Thinking of starting a crisis relief fund? Here are 9 essential considerations

Expert Insight

Thinking of starting a crisis relief fund? Here are 9 essential considerations

Independent school communities are feeling the financial impact of COVID-19. As a result, many schools have started short-term relief funds to help with everything from staff monthly rent obligations to tuition assistance. Schools’ goals for these funds include retaining enrollments and maintaining a sense of community.

When creating a relief fund there are several key considerations that schools must take into account. To help with that process, EAB has gathered examples from partner schools, and where possible, documents and links to help schools craft their own policies.

1. Emphasize mission and purpose in fund-related communications to build community and elicit generous donations

While raising relief funds, schools must be sure to broadly communicate why they are a priority, how families can apply to receive support, and how the aid will be administered. Many schools are connecting the establishment of relief funds to their school’s mission in order to tap into a spirit of generosity throughout their communities. The three schools below provide strong examples of relief-fund related communications:

  • MICDS provides everything the community needs to know about the school’s response on one page
  • Brooklyn Friends School clearly describes their funds as they relate to their mission
  • Georgetown Day School explains how this relates to broader fundraising efforts

2. Make it easy for donors to contribute directly to the fund on the school website

Crisis relief funds are typically comprised of a combination of school resources and community donations. At some schools, relief funds have been established in response to alumni or current families having expressed interest in providing financial assistance. Others are redirecting savings from canceled events and activities, including global education programs and school trips. Regardless of the source, EAB recommends creating a location on the school website, separate from other giving opportunities, where people can easily make a donation.  Here are some examples from schools who provide simple giving forms on their websites:

3. Specify school staff responsible for administering the fund

Because these funds are often intended to achieve multiple goals, it may be wise to form a cross-functional team to oversee donations and allocation. For example, schools may want to include personnel from Business, Development, Financial Assistance, Enrollment, and Advancement; some schools also have the Head of School involved. This decision will likely be influenced by confidentiality concerns. Here is an example of one school’s relief fund committee:

  • Grace Church School set up a relief fund committee that includes the Head of School, Admissions Directors, the Director of Financial Aid, the CFO, a Senior accountant in business office who is a native Spanish speaker, the Assistant to the Head of School who is also the Advisor to Families of Diverse Cultural Backgrounds and Advisor to Students of Color.

4. If assistance is not just for tuition, specify the acceptable uses

Since community members are experiencing the financial impact of COVID-19 in different ways, schools must determine and clearly communicate how awarded assistance is intended to be used.  Some schools are providing funds for tuition assistance only, while others allow the funds to be used for living essentials like rent, groceries, and even medical bills. Some schools also have more than one fund to address those needs separately.

  • Through the BFS Cares Emergency Fund, Brooklyn Friends School is providing assistance for families struggling to meet daily needs.

5. Determine community members eligible for assistance

Knowing that the financial impact of COVID-19 is felt broadly across school communities, some schools have decided to include faculty and staff, as well as newly enrolled families in their relief funds. This decision will depend, in part, on the availability of assistance. Be sure to clearly communicate who can apply for assistance.

  • MICDS explains who is eligible for their Ram Relief Fund

6. Determine the process for how the community requests assistance

Schools will need to decide what the application process will be to request assistance. This process should reflect the urgency of the need, the level and type of assistance offered, as well as a school’s comfort level with knowing exactly how the funds will be spent. EAB has heard from partner schools who are requiring the following:

  • A simple request via email for funds up to $500
  • Verification for families and staff asking for help with rent
  • Verification for families and staff asking for help with medical bills
  • The School and Student Services application (SSS)
  • A school-created application explaining how circumstances have changed due to COVID-19 (MICDS template)
  • The SSS application and a summary of how circumstances have changed due to COVID 19.

7. Develop a consistent approach for how different types of assistance will be calculated

In making determinations for how much assistance recipients will be offered, some schools are waiting until all requests are in before making awards while others are making decisions on a rolling basis – mostly for living essentials. EAB has heard the following approaches based on type of aid:

  • Groceries: Most schools are limiting awards by dollar amount and may also be using guidance from the USDA on food plans per family. One school reported using the Liberal Plan, as the minimum assistance amount they would offer.
  • Grace Church School is using local rental listings to look at average costs of renting/owning by zip code as a check against the amount families say they are paying. As a school they decided to make a consistent cap per month of what they are willing to spend.
  • Tuition assistance: While most schools report this will depend on total need across the school, one school has determined that award amounts will be between ¼ to ½ the cost of tuition for each child.

When schools consider tuition assistance amounts, EAB recommends using a funding formula for consistency and transparency. One school considers the following factors as they make a determination:

  • Estimated net worth
  • W-2 earner versus business owner
  • Furlough/termination of one parent
  • Furlough/termination of two parents
  • No change in employment but reduced pay
  • Other assets
  • Expected reduction in revenue
  • Possible stimulus relief

8. If providing more than tuition assistance, determine the best way to dispense aid

Since the types of aid schools offer may be varied, consider how best to get those funds to families quickly and with the fewest restrictions. While tuition assistance may be straight forward, help with living essentials is more complicated.  EAB heard the following approaches from partner schools:

  • After initially arranging for grocery deliveries, one school decided it was more efficient to use American Express e-cards which incurred no penalty.
  • For families and staff asking for help with rent, the payment goes straight to the landlord
  • For medical bills, payments will go directly to providers via online payment

9. Determine how long the crisis fund will be available

As schools consider how long assistance will be available for community members, they will need to take into consideration available funding and the fund’s broader goal.  EAB has heard from partner schools that have structured the fund to be time-bound, limited by the availability of funds, or unspecified.  Several schools are setting a deadline of 30 days from when they start accepting applications.  Those same schools have explained, depending on the duration of the crisis they will consider extending “emergency funds” into 2021-22.

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