Mardi Gras Giving: How the Festival Inspires Support for Public Education in New Orleans

What do Mardi Gras and philanthropy have in common? Not a whole lot, honestly. But with the big New Orleans holiday coming up, we're looking at a foundation that has been built on the history and tradition of Mardi Gras.

There’s a foundation in New Orleans called the Pro Bono Publico Foundation (PBPF), which was established by members of the Rex Organization. For a bit of background, Rex is a group that dates back to 1872, when it gave the city a “monarch” to rally around and a parade to kick off its Mardi Gras celebration. Rex is a legend of historical fiction that embodies the spirit of “King of Carnival” and "Monarch of Merriment.”

In 1872, New Orleans was a city that was struggling, much as it is today. Back then, local leaders wanted to bring more tourists into New Orleans to boost the economy. The city has thrived on tourism ever since and depended on it even more after Hurricane Katrina. So for about the last 145 years, one prominent figure has been anointed Rex, or "king," each year to lead the annual Mardi Gras parade and promote a commitment to service that goes along with it. Rex’s founders adhered to the motto “Pro Bono Publico,” which means “for the public good,” and the booze-fueled celebration we all know and love actually has a lesser-known social service agenda. 

But back to the foundation and how it gives in New Orleans.

Rex members established the Pro Bono Publico Foundation in 2007, after members returned to New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. Since then, the foundation has been committed to helping the failing public school system in the city to educate local children and support the organizations that teach them.

To kick off 2017 and its 10th year in operation, the foundation announced $1 million in grants to the education community in New Orleans. This is the second year in a row that the foundation has given out $1 million in grants. Sixty-three groups recently received PBPF funding, and these commitments brought the foundation’s total giving to over $5.5 million.

Specifically, the 63 grants will benefit 10 charter management organizations that include 39 schools, 25 individual schools, and 28 supporting and advocacy organizations. According to foundation data, 93 percent of New Orleans students now attend public charter schools. Not only have public charter schools been the focus of this funder’s work thus far, but dozens of Rex Organization members serve on the boards of these schools.

According to The New Orleans Advocate, grants ranged in size from $10,000 to $40,000 and are serving children of all ages—everything from early childhood education programs to higher education programs to help college students succeed. Despite some criticism of Teach for America regarding its placement of inexperienced teachers, PBPF continues to support this group. In fact, its largest recent grant went to Teach for America in the amount of $60,000. A list of 2017 grantees can be viewed in the foundation’s press release.

Although this is almost exclusively a funder of education in New Orleans, the Rex Organization and the Pro Bono Publico Foundation have some other local interests as well. For example, it has supported activities at Taylor Playground and the park its located in. But as a general rule, PBPF aims to support New Orleans children from cradle to college.

You can learn more about the grant application guidelines here. Just keep in mind that the next deadline to apply is June 30, long after the streets of New Orleans are cleaned up from the Mardi Gras celebrations that have sparked this foundation’s giving.