Nearly a year ago, management consulting firm Ernst & Young agreed to underwrite startup expenses for Perspectives Charter’s expansion this fall to a second campus at the former Calumet High facility.

In addition to pledging $750,000 over five years, the firm put a representative on the charter’s board, dispatched volunteer tutors to current Perspectives students and picked up the tab for a part-time volunteer coordinator.

“We got tired of just writing checks around town, not seeing what our dollars do,” says Managing Partner Jim Hassett of Ernst & Young’s Lake Michigan area. “We wanted to get more connected. It’s a place you can call your own.”

This mindset is driving corporate-school partnerships to the forefront of donor cultivation strategy at the Renaissance Schools Fund, the fundraising arm of Mayor Daley’s showcase program, which aims to raise $50 million for startup grants. Two years into the initiative, Renaissance Schools Fund has passed the halfway mark. It is making headway by focusing most of its resources on matchmaking new school operators directly with donors, and taking a backseat once those relationships are made.

“It’s always been part of the vision,” says President and CEO Phyllis Lockett. The days when corporations wrote checks and gave blindly have disappeared, she explains. “They want to give to something that’s tangible, where their employees can get involved.”

Renaissance Schools Fund’s immediate goal is raise to $26 million, enough to cover $500,000 startup grants for future new schools. So far, it has raised $30 million, but some of those funds are earmarked for districtwide efforts, such as The Boeing Company’s $1 million grant for principal development and $500,000 from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for community relations.

A tall order for tough fundraising times, say observers. A number of big-name institutions, including the University of Chicago and the Art Institute, have high-profile campaigns in full swing.

The new strategy has produced at least half a dozen direct partnerships, including Ernst & Young’s pact with Perspectives. Two companies, Abbott Laboratories and Motorola, have pledged $500,000 each to schools that have yet to reach the drawing board.

schools get money faster

The first batch of 10 Renaissance schools traveled a less direct path to get startup money. After getting approved by the School Board, they applied individually for grants through Renaissance Schools Fund, then known as New Schools for Chicago. Operators complained that the multi-step process was cumbersome, and two that applied received no money at all.

Overall, less than $750,000 was awarded in the first round of grantmaking, about $125,000 per school.

A few operators pursued private funding on their own or in the case of Legacy Charter, the brainchild of law firm Sonnenschein, Nath & Rosenthal, had a built-in funder. Erie Neighborhood House board members dug into their pockets to support the organization’s namesake charter school. University of Chicago, which already ran one charter before Renaissance 2010, partnered with Bank One (now Chase Bank) and received a $2 million grant to support a new charter. (Tim Knowles, a member of the Renaissance Schools Fund board, also runs the group that operates University of Chicago’s charters, and has not applied directly to the Fund to avoid a conflict of interest.)

Since Renaissance Schools Fund streamlined the application process and shifted to a matchmaker approach, schools have received more money sooner. All but one of the schools that applied received grants.

This year, 10 schools will get more than $1.5 million in startup funds. One of them is Metropolitan Academy of Sciences, with a five-year, $600,000 pledge from Exelon Corporation, which is also helping line up a university partner. Peggy Davis, formerly chief of staff to Schools CEO Arne Duncan, now works for Exelon and will sit on the new school’s board.

Renaissance Schools Fund will continue its work, says Lockett, “until we have enough money for 100 quality schools.”

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