Fundraising for public schools in New York City has reached unprecedented heights over the past three years. But Chicago has nothing to be ashamed of, district officials say.

“New York is much bigger,” says Alyson Cooke, director of external resources for the Chicago Public Schools. “They ought to be able to generate more money.”

Indeed, New York is home to one-fourth of all the philanthropic dollars given in the United States, giving the district a deep pool from which to draw. Both Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein are bona fide members of the city’s wealthy elite. Within weeks of his own appointment, Klein tapped the star power of his wife’s friend, Caroline Kennedy, first appointing her to the Office of Strategic Partnerships and later to vice-chair of the district’s charitable foundation, Fund for Public Schools.

However, the recent departure of the district foundation’s director has raised questions about whether the city’s fundraising hot streak will continue. Before Kennedy and former Chief Executive Officer Leslie Koch (no relation to the former mayor) took over the foundation, New York donors were “relatively reluctant” to give to the district, notes New York-based fundraising consultant Norma Rollins. “It got sexy when Caroline got there.”

Splashy events like an outdoor concert featuring the Dave Matthews Band, a giant tag sale in Central Park and clout-heavy hobnobbing led by wealthy city leaders have netted over $150 million over three years for district initiatives and New York’s Fund for Public Schools.

As more and more school districts seek to supplement public funding with private dollars, New York’s efforts have been held up as a model for other urban districts. The political leaders in New York realize they can’t do this alone, notes Greg Simoncini of The Alford Group, a consultancy to nonprofits. “This has got to be a public-private partnership,” he says.

Civic duty vs. competition

A closer look at New York’s donor culture, however, reveals a unique environment where giving is driven more by competition than by civic duty.

In New York, large institutions are more often targeted for contributions and donors have more opportunities to have something named after them, says Simoncini.

Even so, the Big Apple is not big enough for some New York donors who are looking to make their mark on a national or international scale. “There are many, many funders in New York who don’t give a dime to the city,” observes Rollins.

Yet in Chicago, philanthropy has long had a direct tie to the city and its needs. “Chicago has a deep history of the business community being involved in major development initiatives,” says Nuveen Investments Chairman and CEO Tim Schwertfeger, who sits on the boards of the Chicago Public Education Fund and Renaissance Schools Fund.

Improving public education in Chicago has long been a priority for local philanthropists, who have “played a major role” in changing schools, explains Paul D. Goren, vice president of the Spencer Foundation.

Differences in each city’s economy also influence how fundraisers target proceeds. There’s not as much concern in New York as there is in Chicago about growing a strong local workforce. Shortly before leaving her job as director of the Fund for Public Schools, Koch told the National School Foundation Association, “In New York, companies recruit internationally. The failure of our school system to produce well-qualified workers doesn’t hurt their bottom line.”

Here, some education giving “is economic,” says Simoncini. “You can’t retain a middle class without good schools.”

Common ground

Despite cultural differences, New York’s and Chicago’s school districts have key strengths that draw funders in. Both districts are under mayoral control and boast stable leadership that has earned public confidence, in part by setting clear priorities to improve schools.

Top priorities in both cities are better teachers and principals, and much private funding has been channeled into initiatives designed to address them. The Chicago Public Education Fund has invested $4.8 million in teacher and principal training; the New York City Leadership Academy, a principal training program, has gobbled 40 percent of the monies (some $70 million) raised by the district’s foundation.

Even structural similarities are apparent. Both districts have set up their own in-house foundations. Both have Principal for a Day programs, which aim to cultivate relationships between donors and schools.

But where New York has devoted staff time and energy to cultivate wealthy individuals and high-profile corporations, Chicago has focused on donors who have already demonstrated a commitment to funding public education and who, in many cases, have spearheaded their own programs.

“There’s a broader involvement in Chicago than in New York,” says Cynthia Greenleaf, CPS director of partnerships.

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