiser and decided simply to write a letter empha­sizing to parents the opportunity to contribute a legacy to their child’s school.

The response was overwhelming. Without board donations, the PTO raised $4,000, and Taylor is confident the board will take the group to the requisite $5,000. The parent group plans to use the interest on its endowment to fund its own teacher grants program at the middle school.

The endowment challenge is the PTO’s first partnership with the foundation, but Taylor sees it as the beginning of a long, beneficial alliance. She and her former PTO co-president have agreed to serve as endowment chairpersons for two years. They have urged the parent group to donate a portion of its own fundraising to the endowment and are also planning fundraisers to continue adding to the endowment.

Working Together

The key to a successful PTO/LEF relationship is com­munication. Serving on an LEF board is one avenue of involvement for parent group members, and it certainly fosters communication between the organizations. Kinnee Tilly, executive director of the Jenks Public Schools Foundation, believes becoming involved in an LEF, with its districtwide, K-12 scope, can be both fun and rewarding for PTO parents. Becoming an LEF board member, however, isn’t necessarily right for everyone. Tilly explains, “Our board members are expected to fundraise. We also ask that they solicit items for fundraisers such as auctions and golf tournaments.”

LEF fundraising is quite different from PTO fund­raising. Jenks Public Schools Foundation board members are expected to seek corporate contributions of $5,000 to $10,000. Beth Ann Jensen, executive director of the Claremore (Oklahoma) Public Schools Foundation, advises, “You need to look before you jump into an LEF. It isn’t a broader-based PTO. Make sure you understand the board’s expectations up front, and don’t get into something you’re not comfortable with.”

If sitting down with your local dry cleaner and asking for a $10,000 donation puts a knot in your throat, serving on an LEF board may not be an enjoyable experience. Not to worry. There are other avenues of involvement and other ways to facilitate PTO/LEF communication.

The Jenks Public Schools Foundation has an auxiliary board. Members of the auxiliary board are called foun­dation associates. The foundation associates serve as the public relations arm of the board. They assist with annual events such as a golf tournament and auction, and they spread the word about the foundation to local schools at parent group meetings. Associates also may host school tours for foundation donors.

For some parent group members, volunteering for this type of duty can be the ideal way to test the LEF waters. It lets you see how the LEF operates without requiring a long-term commitment or heavy-duty fundraising.

Another short-term opportunity for LEF involvement may be the annual campaign. The Claremore Public Schools Foundation collaborates with local parent groups to conduct the PACE-setter (Parents Assisting Claremore Education) campaign. The LEF gears up for the campaign by asking foundation trustees or board members to attend parent group meetings to educate parents about the foundation. Next, the foundation sends a letter to parents requesting a $25 gift to the foundation. The letter is signed by a prominent parent group volunteer. The campaign operates with two goals—increasing awareness of the foundation and attracting and retaining younger donors. Many of the parent groups also opt to make a gift to the foundation each year. The average gift from a PTO is $750.

Helping the LEF

Janette Parker, a former parent group president and current secretary of the Claremore Public Schools Foundation, recommends that parent groups donate a small amount to the local foundation. “With the foundation, you do lose some control over the money. While PTO donations remain at your school, foundation donations are spread across the district. The money you donate may be used to fund music or art at the high school.” Still, a donation can more closely link the parent group and LEF. Everyone likes to know where their money goes and how it is spent, so when a parent group donates to an LEF, the group’s members tend to become more aware of and involved with the foundation.

If spending money rather than asking for money is more up your alley, volunteering to serve on an LEF allocations or grants committee may be a good choice. This committee reviews grant applications and decides which programs to fund. LEF boards realize parent group members can provide valuable insider information when it comes to making funding decisions. When a parent group member attended a Claremore Public Schools Foundation allocation com­mittee meeting, she learned that the foundation couldn’t fund a request for a computer scanner from the school library. She immediately volunteered to go to the school parent group with the request, and the parent group decided to fund the scanner.

Regardless of how you or your parent group interacts with an LEF, working together can create a win-win situation. In the end, both organizations are about improving educational opportunities. Parker says, “My time with the PTO and the foundation has been very rewarding. I know for a fact that all three of my children have benefited directly from my PTO and foundation work.” And that is the ultimate measure of success.