Crowdfunding the classroom
While auditing New Hanover County Schools in North Carolina, Nancy Braswell noticed assets coming into the district from unfamiliar sources. “Items were being received from Donors Choose and checks were being received through GoFundMe,” says Braswell, internal auditor.
When she investigated, Braswell found that teachers were turning to a variety of companies and nonprofits to help fund classroom resources and projects through social media.
Braswell discovered the world of crowdfunding, or the practice of raising money by asking individuals and groups to support a project or cause when federal, state and local support is down. DonorsChoose.org, a site that connects teachers with donors willing to provide supplies, was founded by a history teacher in 2000. Since then, the site has helped teachers raise over $437 million.
Teachers at 71 percent of all U.S. public schools have posted a funding request on the site, and education-related crowdfunding platforms have proliferated. DonorsChoose, AdoptaClassroom.org, GoFundMe.org, Classwish.org and Tilt.com are just some sites that help educators fund everything from Chromebooks to 3D printers to field trips to pencils.
In many places, administrators are scrambling to catch up to the trend. Last fall, officials in Hamilton County Schools in Chattanooga, Tennessee, said they would not allow crowdfunding until districtwide policies were established. The district was concerned about the lack of oversight and transparency.
Around the same time, actor Samuel L Jackson announced he would fund all Hamilton County classroom projects posted on DonorsChoose.
Since then, the board of education swiftly approved interim procedures for online crowdfunding—including a formal approval process and a rule that all money or products received become district property. The district is now setting its permanent policy.
That’s a smart move, says Michael Montgomery, a fundraising consultant in Michigan who has worked extensively with education clients.
“Crowdfunding is a fundraising initiative that can be launched at the classroom or parent organization level, without approval or knowledge of the central administration, yet the donors’ expectations regarding how that money will be used flow toward the district,” Montgomery says. “It’s a situation in which, in the absence of policy, districts have lots of responsibility but very little control.”
How to find the funds
At the most basic level, crowdfunding gathers a group of people who feel strongly about pooling resources to make “something special happen,” says Andy Welkey, co-author of Crowdfundamentals: What Your Nonprofit Needs to Know About Today’s Crowdfunding.
In education, it typically works like this: A teacher, club or parents’ group identifies a need and uses an online crowdfunding site to outline the need. They specify what they want—such as books for a classroom library, microscopes for science class or new uniforms—along with the estimated cost, or “goal.”
The request may include pictures and videos, and usually offers information about the teacher’s class and how the materials will enhance student learning. Then organizers spread word via social media. Donors contribute money toward the goal, usually via credit card.
Posting a request is free but sites usually keep a portion of the donations to cover administrative costs. DonorsChoose, for instance, requests a 15 percent optional fee, which the donor can decline to pay.
PledgeCents.com keeps between 8 and 11 percent, depending on whether the funding goal was met. AdoptAClassroom, atypically, gives all donated funds to the teacher. The site supports itself with corporate sponsorships, vendor refunds and donations.
Some sites send the funds to buy the desired materials (a check for Chromebooks, for instance). Other sites deliver the requested product, such as tablets purchased through associated vendors.
What sets crowdfunding apart from many traditional methods of raising money is that it allows schools to “go beyond the local community,” Welkey says. Grandparents and alumni, for instance, can easily contribute from wherever they are—and many will share crowdfunding requests with their friends or others via social media, creating another ring of potential donors.
Policies provide credibility
The ease with which anyone can create a crowdfunding request—for just about anything—is exactly why districts need policies. Otherwise, administrators may need to turn down a crowdfunded kiln because the school doesn’t have an appropriate ventilation system—or send back computers that aren’t compatible with the district’s equipment.
Furthermore, without polices in place, administrators have no control over inappropriate requests, and no established procedures for guaranteeing donor expectations are met.
Policies ensure accountability, transparency and coordination. At the West Ada School District in Idaho, teachers who want to post a request must seek approval—a process that allows administrators to ensure the request fits the district’s needs, values and infrastructure.
“We have a very structured system,” says Bernadette Sexton, executive director of West Ada’s Education Foundation. All potential crowdfunding requests go to her first for review. If she has concerns, she gathers information before deciding whether to pass the proposal to the superintendent for final approval.
District policy should include “a mechanism for coordinating planned fundraising to assure that various groups do not operate at cross purposes,” says fundraising expert Montgomery, noting that music boosters and athletics clubs shouldn’t raise funds at the same time.
A better approach is to have administrators review each group’s need, and then let the group with the most urgent needs go first.
The goal is to give each group “an opportunity to have a period of exclusive attention,” so that they aren’t competing with colleagues for donations or dollars, Montgomery says.
Finally, policy “must provide for appropriate control of funds raised to assure they are used properly,” Montgomery says. “The loss, misuse or—worst of all—theft of funds raised could undermine district credibility with parents and voters, as well as donors.”
Crowdfunding done right
Rather than instituting top-down policies, smart administrators carefully research crowdfunding and involve teachers in creating processes that support effective fundraising.
At New Hanover County Schools, auditor Braswell spoke with principals and teachers who had successfully used crowdfunding sites. She discussed crowdfunding with the district’s CFO and held a training session at which school treasurers discussed safeguards that should be put in place to protect staff and schools when fundraising.
School staff, for instance, are not allowed to share school banking information with anyone. All monetary donations are to be received in the form of a check made out to the school, not an individual.
At West Ada schools, Sexton introduces teachers to DonorsChoose.org and maintains a website that contains the district’s crowdfunding policy along with examples of fully funded proposals to help teachers get a feel for the language and emotional content of successful campaigns. Each month, she also sends staff a newsletter with links to crowdfunding sites and opportunities.
Developing policies and procedures is “a bit of a balancing act,” Welkey says.
“One of the things that makes a successful crowdfunding program is the energy and enthusiasm that the leaders of the program bring to it,” he says. “Schools that do it best help teachers set the stage for the campaign.” DA
Jennifer Fink is a freelance writer based in Wisconsin.