The Balancing Act of Recognizing Corporate Donors in Public Schools

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August 10, 2016; San Francisco Examiner

Last week, two weeks before the start of the school year, the San Francisco Board of Education approved a proposal to allow the Golden State Warriors, the Oakland-based professional basketball team, to resurface a basketball court at a middle school and add the team’s logo to a nearby outdoor wall at an estimated cost between $15,000 and $20,000. According to the Examiner, the school board unanimously exempted the project from the district’s 1999 Commercial-Free Schools Act prior to the vote. The board’s decision is important because it highlights the particular importance for public schools of having a straightforward donor recognition policy in place at the start of any fundraising campaign.

San Francisco’s new Willie L. Brown Middle School was designed as a STEM/Arts school as part of the district’s Vision 2025 campaign and is the only school highlighted in its “Spark New Schools” initiative as “a new model for public education.” According to the district’s website, the school will be a community school and “a hub where children, youth and families of San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood will gather to learn, support and celebrate one another; a place to develop trust and therefore make WBMS a safe and fun space for the entire community.” The list of funders behind this initiative is impressively long and includes the Golden State Warriors.

It might not come as a surprise that when San Francisco approved its Commercial-Free Schools Act seventeen years ago, the city was viewed nationally as a pioneer in the area of commercial regulation. Andrew Hegelshaw, executive director of the Center for Commercial-Free Public Education, called the 1999 legislation “among the strongest protective measures we’ve seen taken by any district in the country.”

In its coverage of the recent decision by the school board, the Examiner notes that the district, via its SPARK initiative, has had growing success over the last three years with private contributions and raised a total of $13.7 million in 2015–2016. The Examiner also points out that the district’s 2006 decision to name a stadium after local philanthropist Claude Rosenberg at Philip and Sala Burton High School suggests that it already has a naming policy in place.

According to the Examiner, a few board members are aware that the district’s growing fundraising success necessitates a donor recognition policy. As an example, board member Rachel Norton stated at last week’s meeting, “We are being much more successful at attracting philanthropic dollars,” and added, “It’s smart for us to have a donor recognition policy.”

The Council for Advancement and Support of Education emphasizes that all recognition policies must first “suit the culture and circumstances” of the organization, continues with the definition of a “gift,” and then includes information about how gifts will be and assessed and recognized. As one particularly inclusive approach to starting this process, last April, the president of the Aspen School District Board of Education wrote a guest column in the Aspen Times with four questions concerning donor recognition and asked for either online or postal mail responses from local readers.

With its new school initiative and its focus on STEM and arts learning, the San Francisco School District is showing that it is responsive to the needs of its students in a rapidly changing world. A clear donor recognition policy that required the exemption for the Golden State Warriors is helpful to the district’s effort in drawing new support and a useful way to cultivate existing donors and build on the impressive track record it has established within the last few years.—Anne Eigeman