Go Behind Celebrities' Ceremonial School Donation Checks

While it’s not unusual for celebrities to center their charitable organizations around the causes that matter to them, it’s becoming more common for them to try and cater donations toward the needs of a particular school or district

In May, New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski made headlines for donating $70,000 to support women’s athletics at six school districts across New England, including Boston’s.

At a ceremony commemorating the gift, Gronkowski doled out autographs and selfies to a crowd of female athletes gathered around him. “Give it up for our ladies right here,” he said, turning toward the cheering students.

Donating to public schools can be a great opportunity for celebrities to give back — while attracting positive publicity — but the process often requires more than simply cashing a check.

For Boston Public Schools, the novelty oversized check they received from the Gronk Nation Youth Foundation was merely ceremonial, since what was donated did not actually come in the form of cash.

“The portion of the donation designated for the Boston Public Schools is a product donation that will go toward the purchase of sports gear for female BPS athletes,” BPS Communications Director Richard Weir said in a statement.

While it’s not unusual for celebrities to center their charitable organizations around the causes that matter to them, it’s becoming more common for them to try and cater donations toward the needs of a particular school or district.

It can come publicly, as with Chance the Rapper's $1 million donation to Chicago Public Schools (matched by the Chicago Bulls), or more discreetly, like Nicki Minaj quietly sending funds to educate children in a small Indian village.

In some cases, schools must comply with the benefactor’s wishes in order to receive a donation, and even in situations where the school has a greater say in how the money is used, there are usually guidelines it must follow in order to prove the funds are being well spent.

“Most grants do come with terms and conditions and a written grant agreement,” said Aaron Dorfman, president and CEO of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. Donors “want to make sure that they have a legal, binding agreement in place so that if something goes wrong or it goes off the rails they can attempt to get the money back, or at least argue that they did everything they could to try and make sure that the money was used appropriately.”

That kind of agreement was important when the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave a $40 million grant to Pittsburgh Public Schools in 2009.

Before the district was chosen, officials had to prepare an extensive proposal outlining how they would use the funds to improve teacher effectiveness. And once the grant was secured, the foundation maintained a great deal of oversight.

“Twice a year the district and the union would come together with the foundation,” said Tara Tucci, the district’s director of performance and management. “We would talk about any changes of course that might need to happen and communicate together about how the implementation was going.”

Disagreements between the teachers union and district officials in 2014 delayed the creation of improved criteria for evaluating teachers, which was one of the requirements for receiving the grant.

In response, the Gates Foundation issued a statement urging those involved to come to a resolution, leaving payments in jeopardy. Eventually the union and district obliged.

Among other things, the money has been used to create a bonus program that rewards outstanding teachers and established paid “career ladder” positions that allow instructors to take on leadership roles similar to those of an administrator while remaining in the classroom.

“It’s enabled us to create a culture where we’re providing feedback and there’s a continuous kind of growth and improvement,” Tucci said.

Another major donation to schools that hit some bumps in the road is the $100 million Mark Zuckerberg gave to Newark Public Schools in 2010.

Announced on “Oprah” and meant to transform the district, the donation came with no strings attached. But much of the money was squandered on unions and consultants, according to a 2015 book, “The Prize,” which chronicled the donation's implementation and found it left a mixed legacy.

The district’s superintendent, Chris Cerf, wrote an op-ed reviewing the book that said it was balanced, “shining a light on the maddening intractability of much that needs fixing in urban education” but also that it “caused some philanthropists to question additional investments in public education.”

Dorfman said mishaps like these are not unusual when dealing with public figures: “Celebrity philanthropy is less strategic, less thoughtful, more likely to be deployed improperly.”

One common mistake he’s seen among celebrity foundations — like the Gronk Nation Youth Foundation, which did not return requests for comment — is “hiring family or friends to run their organizations.” In Dorfman’s eyes, hiring people with expertise in the field is crucial to success.

For those looking to circumvent the common roadblocks associated with philanthropy, crowdfunding websites like DonorsChoose.org have become a popular tool. DonorsChoose has raised a total of $548,504,503 and funded 927,733 projects since it was started in 2004, according to the website.

On DonorsChoose, educators can post grant requests for specific projects. When one is fulfilled, DonorsChoose uses the money to purchase the requested materials and send them to the schools.

“There’s no exchange of cash and the teachers don’t have the burden of going out and having to buy everything,” said Chris Pearsall, vice president for brand and communication at DonorsChoose.

(Disclosure: DonorsChoose.org is a partner in NBC- and Telemundo-owned stations’ Supporting Our Schools campaign.)

The site allowed Laura Simon, the STEM coordinator for Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District in Southern California, to take school supply matters into her own hands — and she likes that.

“I’m marketing myself and saying what we need and why we need it,” said Simon, who received a grant from actress Gwyneth Paltrow last year that enabled her to buy iPads.

She never met Paltrow, whose donation came as part of #BestSchoolDay, an annual day of giving in which celebrities and executives flash-fund pending projects in the state or district of their choice.

The idea came after Stephen Colbert, who is on the DonorsChoose Board of Directors, auctioned off his set from “The Colbert Report” and used some of the funds to pay for every project in his home state, South Carolina. Other participants have included Serena Williams, Ashton Kutcher, Elon Musk and Anna Kendrick.

“You can choose based on what’s important to you, what you believe in,” Kendrick told Colbert in a 2016 interview on “The Late Show.”

Dorfman said that crowdfunding sites like DonorsChoose can be helpful to those interested in supporting a cause because they have “the advantage of being very easy and open and accessible, [allowing] lots of small-dollar donors to get behind things that they care about."

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