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Q&A: Donna Frisby-Greenwood on the Fund’s past, present, and future

The leader of the District's philanthropic arm also talks about how her experiences with racism spurred her career choices.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The Notebook sat down with Donna Frisby-Greenwood, the first president and chief executive officer of the Fund for the School District of Philadelphia. The Fund, an independent nonprofit organization, channels private investments into the District. Since November, it has raised over $650,000 for various projects.

In the interview, Frisby-Greenwood, who has been at the Fund for less than a year, talks about its recent reinvention and its new plans for improving the education of Philadelphia’s public school students. She also discusses how racism was the springboard for her personal altruism and career choices.

How did your background bring you to this position?

I’ve operated national and local nonprofits that have focused on youth, education, and civic engagement. I’ve also had the opportunity to be on the side of philanthropy, where I spent the last five-and-a-half years at the Knight Foundation.

I started my first nonprofit, the Children First Fund, from scratch at the age of 23. We prepared young people for leadership.

I also worked to revitalize Rock the Vote in Los Angeles. And through my role with Afterschool Allstars in Philadelphia, we provided free quality programming for low-income children. At the District’s Office of College and Career Awareness, I ensured that students would graduate prepared for college. All of my work has been focused on young people and empowering them to make a difference in their communities.

Where does this dedication to help others succeed come from?

My mom is the youngest of 10, and my dad is the oldest of six. I have 50 first cousins. My parents have always been giving and growing up, I’ve watched them take care of their siblings. Having that as an example was really important, and my parents were always active in the community.

Also, when I got to high school, I was confronted by racism for the first time. I went to see my counselor when I was in 10th grade, and I told her I was thinking about colleges. She told me that I should think about community colleges. This confused me because I did really well on my PSAT, there were colleges already recruiting me, and I took many AP classes. I didn’t want to go to a community college.

I told my parents about what happened, and they suggested I talk to her again, because maybe she was having a bad day. When I sat down with [the counselor] again, she said that community college is best for people like me. I didn’t understand it at first.

At the same time, me and a couple of other kids had started an NAACP youth council in Willingboro, New Jersey, which was not predominantly African American like it is now. I started organizing, investigating, and talking to some of the other minority students at my school who had this counselor. I found that many of them were hearing the same thing. We demanded the counselor be removed. We worked on that, and by the next school year, the counselor was gone from our school and we got our first African American counselor, Mr. Smith.

This moment for me, at 15, showed that I had power to make change. I could make a difference, not only in my life but in the lives of others and in my community.

Why did you decide to lead the Fund for the School District of Philadelphia?

As program director at the Knight Foundation, I studied how Philadelphia can attract and retain talent and looked at why young people leave the city. A Pew survey found that education is the number one reason. The respondents felt that when their children would become school age, they wouldn’t have good options for schools. This got me thinking about how I could make an impact in education.

This job gave me the opportunity to step back into the education space [and] reinvigorate the organization. I could get the name out there and align it with the School District more closely.

Is the work of organizations like the Fund and building partnerships with the private sector the answer to school funding and budget woes?

The way we fund education is of utmost importance, and a statewide fair funding formula would help bring more money into lower-income districts. When I joined the Knight Foundation in 2010, there was a counselor-to-student ratio of 1 to 220. Some schools don’t even have counselors now. That’s a funding issue.

Bringing in funds from the private sector is helping the District meet some of its goals. A lot of organizations are concerned about not having employees or people educated enough to take the jobs. This should be a concern for everyone in the region. So the more we help people in the region understand the importance of quality education for all students, the more successful we will be at bringing in funds. It’s also important for us to talk to our legislators about a fair funding formula.

What were some of the changes you’ve brought to the Fund since last spring?

Many of my first steps were about getting the branding right, and that included working on the logo, mission, and being clear about the work we were going to do. About six months before I got there, the name of the organization was changed from the Philadelphia Children First Fund to the Fund for the School District of Philadelphia. This made it clear that the organization was created to support the School District. But when I got into the position, [the name change] hadn’t necessarily been rolled out yet.

We also had to be clear on the idea that we were moving into a development role for the District. We had always served as a fiscal sponsor, but we now go after donors instead of waiting for them to go to the District. We seek and manage grants and connect people with resources to the District.

The Fund is most interested in moving donations to the School District in three areas – early literacy, school safety, and high school redesign. Tell me more about these priorities.

Our No. 1 priority has been early literacy. Through our $3.5 million Right Books Campaign, we are placing a “leveled library” in every K-3 classroom in the School District by 2017. We are focused on managing existing grants and matching funds received from the William Penn and Lenfest Foundations. We don’t have the staff to help us cover the other areas yet. We are still building. (William Penn and Lenfest have donated a total of $10.5 million to the city’s literacy initiatives.)

How much money has the Right Books Campaign raised so far?

Since launching in November, we have raised roughly $680,000 for the campaign. And much of that money came from the Mayor’s Inaugural block party back in January.

Why has the Fund chosen to focus on literacy?

We believe that every child should be given a chance to learn, despite zip codes, family income, or chance. If we ensure that every child can read by 4th grade, which is in line with the city’s READ By 4th! literacy campaign, that will impact their education and futures tremendously. They’ll be able to read math problems and science experiments and understand them. While that sounds basic, it’s extremely important in the life of a child.

Will the Fund support Mayor Kenney’s effort to expand pre-K?

Not unless the School District of Philadelphia says that they’d like us to raise money for that after we raise $3.5 million for the Right Books Campaign.

Are there some groups you are looking to tap into for donations?

We are moving our focus to alumni of schools and people who are “Friends of.” For example, “Friends of Chester Arthur.” Tapping into “Friends of” groups can help schools that might not have organized support groups of their own. We also hope to get the business community behind the work.

What, if any, challenges has the Fund faced since you arrived?

We have faced operational challenges, and this is something nonprofit organizations deal with in general. We need to keep the doors open to continue to do the work, but donors don’t want to give to the staff to do the work. The School District cannot take money directly from donors. There are a lot of stipulations, so every school district has a fund or foundation for that purpose. Part of our work is constantly educating people on why we exist.

The work of collecting funds and informing outsiders about Philadelphia’s education landscape can be daunting. What keeps you energized to do this work?

I sit on Superintendent [William] Hite’s cabinet, and in our bimonthly meetings, I hear directly what’s happening in the schools. I hear where the need is, and I hear where the great stories are. I’m also a mentor to girls at Martin Luther King High School. I’m at the school every month, and working with these young people keeps me grounded.

What’s next for the Fund?

We will continue our work with the Right Books Campaign and will continue to build our website. We hope to create a resource like an equity map to help potential donors see the schools or areas they can help. With the map, users would choose a school and see the support it is receiving or what partners are already involved. The map would also allow them to see the resources a school has requested. From there, users can make a donation.

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