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The Foundation for Fresno Unified Schools

Case Study

In 2022, Parkes Philanthropy worked with the Foundation for Fresno Unified Schools (“the Foundation”) to develop a strategic plan for its inaugural initiative: a scholarship program for the district’s nearly 4,000 graduating seniors. The Fresno Unified School District is the third-largest school district in California, and the newly created Foundation wanted to ensure its flagship scholarship initiative could make the highest positive impact for its students and serve as a model program for other districts. The Foundation brought on an experienced Parkes Philanthropy team who could share best practices in educational access and equity.

Parkes worked with the Foundation’s leadership to identify and conduct a series of interviews and focus groups with key stakeholders in Fresno Unified and the Fresno community at large, including school district senior leadership, district staff, and key local business leaders. The Parkes team also researched other exemplary scholarship programs and iterated with the Foundation on a strategic framework for a scholarship that responded to local educational, economic, and social needs.


Launched in 2022, the Foundation for Fresno Unified Schools aims to help make sure every student, in every school of the Fresno Unified School District, has the tools and resources to reach their highest potential. As the strategic fundraising partner for Fresno Unified, the Foundation works with schools and the community to accelerate student progress, by highlighting the great things going on in the district and funding the highest impact investments.


Fresno is the fifth largest city in California and is in the heart of the Central Valley, one of the most diverse, rapidly-growing, and agriculturally abundant regions of the United States. The Fresno Unified School District is California’s third largest school district, serving approximately 74,000 students in Pre-K through 12th grade across 110 schools, with 86.4% of FUSD students qualifying for Free and Reduced Price lunch (a proxy for childhood poverty). Additionally, unemployment and poverty rates, 10% and 25%, respectively, are some of the highest in the state. Fresno is far behind California for college attainment, with only 27% of Fresno adults holding a Bachelor’s degree compared to 37% of adults in the state. Fresno faces a shortage in the supply of skilled workers for the labor market, as well as major gaps in the pipeline from high school to college and career.

Fresno Unified seeks to build a mutually collaborative network of partners who understand education as the key to overcoming these multigenerational issues. The newly-launched Foundation will play a key role in shifting mindsets around education, the school district and Fresno from one focused on the deficits to one based on assets and potential.


Over a two-month sprint, Parkes worked with the Foundation to identify themes and key decision points that informed the strategic framework.

First, through interviews with Foundation leadership, an assessment of its current state, Parkes helped leadership identify the one flagship educational initiative that it should pursue: a scholarship initiative.

Second, through research of exemplary scholarship programs, Parkes Philanthropy identified a scholarship program model that is both rooted in national and state-wide best practices and also aims to address local needs and context. Based on a review of these models, we identified five key decision points around program design which will need to be finalized before the program launches: scholarship amount, reach, eligibility criteria, program support depth, and postsecondary plans.

Finally, based on a series of interviews and focus groups conducted in January & February 2022 with FUSD employees and community leaders, Parkes uncovered 4 prevailing themes

Sweat equity

Numerous community members noted the need for students and families to feel a sense of personal responsibility in aiming towards a particular goal.

Targeted reach

Interviewees believe that  scholarship should serve students who may not necessarily need or want to attend college, and who need a “nudge” to understand what motivates them to succeed and keeps them on the right path.

Incentives for “positive student behaviors”

With an eye to lasting lessons, the scholarship should encourage students to engage with partner agencies and businesses, over a sustained period of time, rather than simply providing financial support. In particular, there is consensus that the scholarship program should help students develop civic engagement skills, participation in mentorship, and career training, among others.

Need for strong community linkages

Partners recognize that the district already runs robust Career Technical Education (CTE) programs, as do several partner institutions, but that students who choose to pursue these pathways do not often receive any immediate financial support. This gap in financial incentives allows many students to fall through the cracks.

Solutions and Outcomes

Based on these findings, the Parkes Team developed a comprehensive program description for the proposed scholarship, which included the following components:

  • Guiding principles
  • Mission
  • Vision
  • Intended outcomes in terms of reach, staffing, partnerships, fundraising, governance, and student achievement/impact. This showed how needs could change over a multi-year period, from the pilot year to full implementation.
  • Program structure and minimum eligibility criteria
  • Financial model 
  • Potential risks

Parkes’ strategic framework earned the support of not only the Foundation’s leadership, but also the support of the school district’s senior leadership, and a warm reception from community members interviewed. Additionally, following this launch The Foundation received a MacKenzie Scott grant that has been pivotal in building capacity towards Fresno Unified Schools’ work and mission. The Foundation is continuing to work with Parkes on seeing the scholarship program come to fruition.

The Foundation for Fresno Unified Schools – Case Study


The Foundation for Fresno Unified Schools is very thankful for the work of our consultants from Parkes Philanthropy.

With their assistance, we’re equitably looking to enhance our Fresno Unified scholarship program to ensure that an increased number of students can receive funds to benefit their post-secondary school education.”

Wendy McCulley, Executive Director of The Foundation for Fresno Unified Schools

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