Who, in the corporate world, has ever had to supply their own paper for the office printer? Teachers routinely do that. They also buy books, pencils, pens and notebooks for students that don’t have those items or that can’t afford them. Teachers are not reimbursed for these expenditures so the cost comes out of pocket. Yet, without these things, it would be hard for teachers to do their jobs.
Many teachers are now turning to sites like Donorschoose, IncitED, Adopt-A-Classroom and CrowdFundEDU in search of alternative means of funding classroom supplies. This trend is called crowdfunding and its rise in education has been covered everywhere from NBC News to Business Insider.
“It’s unfortunate, but the truth is teachers spend about $500 of their own money each year on average for school supplies. Not having to do that is appealing to teachers and this is a direct way to help,” says Chris Pearsall, special assistant to the CEO, Media Relations for DonorsChoose. I checked that number and the same figure was reported by the United Federation of Teachers in a survey of data from 2013-2014.
How It Works
Most crowdfunding sites work like this: a teacher registers for a free account, creates a project page and then uses built-in site tools to raise money and awareness for the project through social media or other messaging and promotion features. There’s typically a limit to how long projects can be open for funding. DonorsChoose gives educators four months. If the project isn’t fully funded, donors get their money back in the form of credits to be used in support of another project. IncitED gives users a choice. If you select a flexible funding model then you receive any money you’ve raised regardless of whether or not you’ve hit your goal. There are nuances like this between each crowdfunding platform in terms of who qualifies as a user, what supplies you can purchase, etc., but the bottom line is the same. Help those in education get the supplies they need.
Crowdfunding has made it possible for schools to purchase things like audio books for English Language Learners (ELL), iPads, 3D printers and just about anything else you can imagine. One interesting project funded through IncitED was a self-directed learning center in Portland Oregon called “Open Road Learning Community for Teens.” The founder needed money for administrative tasks as well as marketing to actually get the word out about the new alternative learning center.
“He didn’t qualify for grants yet. He didn’t qualify for any sort of public funding. The kind of thing he was doing was new enough and I guess strange enough that the more traditional funding sources just weren’t there,” says Jaime Wood, co-founder of IncitED.
It’s not just basic school supplies that get funded by these platforms, it’s also innovative learning experiences. Schools have received support for service trips, photography projects, science experiments and more.
Crowdfunding seems like a magic solution to education’s funding woes, but it’s important to remember that for the most part, you get out out of it what it what you put into it. Getting a project funded isn’t as simple as creating a project and then waiting for generous donors. Sometimes it does work that way, but more often than not that’s wishful thinking. To be successful, you have to know your “crowd.”
“A crowd is made up of people who already know you, are already interested in what you are doing, already trust you and understand what’s going on,” Wood says. “A lot of people have this misconception that the crowd is any stranger that happens upon your page.”
What crowdfunding really does is leverage your existing network—that’s what it does best anyway.
A Success Story
Rick Shertle has had four projects funded through DonorsChoose. Shertle is a middle school English and history teacher in San Jose, California. His first project was raising money for a Makerbot 3D printer for his classroom. Shertle has always been interested in technology and is active in the Maker Movement, a tech-influenced DIY community. He also started a Maker club after school. Originally, Shertle though he would use the Makerbot with his club, but it turns out, he’s also implemented the technology into his classes by connecting the technology to things happening in the real world.
“One of the magazines we get here is Junior Scholastic. They did a cover article on 3D printers where a kid designed and printed a prosthetic robotic hand,” Shertle says. “It’s neat that students can read about it in a magazine and then they can actually see it in action in the classroom.”
Shertle also purchased a quadrocopter via crowdfunding, which he uses to teach his students about drones.
“It just seemed like drones were coming up a lot in the news and, again, we got a Junior Scholastic issue and the cover story was about drones so I took that as a cue that this is going to be a really big deal,” Shertle says.
Students now have the opportunity to see the technology first-hand and to take it out and fly it. This activity is used as an avenue for discussing drones in the news and the controversies surrounding the technology and how it’s used in warfare.
When asked the secrets of his success with crowdfunding, Shertle admits he may have an advantage over others as many members of his “crowd” are involved in the Maker Movement or have interest in exposing children to the Make world.
“I’m not sure what the trick is,” Shertle says. “I think being connected has helped out a lot.”
Tips for Success
Wood has these words of advice. “Start your planning by analyzing your crowd.” Figure out who the people are that you can count on for a donation. She says the average donation size on InciteEd is between $60-$70. Using that figure, teachers should be able to figure out if they have enough people in their crowd to put them close to hitting their funding number. Be prepared to be tenacious.
“What we’ve found is that if you can reach 1,000 people, on average, 22 percent of those people will actually act,” Woods says. “It also takes five, six or seven contacts before people respond because people are just busy, they forget, they procrastinate.”
While success isn’t guaranteed, crowdfunding is still a great alternative for educators, especially those who are attempting something new and different in their classrooms.
“There are a lot of projects where people are trying to innovate and do new things that don’t quite fit into the traditional mode and that don’t always qualify for funding,” Wood says.
Crowdfunding platforms can help educators make a unique idea a reality and rally people around a cause they’re passionate about.