Unintended Consequences of Crowdfunding in K-12 Education

Getting into the nitty gritty of a complex problem with a simple tech solution.

GUEST COLUMN | by Gary Hensley

K-12 crowdfunding without school district oversight and involvement is a nightmare for everyone. Period. I was recently reading an article about the issues Ohio is having with this exact problem. They saw an increase of almost double the number of crowdfunding campaigns from the previous year.

However, this trend is not exclusive to Ohio.

Crowdfunding is a powerful way for school districts to raise money.

This frenzy in Ohio was partly sparked by a popular K-12 crowdfunding site receiving money from a cryptocurrency company which they used to fully fund every teacher in the state.

Now, on the surface you might be thinking, what’s the problem?

The Problem Is

The problem is that almost all crowdfunding sites have not coordinated with the school district and these campaigns come with unintended cost and liability for everyone involved.

Many schools districts have either banned crowdfunding altogether or pretended like it does not exist. Neither of these are a real solution in the long term. School districts are scrambling to find a middle ground to allow for crowdfunding but reduce some of the liabilities that come along with it.

Let’s take a look at two Districts that have done it well.

Chandler, For Example

Chandler Unified School District was facing a similar crowdfunding problems last year. The Chief Financial Officer, Lana Berry, for Chandler Unified, along with a prominent school district attorney—and with the largest school district auditing firm in Arizona—looked at all of the crowdfunding sites that had their school district’s name attached to the fundraiser in which they had zero visibility into or knowledge of prior to conducting the audit.

What they found during the audit was a mess.

Violations of federal and state regulations when it came to HIPPA and special education topped the list. Other violations included, money going directly to a personal bank account and purchases for technology or other items that were not supported by the school district.

For example, Kindles for the classroom but there are no reading materials supported for a Kindle. It also raised other questions like “who owns the equipment once its purchased or delivered?” Does it belong to the school district or the teacher? Berry states, “Teachers are trying to do the right thing but are often unaware of the complexity when it comes to raising funds on behalf of a public entity like a public school district.”

Berry went on to say, “The first step for a school district is to be aware that crowdfunding is happening in your school district. Don’t be afraid to take a peak and see what fundraisers are out there with your school or district name attached to it.”

And in Austin

Similar to Chandler Unified, Austin Independent School District was facing the same challenges with crowdfunding only three years earlier. “We needed to be able to say YES to crowdfunding but do so in a way that worked with our systems and had all the approvals and vetting built into the process,” says Michelle Wallis, Director of Innovation and Development for AISD.

Austin implemented a platform and developed processes and guidelines to support crowdfunding. “We had to do something to harness the power of our community to support our students and encourage teachers to innovate,” says Wallis. “We encourage crowdfunding and now have guidelines and a platform in place to support and scale it,” she says.

There are also very practical reasons why leadership at the school and district level need to be involved. Like with many organizations including school districts, there are many cases where the person above you knows about things that you don’t.

Let’s examine two real use cases.

Donor Waste

Teacher launches a campaign for paper on a popular crowdfunding site for teachers. Campaign is successfully funded and reams of paper start showing up along with angry parent phone calls to the principal.

The phone calls are referencing the campaign with the school name on it and claiming that the principal is unsupportive of teachers. “How could you not support your teachers with basic needs?!”

The principal was unaware of the campaign, and here is the kicker:

There was paper in the storage closet.

What a waste of donor time and energy for a need that could have easily been met with a conversation.

Lack of Coordination

Teacher launches a campaign for a classroom set of books on another popular crowdfunding site for teachers. Donors rally to the cause and the campaign is funded. What the teacher and the new principal of that school didn’t know was the school district had secured funding for every teacher to receive a classroom set of books.

This is an example of duplicated effort and a waste of donors money towards a campaign that could have been used for another need.

The solution, as some have suggested, cannot be to have teachers navigate district policy on their own. There are districts across the country who have tackled this problem and are willing to share their resources and stories.

Opening It Up

In the spirit of Elon Musk and the hyperloop, let’s open source this. We are stronger and more efficient when we work together.

To that end, we decided to launch http://learn.livingtree.com/givetogether, an open resource from school districts for school districts that need to write policy and would like to tackle the challenge of crowdfunding head on.

Gary Hensley is CEO of LivingTree, a K-12 engagement company delivering LivingTree Engage, LivingTree Give, and LivingTree Messenger. A former teacher, dean, and assistant principal, he is also a veteran of the edtech sector, as a founder of two companies. He was also a Director at Pearson. He earned his Masters of Educational Leadership at CSU Fullerton. Connect with Gary on LinkedIn


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