Founders' Toolkit: 5 Resources You Need Now If You Plan to Open a New Charter School
Updated: Mar 6
You've come so far! You pulled together a founding committee. You researched your school program. You wrote the charter application. You got approved. Congratulations! Now what?
I've been there...five times. Yes, seriously...I must be nuts! I was a founding parent at a charter school in Colorado and that experience put me on the path I'm on today. I remember sitting at the meeting where the school board made the final decision to approve our school. It was so exciting! I became a teacher at that school, moved on to help open another school as a teacher, and then eventually opened a school in Utah as the director. I think I was addicted to the thrill of start-ups at that point!
I've also been on the board of directors for a new school and helped to write the charter application, which we had to defend at the state board of education before we finally were approved. And then I supported another new school as a consultant and grant writer. I know what you are going through!
Periodically, I get emails from school founders asking about grants. There is so much to do. Marketing and recruitment cost money. You have no paid staff and many of you are also busy with families and full time jobs. How will you get it all done? Who will pay for it? Someone usually suggests grants at this point. Is that an option?
It's not easy to get grants when you have no financial records. Many grants require audited financials for two years before they will consider your proposal. They want to see that your program is successful and that you have sufficient enrollment to support your goals. They don't want to take a risk with their donations. There are federal grants that can help, but it's a long process and not guaranteed. So what can you do?
1. Create a Funding Plan
Grants can be part of the solution, but I encourage you to look at the bigger picture to fund your school start-up. I've created a Funding Plan Template to help you.
Download now: Funding Plan Template
Your funding plan starts with understanding the overall picture of school funding. I've created the School Support Pyramid to illustrate this concept.
Once a school is operational, the majority of its funding will come from per pupil enrollment funding from your state. This is represented at the base of the funding pyramid. As a start-up school, you don't have access to these funds yet. So your funding plan may start at the next level, school-based fundraising. This includes any money raised from sponsored activities where there is some exchange of value (a product or a service is purchased) and the proceeds are donated to support school goals. It may be a Silent Auction or Kickoff Giving Event. It may be a holiday cookie dough sale or gift wrapping at the local bookstore. On the Funding Plan Template, determine what activities your group plans to sponsor and set goals for how much you think you can raise through those events. Establish a sub-committee or lead board member to coordinate the efforts.
The next level on the pyramid is donations. This includes any voluntary contributions to the school that are not tied to receiving anything in return. Some schools develop a recognition program for donors, with designations for various donation amounts. Others invite donors to pay for a brick or stone with their name engraved in a pathway or on a wall. As you build your list of committed parents, develop your donation program. They are most likely excited about the new school and willing to support the work it takes to open it. Encourage donations but be sure to avoid sounding like it's a requirement. You are creating a public school and donations cannot be required. The keys to a successful donation program are relationships and shared vision. The donor needs to feel that he is contributing to something meaningful that aligns with his values, and that he can trust you and your organization to fulfill your promises. If you have attracted parents and community members who believe in the values your school is being founded on, you will find donors to support you. As a board, set your goals for donations. How aggressive will you be? What strategies will you use? Who's in charge? Use the Funding Plan Template to document your goals and your progress.
The fourth level on the pyramid is grants. Grants can be extraordinarily important to start-ups. You'll find several resources below to learn more. In most cases, your school must be an approved nonprofit before you can apply for grants. Be sure to get started on that paperwork as soon as possible. Add grants to your funding plan and estimate how much you can realistically win.
The final level of the school support pyramid is business support. I encourage you to actively develop these partnerships. Business leaders understand the importance of supporting high quality schools in their communities. They may be willing to provide funds or in-kind contributions to support your fundraising activities. In exchange, the business or corporation gets recognition of some sort for its contributions, which the business will usually track as advertising costs. In some cases, these agreements may include payments throughout the year, such as a fee for advertising placement on your website. In other situations, they may be tied to a specific event such as sponsoring your 5K Run and displaying a large banner with the corporation name at the event.
Return to the Funding Plan Template and set your goals. Take a good look at your overall funding plan. What percentage do you hope to gain in donations? Grants? Partnerships? Is it realistic? Do you have time and commitment to make it happen? Have you decided who is accountable for meeting your goals? Make this Funding Plan a regular item on your board meeting agendas and adjust your goals and plans as needed.
Download your free copy of this spreadsheet and start planning for success now.
Check out these blog posts to learn more about how to make the most of these funding streams:
2. Explore School Implementation Grants
When you are considering grants, you will need a grant writer. Consider who on your team has the potential time and talent for this important work. If you don't have anyone, you'll need to hire a grant writer with experience in school grants. Check out my website to learn about the services I can offer.
Yes, it's not easy to win grants as a start-up, but it's not impossible. Check out these websites for more information.
National Charter School Resource Center
This website provides information on current funding opportunities nationally. Check this site regularly.
Charter School Program (CSP) Grants
Depending on what state you live in, you may qualify for a CSP Grant. In some states, the CSP Grant is managed by the state while in others you must apply directly to the federal program. If your state manages the CSP Grant directly, you'll need to get that information from your authorizer.The federal grant is called the CSP Developer Grant. You can find details for the federal program here:
Check out this website page from the Walton Family Foundation. You'll find a list of several important resources and grant opportunities.
Read this comprehensive article from Charter Asset Management to learn about more opportunities:
3. Consider Charter School Developers
Some charter schools choose to operate independently, while others hire a management company or a developer. There are a variety of organizations that support new school development. These developers may have access to funding to support your start-up costs. Your authorizer will have a list of businesses that operate in your area. Be sure to interview them carefully and get references from other schools they have served. This is one of the most important decisions you can make.
4. Join the Coalition of Public Independent Charter Schools (CPICS)
You'll want to be aware of this new coalition that is focused on supporting independent charter schools. It was developed in 2018 and is growing quickly. Membership brings you into a community of leaders who care deeply about the success of every charter school. Learn more and join at:
5. Read the Start-Up Guide for School Grants
Although some of the information in this book is focused on established schools, you'll find much that applies to start-ups. You can download this helpful e-book for FREE from Amazon or your favorite online bookstore.
Best wishes to you and your new school! If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me. I love hearing about new schools. Let me know how I can help!
In the Start-Up Guide for School Grants, Peggy Downs answers the questions she hears most as she works with school leaders to develop grants. Have you ever wondered:
Is a grant the answer for your school?
Why do grants matter?
How do you find grants?
What are the best grant-writing books?
How can classroom grants help my school?
You’ll learn the answers to these questions and more. After you read this book, you’ll have a clearer idea of how grants can support your school programs.
Download your FREE e-book on Amazon today.