April 17, 2018; Journal-Advocate (Sterling, CO)
“Policies provide structure and guidance.”
“Policies restrict the flexibility organizations need to be nimble and responsive.”
A small dispute about a school district’s partnering with a community foundation is an example of the challenge of reconciling these two principles. A Colorado school board’s plan to engage their student body in an effort to support their community foundation concerned some parents enough to have the board rethink the decision. They are now considering questions that every nonprofit organization may wish to ponder: Are there policies and procedures in place to guide the process? If not, are they needed?
According to a story in last week’s Journal-Advocate, representatives of the Sterling Community Fund asked the RH-1 School District in Colorado to develop a program for students to learn about their role as citizens in supporting the work of community organizations “as a way for students to gain a sense of ownership for their future. The idea is for students to understand they are part of the community too, and that even students can contribute to their future.” This request resulted in a program through which students could choose to make regular, small donations to the Foundation.
Superintendent Jan DeLay sent them to the leadership team to present their case. She said, “They were sort of lukewarm about it, but they also didn’t want to turn away this group of people in the community that have done quite a bit of work in this town to make this a better town.” With the caveat that the effort would not take up instructional time and was supported by the Foundation’s resources, the joint effort was launched.
The Sterling Community Foundation invests its resources in projects that are anything but controversial—expanding recreational facilities and beautification. Yet some parents found reason to object to their partnering with the school district. From one mother’s perspective, “It has nothing to do with education, it is a quarter drive that is being sponsored by the community foundation. [We’re] talking tonight about not having money for basic needs within our schools, yet here we are asking our students to participate in a fundraiser that is not educational-based and using school resources in which to do that.” Another parent sees the effort as important and proper. “It’s not a requirement; these are people with influence that we’re asking to support us. We’re asking the community consistently to support us, and if it doesn’t take time away from school, I don’t see the problem.”
For some, having this controversy erupt highlights the absence of a formal policy to guide staff as new requests for joint fundraising programs come in. Their worry is that without these in place, they will have forfeited their ability to refuse to work with organizations they may find ill-fitted for their schools and their students. Without a formal structure, do they risk being sued by organizations who are refused?
For others, creating such a policy will create unneeded bureaucracy and undercut the ability of their staff to do their jobs. “Sometimes, we can get to a point where it’s like we’re bogged down by this policy and that policy, and at some point we should trust the judgment of our superintendent and our principals.” Others are concerned that formal processes will make it difficult for even internal efforts, like those sponsored by PTAs, to continue.
While there may not be a clear and decisive answer to this question, having a discussion about it before a fire breaks out seems prudent. Passions run high over issues that at other times might be of little concern. Being on record as having thought through the situation provides comfort for board and staff that may be harder to achieve retroactively.—Martin Levine