Funding Special Education: New Opportunities

Communities that have met with the greatest success...had families with a commitment to day school education and a child who needed additional support to attend.

Donors today are often passionate about giving to specific causes, especially if they affect individuals closest to them. Communities that have met with the greatest success in developing special needs programs in their local day schools had families with a commitment to day school education and a child who needed additional support to attend. In cities such as Miami, Chicago and Philadelphia, special needs programs were started by families who wanted a program for their own children, as well as others in the community, and were willing to be a driving force behind getting it started. Each community’s program operates a little differently, but in each case, the families partnered with their local Federation and existing day schools to begin the program. They were willing to raise funds from their own circle of family and friends, as well as from family foundations in their communities. In addition, host schools and the local Federations helped the programs leverage their resources.

Aside from local initiatives, the Jewish Funders Network recently held a conference for philanthropists interested in supporting special needs programs on the national level. It was very well attended, and there will also be a track focusing on special needs at their annual conference this March in Philadelphia. This is a wonderful opportunity for a group of funders to work together toward creating a greater impact in this arena.

Another example of collaboration between funders has surfaced in Philadelphia. A strategic, broadly focused venture philanthropy program (VPP) has been created by a small group of individuals and family foundations. The VPP represents a group of entrepreneurially minded Jewish philanthropists in the region who are committed to working collaboratively to develop strategic and holistic solutions to problems dramatically affecting the Jewish community that are not currently being adequately addressed. The VPP accomplishes this by providing initial seed funding for new initiatives or helping to enhance and grow existing promising efforts. Regarding special needs, the VPP would like to create a continuum of services in the Jewish community for individuals, from the time they are diagnosed throughout adulthood. A partnership like the VPP could be helpful in providing seed money for a program in Jewish day schools or summer camps, as well as vocational services and other supportive measures.

A larger group of investors can have a tremendous impact in the special needs arena by forging bonds with existing service providers in the community and filling in the gaps where necessary. For example, the Jewish Family and Children’s Service has social workers on staff that can be resources to families with a special needs child in a Jewish day school. The Jewish Employment and Vocational Services can provide vocational expertise at the high school or college level. Many of these services are typically too expensive to provide in a small day school program but would be very beneficial and more affordable when agencies collaborate and share resources. A larger pool of investors would have better ability to overhaul the continuum of services currently provided and creating a vision to work toward for the future.

Although funding special needs programs, especially in Jewish day schools, appears daunting to many, there are communities that have made tremendous strides in the past decade. Many of the programs began in individual cities but today collaborate through listservs, share best practices and attend conferences together. We must continue to collaborate on all fronts, sharing ideas, funding options and service providers. It is only through working together that we can reach the goal of educating all children Jewishly, regardless of their abilities. Ultimately, not only is this the right thing to do, but it will also enrich the whole Jewish community. ♦

Gail Norry is Co-chair of the Center for Jewish Life & Learning at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. She can be reached at

Gail Norry
Special Needs
Knowledge Topics
Fundraising & Development
Published: Spring 2011