Short on Funding? Try Education Crowdfunding

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With an ever-strengthening emphasis on the maker movement, 3D printers are in high demand.

3D printers cultivate not only creativity and innovation, but also 21st-century skills like computational analysis and engineering. But these machines are expensive, and most schools require multiple units to have a widespread impact. Depending on the model, MakerBot, one of the most popular manufacturers, charges $1,375 to $6,499.

That’s why I was excited to stumble upon DonorsChoose.org, a crowdfunding platform dedicated to supporting educational initiatives. Teachers post campaigns online, and any viewers with Web connections and philanthropic hearts donate to the projects that move them.

I recently spoke with Chief Marketing Officer Katie Bisbee, who relayed to me several statistics. Since launching in 2000, the company has hit several impressive milestones.

  • Over 418,000 classroom projects have brought learning to life for students, primarily in high-poverty neighborhoods.
  • Over 10,630,000 students have received books, technology, supplies, field trips, class visitors, and other resources.
  • Over 1,292,000 philanthropists have made a tangible difference in the lives of students and teachers.
  • Over 50% of schools in America have at least one teacher who has used the website.

Bisbee tells me that MakerBot wants to get a unit into every school in America, and that the company is running a match campaign on DonorsChoose.org. Bisbee is ecstatic about the potential here, but she is just as eager to tell me how students are currently using the 3D printer.

“In Brooklyn, in an area that got heavily impacted by Hurricane Sandy, a teacher had worked with students to design buildings and then put them on what she called a ‘Model river,’ which is really a sand table in the classroom,” Bisbee says. “Then they flooded the river, and the students got to see which buildings withstood the hurricane and which didn’t, and they got to analyze why. These kids were second‑graders.”

Among beneficiaries of DonorsChoose.org, there is no shortage of gratitude. In fact, earlier today, one grateful science teacher from Elm Grove Middle School in Bossier City, LA, wrote touching remarks on the site to three generous donors who had funded his request for a $2,000 MakerBot printer.

“When I worked with a fellow teacher setting this whole process up, he went on and on about how great the site was and how helpful the user base was in furthering our educational goals,” he writes. “I was initially skeptical, but the willingness of all of you to help a random teacher thousands of miles from you speaks volumes to just how right my colleague was. I am, again, extremely grateful for the donation and can’t wait to demonstrate the impact this program will have on my classroom and classes for years to come.”

Two years ago, DonorsChoose.org became “self-sustaining,” meaning that the company doesn’t demand an additional service fee to fund overhead. All the same, Bisbee says, about 85% of donors elect to include an additional 15% of whatever they purchase. I’m curious to hear more from Bisbee about these generous individuals.

“This school year on donorschoose.org as a whole, we’ll likely have nearly 300,000 individuals give,” she says. “They’re really, for the most part, everyday people. The average gift is $100. Certainly there are parents and friends of teachers, but they’re also just interested and concerned citizens who care about education and care about giving directly to a classroom, and connecting directly to that classroom.”

Curious to learn more about the powerful attraction of DonorsChoose.org, I recently spoke with Devin Thorpe, author of Crowdfunding for Social Good: Financing Your Mark on The World.

“It’s uncanny, but I’ve observed it myself in a variety of ways,” says Thorpe, who also writes about social entrepreneurship and impact investing for Forbes magazine. “People love to fund education, and it appeals equally to the billionaire and to someone who didn’t finish high school, because the guy who didn’t finish high school says, ‘I wish I had.’ The billionaire says, ‘Education made all the difference.’”

But when it comes to crowdfunding, Thorpe says that schools have another distinct advantage—the sheer number of individuals connected to a school community.

“When you look at all of the people who have a vested interest, whether it is to buy a new 3D printer, to defray cost to keep tuition down, whatever it might be, the community has a shared interest in it,” Thorpe says. “No one has to do a lot to have everyone benefit from a crowdfunding campaign.”

To that end, Thorpe emphasizes the importance of buy-in from as many people as possible. As a minimum, he says, a successful campaign requires parent and faculty leaders, as well as a supportive administration. “If the teachers or the parents say, ‘This is dumb, we’re not going to support it,’ then you’re kind of toast,” he says.

Along those lines, Thorpe tells me, most crowdfunding performs best with projects that have a defined outcome.

“Whether you’re buying a printer, or a classroom, or a school, there is a sense of completion, a sense of scope, and that really appeals to crowdfunders—just the psychology of it,” Thorpe says. “They know that something very specific comes out of the program.”

Capital assets are extremely important to ensure quality education, but I’m hopeful that eventually platforms like DonorsChoose.org will make it equally appealing for donors to help students afford college tuition.

In that respect, I also like crowdfunding sites like gofundme.com, which includes a designated page, titled, “Education, Schools & Learning.” Facing a terrible loss, one family went to the site to help build a child’s education fund. In two hours, 115 people raised $9, 843 toward a $25,000 goal.

Another mother went to the site, looking for help to fund her son’s science project and passion for robotics. In two months, 14 people had donated $890.

I encourage all schools to investigate how they can take advantage of crowdfunding, as well as tap into America’s philanthropic spirit.

Interview transcript (Katie Bisbee)

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Interview transcript (Devin Thorpe)

Download (PDF, 35KB)



As a coach, history and journalism teacher at Brimmer and May, a wonderful independent school in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, I have the absolute best job in the world. I am thrilled to get up every morning to engage with interesting young people, and I'm equally fortunate to have such amazing colleagues and mentors. As the founder of Spin Education, I encourage you to check-in frequently and submit posts and lessons—all in an effort to better our practice as teachers.

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