What I Learned Helping a College Student Crowdfund Tuition

One of my former 12th grade Digital Design students has stayed in touch with me since his graduation in 2009, and he just asked me to help him start a crowdfunding campaign to support his tuition costs at Cal State Channel Islands. It was a great opportunity for me to learn more about how students are using crowdfunding sites like KickStarter and IndieGoGo to offset the growing costs of higher ed, so I volunteered to research the best platforms and techniques to help his campaign be a success. Here’s what I learned:

The Platform (Kinda’) Matters

The first crowdfunding platform people think of is KickStarter, but it’s not necessarily the best for funding your tuition. You want to choose a platform that has low fees, high visibility, and which gives you flexibility over how you run your campaign. You should take care to select a crowdfunding platform that’s

  • legal and ethical (of course),
  • lets you keep as much of the money you’ve raised as possible,
  • Lets you pay the lowest possible fees, and
  • is designed to connect you with your intended audience.

Connecting with your Audience

Some sites like GoFundMe are designed to support any kind of crowdfunding endeavor, while other niche sites have sprung up to cater to unique contexts, such as ArtistShare for musicians or Weeve for nonprofits. Even Kickstarter states that their mission is to “help bring creative projects to life”, meaning that they’re not focused on supporting other types of endeavors– including education. There’s even a long list of platforms focused on educationThis guide gives you a list of the major crowdfunding sites and the types of audiences they’re focused on reaching. Whichever site you choose, your success will largely still depend on you mobilizing your Facebook and Twitter friends, not so much on the crowdfunding platform you use.

‘Keep it All’ or ‘All or Nothing’

Different crowdfunding sites vary in what happens to your payout when you fail to meet your funding goal.
Kickstarter is an example of an ‘All or Nothing‘ site– they do not pay you out if you don’t reach your goal, they refund the money back to the donors.
IndieGoGo lets you choose between this approach and a ‘Keep it All‘ model, where you keep every dollar pledged, even if you do not meet your goal. (It’s worth noting that you’ll generally pay a higher fee in the ‘Keep it All’ model, but it may be worth it if you are not sure you’ll meet your goal.)

Wikipedia has a great comparison of crowdfunding services which clearly shows whether the site uses an ‘All or Nothing’ (AoN) or a ‘Keep it All’ (KiA) model when charging you fees.

Seeing as how most campaigns don’t reach their funding goals, you may consider choosing a platform that lets you ‘Keep it All’ for a college tuition campaign.

Most Campaigns Fail

After searching KickStarter and IndieGoGo for search terms “tuition“, “college“, and “education“, I learned that most campaigns (well over 40% in fact) are not reaching their funding goals. The student campaigns ranged from the heartbreaking and earnest to the overly naive and the severely WTF. What they had in common, though, is that they often over-estimate the world’s desire to fund them, and under-estimate the work it takes to mobilize their social networks to give.

That doesn’t mean it’s hopeless, but it also means that your campaign will need to be better orchestrated than the average “Hi, I need money and I’m nice” campaign. Read a few, and take note of your feelings about whether you would give that person money? Why or why not? Your answers will give you a clearer sense of what not to do in your own campaign.

What REALLY Matters is YOU

This guide to running a successful crowdfunding campaign emphasizes the importance of good planning, hard work, and creativity in every facet of your campaign. You will need to think through how to tell your story using compelling words, images, and video. You will need to plan how to market to your social media communities and mobilize them to give. You will need to plan compelling “perks” that you can send to your donors as a reward for giving.

In short, successful campaigns are a lot harder than just putting up a page and letting the dollars roll in.

The successful projects on GoFundMe look very different from the doldrums of unfunded student campaigns on IndieGogo — they often have a unique “hook” that pulls on the heart strings and shows you why these people are special and uniquely deserving of your cash.

People give on these sites for only a few reasons:

  • Altruism: They genuinely love you and want to give you money (there are very few of these, so don’t stop here!)

  • Greed: they want the “perks” you’re offering to funders (whatever those are)

  • Peer Pressure: you do a good job mobilizing your social networks and getting them to give.

  • Idealism: Belief that the money they’re sending is going to change the world.

As you plan your campaign, think of a simple “hook” that sticks in people’s minds and makes you stand out from the crowd.

Enlist friends who can help you develop a compelling video that shows why you are more deserving of money than the next wonderful person down the page.

Think carefully about what kinds of compelling perks you can realistically send your backers. A nice creative gift might be just what pushes your funder over the edge and gets them to give.

Keep the chatter up– post daily on your social profiles with updates, calls to action, and reminding your backers of the benefits of giving. Always keep the tone positive, friendly, with a gently undertone of urgency. Ask backers if you can publicly thank them on social media, then do so!

Own The Means of Production

I’ve talked before about how you should try and Own the Means of Production in your digital life by using self-hosted, open source software running on your own server. I think it’s important to point out that you can sidestep the big crowdfunding sites altogether and run your own to save the 5-10% commission on each fundraising campaign you run. IgnitionDeck lets you turn your self-hosted WordPress blog into a fully-featured crowdfunding platform for a one-time $79 license fee. (Compare this with a $200-300 fee on a $6000 fundraising campaign and you’ll see what a difference this makes!) Since The Platform only Kinda’ Matters and What Really Matters is You, you might want to choose a platform that saves you more of the money you raise. Owning the Means of Production (in this case) means that once you’ve bought the plugin, you will be able to run your future crowdfunding campaigns for free, happily ever after.

Oh, and My Friend the Student?

We decided to use GoFundMe.com for his campaign since he doesn’t host his own WordPress blog and we didn’t want to pay a bunch of upfront costs just to get started. GoFundMe charges reasonable fees and gives him flexibility about how to run his campaign. He has a Keep it All-style campaign which will let him keep all of the money he raises, even if he doesn’t meet his overall goal of $6000.
Feel free to check out his campaign and pledge if you like– he’s an extremely bright and deserving young man who has overcome great adversity with grace, only to choose a career path focused on service and compassionate work. I would love to help his campaign beat the odds and give him the support he needs to achieve his dream of becoming a Travel Pediatric Nurse in under-served communities.

I would also love to learn (from experience) how to successfully complete a crowdfunding campaign that actually meets its goals! I’ll keep you posted here as his campaign runs its course. In the meantime, happy funding!

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