A paltry materials budget got you down? Keisa Williams knows the feeling well. So the school librarian at the K–5 Monarch Academy in Oakland, CA, turned to DonorsChoose.org with her cause. And the good people of the Web responded.
“I always thought it was too much work and I wouldn’t have time for that,” says Williams. “But once you figure out how to tell your story, you just tell it over and over again. You’ll get funded.”
Williams is a seasoned veteran of budget cuts. For the past four years, she’s had zero funding for library materials. She tried DonorsChoose.org for the first time last year, thinking she had nothing to lose in trying to acquire computer mice for 30 kindergarten students who didn’t know how to use the track pads in the school’s computer lab.
She posted her story, and in less than 15 days, a single donor funded the entire project. She was hooked.
DonorsChoose.org is just one of several sites that engage users in selecting projects or causes they want to help fund. Similar sites that specifically feature educational projects include start-up Swellr and Adopt-A-Classroom, which Williams has also used. Donors can fund projects in their entirety—or make micro pledges, turning funding into a social experience.
DonorsChoose.org launched in 2000, and has helped raise more than $90 million as of mid-October, affecting more than 5.4 million students, according to its website. Anyone can post a funding request, ideally framed as a story that engages and inspires a user to make a donation. Requests—for new books or digital cameras for a classroom, for example—are given a set amount of time to reach their goal, which can vary according to the amount of the grant and other factors. If a project is not fully funded by that time, the project doesn’t receive any funds. It’s an all or nothing scenario.
According to her online profile, Williams has had 13 projects funded through DonorsChoose.org, helping stock her library with books for her students in English and Spanish, among other items. She’s also helped Monarch teachers post project funding requests of their own.
Williams believes her success is easily duplicated. All it takes is a little perseverance—and a hefty dose of social media.
“I have some teachers who never get funded, and I look at their requests and they look good,” she says. “I think it might be that I’m on Twitter, and I don’t just go there and tell people to go to me on DonorsChoose.org. I’m on there sharing resources, what I ate for breakfast, talking about my son. I’ve built these relationships with educators, they know my story, know I’ve had no budget for the fourth year [in a row], and they’re willing to help. And if they can’t, they’ll retweet my request, and someone will donate who saw my tweet second or third or fourth hand.”
Twitter and Facebook have also provided leads for other funding opportunities—links to free books, possible matching grants, or other giveaways. One lead landed computer speakers for a third-grade classroom at Monarch, another a USB microscope for the science teacher. Still another tweet from a librarian Williams knows through social media resulted in a donation of Mo Willems books and autographed posters from the author himself.
Yet she knows that there are tricks to her success beyond just her social networks. Smaller requests get funded more quickly, for example. And she’ll often re-post the same request multiple times.
Donors don’t seem to mind—the funding has come through—and the books are always needed. In particular she uses them for a Book Bag program she runs in which students take home book bags with titles in English and Spanish, some for the students to read themselves, and others for parents to read to them.
“I was writing brand-new words for every request and then talked to the reading specialist who said she wrote the same one over and over again and every time it got funded,” she says. “And I thought, ‘Wow, how much time will that save?”
Williams will also check the DonorsChoose.org site to find local funding opportunities to help her better target some of her requests.
While Williams says she has yet to land any really big grants, she keeps writing applications, believing that once again, when she gets the story perfected, those doors will open for her and Monarch Academy.
In the meantime, she has used DonorsChoose.org to win a highly successful series of mini grants. Sometimes, as a consequence, so many books arrive at the library that she sometimes can’t catalog them quickly enough. Some books make their way into classrooms, where they still get into the hands of the school’s 385 students—which, in the end, is Williams’s ultimate goal.
“I put in some requests through [New Jersey-based publisher] Townsend Press where they pay for half the books if the money was raised through DonorsChoose,” she says. “When they came there were so many boxes of books that I gave them to the kindergarten and first-grade teachers. I just didn’t want to wait to get them in the kids’ hands.”