Crowdfunding Classroom Resources: Growing Opportunities and New Dilemmas

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It’s not a secret to educators that schools across the nation are underfunded. The problem is not new. Parent and teacher organizations have for decades raised funds to supplement the funding provided and to secure additional supports ranging from playground equipment and field trip expenses to classroom equipment and additional technology.

Still the emergence of crowdfunding websites has moved what once were local, school sponsored, shared community efforts to individual staff member initiatives and requests that tap funds from far beyond the local community. Initially, such efforts were confined to a few enterprising educators who saw an opportunity to go beyond their personal resources and funds provided locally to secure support for activities and projects they desired for their students.

However, the recent recession that made local supplemental funds even more difficult to access and the emergence of a wider array of online crowdfunding sources have led to significant and rapid growth of individual educator requests and the availability of more funds. For example, one of the most popular crowdfunding sites, DonorsChoose.org, has seen their annual project funding grow from $1.1 million in 2003 to $159.9 million in 2018.

While on one hand, such growth in the availability of supplemental resources is good news for educators seeking to provide a wider array of opportunities for their students, the growth is creating increasing new issues for local principals and school district superintendents. Many of the funding websites have added controls to make misuse of funds more difficult. Others offer guidance to educators and schools to avoid pitfalls and problems associated with resources secured through outside funding. Still, many administrators have concerns about the trend.

Some school districts have even gone so far as to prohibit teachers from using crowdfunding websites. They worry that despite existing controls, teachers might misuse the funds they secure. Others have expressed concern that technology and other instruction-related resources might not align with the adopted standards of the district. Still others worry that such efforts create resource inequities across classrooms, since some teachers are more aggressive in securing outside funding than others.

While on the surface these seem like reasonable concerns, prohibiting educators from participation risks an over reaction and depriving students of important learning resources, tools, and experiences. A better approach might be to establish clear policies regarding the categories and characteristics of the objects that might be requested. School leaders can provide clear guidance to teachers about how funds can be used and how to avoid accusations of misuse of funds.

If there have been specific problems and more direction is needed, schools and school districts might even establish processes for approval before outside funding is requested. This stance can prevent conflicts and disappointment associated with purchases that do not reflect established standards and expectations. It can also clarify who is responsible for maintaining and who owns any technology and equipment secured through outside funding.

The question of equity of resources across classrooms and schools originating from outside sources also deserves consideration. Historically, parent and teacher organizations in some schools have had access to much greater resources through fundraising than others, and school administrators have been challenged to deal with these inequities. To some extent, the growth of crowdfunding websites has ameliorated the situation as educators who work in schools serving students from lower socio-economic families can access the same resources available to educators in schools serving high socio-economic neighborhoods.

Obviously, these are not easy questions to answer. Students deserve the resources necessary to support their learning and gaining access to supplemental funding seems like a worthy effort. We are interested in your thoughts and experiences. Have you sought funding through crowdfunding websites? If so, what has been your experience? Are you dealing with any of the equity, use, ownership, and standards issues discussed? What ideas do you have about how best to address and resolve them?

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