Teaching Profession

Study: Teachers Use Crowdfunding Sites to Make Up for Budget Shortfalls

By Sarah Schwartz — November 29, 2018 4 min read
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For teachers, crowdfunding has became a go-to method for financing hands-on projects, planning class trips, and outfitting classrooms—four out of five public schools in the U.S. have at least one teacher who has listed a project on the teacher-crowfunding site DonorsChoose.org, according to the nonprofit.

New research from Texas State University offers a closer look at what factors lead a teacher to list a project—and how educators may be shifting their instructional priorities to become more marketable on the platform.

In his doctoral dissertation, Brett Lee, now a lecturer at the university, conducted in-depth interviews with 16 teachers and school administrators at four schools in a Texas district. All of the schools had relied heavily on the platform over the course of a decade—each school had raised at least $25,000 through the site from 2006 to 2017.

Many of these teachers drew a direct line from budget cuts to crowdfunding. A smaller stream of money to their districts meant fewer funds for updated or supplementary materials, interviewees said. One teacher said that she turned to DonorsChoose amid deep cuts to Texas’s school spending in 2011, and that the ongoing effects of that state funding decision have kept her on the platform.

“Sadly, it seems that the responsibility to close the funding sinkhole trickles down from the district, to the campus, to the classroom teacher,” said Lee, in an email. “Most of the teachers admitted to previously spending thousands of dollars of their own income.”

School administrators were largely supportive of their teachers using DonorsChoose, in some cases even promoting the site. One administrator included links to match offers on the platform in a weekly newsletter to staff, while two of the four schools in the study offered crowdfunding professional development. At one of these schools, the PD was mandatory for teachers who had not yet launched a DonorsChoose campaign.

Teachers also said equity for their students was a driving goal. Of all of the schools in the district, the most frequent and successful DonorsChoose users had large populations of students from low-income households. The four schools in the study were all classified as Title I.

“Within these schools, the parents and parent-teacher organizations do not have the same amount of fiscal leverage to meet the needs of their respective campuses,” said Lee. “Simply put, as the budgets shrink statewide, the campuses that ‘have-not’ have to look to innovation to make up for education budget shortfalls.”

One teacher described her reason for using the platform: “There’s another school here and it’s on the west side and it’s mostly white, and they have a lot of money. [That teacher’s] budget was $25,000, because she gets district money and then she does fundraising, and the parents buy products, and they had $25,000. My budget is $2,000. Why should my kids have less? ... [S]o I’m gonna hustle.”

Teachers were mostly likely to post requests for classroom technology to replace outdated or broken tools, new books (especially culturally relevant titles that they couldn’t find in school libraries), and personal items like food and hygiene supplies for students who couldn’t afford them. If their projects were funded, teachers often shared their materials across classrooms in the building.

How Teachers ‘Sell’ Projects

But successful crowdfunding also requires marketing—in order to get these projects funded, teachers had to design projects that would be appealing to donors.

Teachers researched other projects that had been fulfilled, making stylistic and tactical changes to their proposals as a result. Teachers said that they tried to keep costs relatively low—between $200-$500—as projects with more modest goals tend to be more likely to get fully funded.

In other cases, teachers created projects designed to be eligible for matching funds from companies and foundations. For example, one teacher said, if there’s an organization offering matching contributions for science materials, she’ll submit a proposal for science materials.

Sometimes, this means that companies play a part in shaping the topics that teachers cover. One teacher, after researching match offers, discovered that the bank Charles Schwab was funding projects related to financial literacy.

“I made sure that my resources fit the criteria and then my description of how the students and why they needed it was really to what the company wanted,” she said. “It wasn’t something that I thought off the top of my head like, ‘Hey, my students really need this,’ but I saw the match and I thought, ‘Oh, this would great.’ ”

Even so, Lee said, teachers didn’t express concern that tailoring their requests in this way would limit or dictate what they could do in the classroom. Requirements for matching funds are generally rather broad, he said.

Image: Getty

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.