Private schools finance their operating expenses with tuition and fees. In other words, a school's income from tuition and fees offsets salaries, utilities, and all the other line items in a school's operating budget. Assuming that the admissions staff fill all the places and that the finance people have calculated projected income and expenses correctly, the school hopefully will break even at the end of the fiscal year. But remember that running any enterprise like a school also includes anticipating unexpected expenses. It's much the same situation that you and I find ourselves in when we suddenly have to pay for an unbudgeted expense. When that happens, you and I dip into our savings or charge the expense to our credit cards. That's fine for you and me; however, a private school doesn't operate that way. Instead, the treasurer maintains a rainy day fund or funds held in reserve. That's where endowing a teaching position comes in.
When you endow a teaching position at the private school that gave you such a great start, you express your confidence in the school and its mission. Your gift becomes an integral part of the school's branding. It helps to market the school and makes the school's balance sheet more stable. So let's explore how you can make this happen.
Giving during your lifetime
Discuss your idea with the school. Begin by speaking with the head of school, even if he or she is someone you do not know very well. The head of school can and will champion your proposal. He will also facilitate meetings with your financial people and his business manager to draw up a memorandum of understanding for your gift.
Discuss your proposal with your financial and legal advisors. You have been successful throughout your career because you listen to advice from professionals. Do the same thing as you work through the details of this very personal project. You are creating a lasting legacy by endowing a teaching position at the school you love so much.
Giving through your estate
If you prefer to endow a teaching position with a bequest from your estate, discuss your idea with the school. Then, execute your wishes with the professional assistance of your attorney and financial advisor. While the school will be very happy to receive an unexpected call from your attorney telling them that you have left it $10 million dollars, it just makes good sense to involve the school from the beginning of the project before your demise.
Examples of gifts to endow teaching positions
In October 2021, Berkshire School in Sheffield, Massachusetts, announced that an alumnus had left a bequest to endow three faculty chairs. Also in October, the Frederick Gunn School in Washington, Connecticut, reported that a current trustee and his wife had endowed a faculty chair. The munificence of these donors supports the stated mission of these schools.
In its mission statement, The Frederick Gunn School states:
"In 1850 Frederick Gunn established a school based on the belief that strength of character was the goal of education. Today, The Frederick Gunn School rests on the four cornerstones of character: scholarship, integrity, respect and responsibility. Character is forged in a cohesive, diverse community informed by a challenging college preparatory curriculum, a broad range of athletic, artistic and social activities and a faculty of scholars and committed educators dedicated to the intellectual and ethical development of every student. A Frederick Gunn School graduate is a broadly educated, socially responsible citizen with tested beliefs, strength of character and the courage to act on convictions."
The Berkshire School's mission statement notes:
"Rooted in an inspiring natural setting, Berkshire School instills the highest standards of character and citizenship and a commitment to academic, artistic, and athletic excellence. Our community fosters diversity, a dedication to environmental stewardship, and an enduring love for learning."
The significance of major gifts
While I have singled out these two examples of major gifts to private schools, gifts of this significance are not the exception in private school philanthropy. Indeed, they are the rule. What stands out, in my opinion, is the specific support that these donors have given to the academic part of both schools' missions. Understood explicitly is the importance of the teachers' role in shaping and guiding young minds.
When should you consider endowing a faculty chair?
The timing of a major gift, such as endowing a faculty chair, is something you and your family should discuss with your financial advisor. No matter how experienced you are with financial matters, always get your financial advisor's input first. She will suggest several options. Then consult your attorney. These two experts need to weigh in with their up-to-date professional advice before you speak to the school. Put another way, do not simply write a check for a million dollars and trust that the school will respect your wishes. To quote Nietzsche, "The devil is in the details."
For example, you may want to endow a faculty chair in Latin, only to discover that the school is thinking about enriching its Classical Studies curriculum. You may agree with that plan, but it is crucial to have that understanding in writing. Major gifts can open many doors for a school. They can enhance and enrich its academics in many varied ways. Be open to those possibilities. You can make the school's dreams become a reality while at the same time showing your appreciation for the fine start in life the school gave you.
Why support a private K-12 school?
My answer is that primary and secondary schools lay the foundations for learning at the tertiary level and throughout adulthood. The small class sizes and individual attention students receive in most private K-12 schools nurture critical thinking, expand awareness, and teach intellectual curiosity. A child becomes confident when she learns to express ideas and defend them logically every day in school. But, of course, it all begins with a talented, competent teacher who is passionate about her subject. Endowing a faculty chair allows the school to continue to attract the brightest and best teachers. Your gift will make a major difference in hundreds of lives.
Why support teacher salaries as opposed to facilities?
That's a good question. Honestly, most schools will be delighted to accept your major gift to build a new athletic center, arts center, or media center. After all, that's a matter of personal choice. Endowing a faculty chair and providing the funds for a facility have the same goal: to enhance the quality and scale of what your beloved alma mater can offer. Teachers need classrooms in which to teach and media centers to support learning. Students need athletic facilities so that they can develop healthy minds in healthy bodies. It's all part of the balanced approach private schools have towards education.
Be a partner.
You will be following in the footsteps of illustrious benefactors such as Maria Bissell Hotchkiss, who founded The Hotchkiss School, and Lucy Madeira Wing, founder of The Madeira School. 5 Founders And Their Boarding Schools recounts more about these remarkable women who had a clear vision of what education could and should be. And they made things happen in their day. You don't have to establish a school to make a vital contribution to K-12 education. You can be a partner in the ongoing mission of your alma mater. Your gift will ensure that it has the resources needed to meet the known challenges of today and the unknown challenges that will face it in the future.
Be an exemplar.
I've saved the best part for last. Making a major gift encourages others to support their schools. They read about what you have done and the impact it has had and will have on the future of your school. And they begin to think about doing something similar. Who knows? You might inspire another classmate to be as generous as Elizabeth Nilsen was with her $31 million bequest to Chatham Hall in 2009. Chatham Hall meant everything to Ms. Nilsen. Likewise, your school means everything to you. Now is the time to thank it for all it has done for you.
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