Schwarzman Teaches Fundraising 101 to School Chiefs in Tennessee

(Bloomberg) -- Make every child fluent in coding. Hire more guidance counselors. And, most of all, learn the fine art of raising tens of millions of dollars.

Schwarzman Teaches Fundraising 101 to School Chiefs in Tennessee

Steve Schwarzman, head of the world’s biggest private equity firm, Blackstone Group LP, had a lot of advice for a few thousand school superintendents and educators who gathered Thursday at a convention center in Nashville, Tennessee. The pep talk followed a day of sessions on federal budget cuts, outdated facilities and bullying -- as well as a moment of silence for the victims of the latest school shooting.

Schwarzman agreed with his audience that many schools will see their tax bases continue to shrink while employers demand new skills for a rapidly changing world. So, officials should change their students’ destiny by learning how to raise money like a Wall Street fund manager.

His advice: Be prepared to make a lot of presentations and get used to hearing “No.” Don’t go to your best candidates first and blow it.

“That’s the same mistake I made,” Schwarzman said, recalling his own early fundraising efforts. “There’s a learning curve. My experience doing this, we only got one out of 17 potential donors to say ‘Yes.’ This is depressing. You must be persistent.”

Avoiding Obsolescence

Blackstone has amassed $434 billion of assets since Schwarzman co-founded the firm in 1985. Kind of ironically, some of that money was accumulated by visiting institutions like teachers’ pension funds and making presentations.

His appearance before the AASA, the association of the nation’s public school superintendents, came the same week he announced that he’s giving $25 million toward the renovation and expansion of his high school in Abington, Pennsylvania, with $75 million provided through a bond issue. When he went there, the facility was less than 10 years old.

In an interview, he said he was drawn to idea of making everyone in the school computer literate and providing advanced courses to help young people avoid “the accelerated obsolescence” of entire industries. “I have an obligation to train the current generation of students to live in that kind of future-shock world,” he said.

All it took for the gift to happen, he said, was for the district superintendent, Amy Sichel, to come to his office and pitch an idea she believed in. He urged others to follow her example.

It pays to treat a donor right, too. More than a decade ago, Sichel secured his donation of $400,000 to complete a $5 million stadium. Attending the opening of the football season was “much like ‘Friday Night Lights’ on television,” Schwarzman said, recalling the marching bands and cheerleaders. “My family was sitting in the stadium when a crowd of people started up the stairs in our direction. I was shocked that each of them came by to shake my hand to thank me.”

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