What It's Actually Like to Crowdfund in Higher Education

I couldn’t sleep the first night of the crowdfunding campaign. This isn’t hyperbole. Real talk: I genuinely couldn’t sleep.

My father had donated a large gift, and I was experiencing emotions I never anticipated when I signed up for this. I don’t know what I was expecting. Maybe that people would ignore my emails and I could just say, “Hey, at least I tried.”

I immediately wished I could take back the email I sent that prompted my dad to give.

I haven’t always been USEED’s Journalist. When I first joined USEED, I trained teams of students, faculty, and staff on best crowdfunding practices for their various initiatives. I helped educate sports teams, engineering teams, and student organizations seeking to make meaningful change on – and off – their campus.

But something felt phony about teaching groups to be successful in crowdfunding when I myself had never crowdfunded for a philanthropic cause. Sure, I knew the data and the best practices, but I was missing an empathetic experience. I had no idea how it actually felt to crowdfund.

When I first met the WOCHA team this past summer, I was so moved by what they were trying to do that I committed myself to help share their campaign with my own personal network of friends, family, mentors, colleagues, and peers. We call this peer-to-peer crowdfunding – the most effective strategy for crowdfunding for a philanthropic cause.

WOCHA (Women of Color, Honor, and Ambition) is a brand new program at Rochester Institute of Technology that is seeking to empower seven women from diverse backgrounds through a mentorship program throughout the year. These women will be able to participate in powerful workshops, classes on financial planning, wellness activities, career readiness courses, and more. As they graduate from the program, they will each receive custom tailored suits to give them confidence in interviews and the workforce.

WOCHA Women Crowdfunding

I committed myself to being one of their volunteer fundraisers, and I committed myself to asking my closest community to give to their campaign for 30 days.

Just to see what it’s like, I told myself.

 

Day 1

The buzz was real, and after months of preparation, launch day was finally here.

I wasn’t nervous, though.

Tweets flying, emails being pushed out, industry leaders taking notice. It was all just very exciting.

It wasn’t until the first gift to the WOCHA campaign came in that was directly tied to my efforts that I felt otherwise. I had sent my dad an email early in the day. He read it, clicked on the campaign, and donated. I saw his name on the supporter wall, and my heart sunk.

I always imagined what it would be like to see somebody’s name from my personal network on the supporter wall (where the donors are listed on the campaign page). I would be grateful, send them a quick “thank you,” and then move on. I didn’t expect to feel this overwhelming sense of – what was it –

Guilt?

I want to be clear here, though, that I believe the WOCHA women deserve every dollar they received. This issue of guilt had nothing to do with them, and it had everything to do with me.

The feeling didn’t let up as I began to recognize more and more names on the wall. These are friends and family members who were being generous because I asked them to be. Who were giving their hard earned money away at my request.

My colleague; my forever encourager.

My friend; the starving artist.

Can I call a do-over?

 

Day 14

“It’s completely normal for there to not be much activity in the middle two weeks of your campaign. It’s really the first and last week that you will see the majority of your engagement. And that’s okay!” I found myself saying this to teams over and over again when they were feeling disappointed by the lack of engagement – from volunteer fundraisers and donors – at the midpoint of their campaign.

I offered this advice – this boost of encouragement – without ever considering how it might feel for those putting themselves out there when their campaign activity comes to a halt.

The WOCHA campaign was no exception. The PR, the tweeting, the donations. It all just… stopped. I had stopped engaging my own personal network for that brief period of time as well.

I felt a juxtaposed sense of relief and anxiety. I didn’t want to feel the guilt of my efforts being recognized by my friends and family through their very real, very tangible dollars. I wanted to be done. To throw in the flag. To quietly disappear.

And yet still, I knew the team wasn’t done. So how could I be?

 

Day 28

Usually by Day 28, we hope to see campaigns almost completely funded for their original goal. If they’re too far behind, and if momentum has disappeared, the chances of a team being victorious in their funding goal is right about 0%. It really just doesn’t happen, and that’s just the truth of crowdfunding.

WOCHA had just surpassed 50% with only two days to go. They were seeking to raise $5,000, and it wasn’t looking good.

So my CEO called me and gave me a pep talk (if you know him, you’ll agree that he might just be the best pep-talker on the planet). He said it could be done when I felt it couldn’t. He convinced me – no – he helped me convince myself that yes, we can raise the rest in two days.

So I reached out to my team of passionate women who I knew weren’t going down without a fight.

They were totally in. They said, we can do this.

And we all believed it to be true.

 

Day 30

In the last two days of WOCHA’s crowdfunding campaign, I saw something happen that I have yet to personally see with any other team.

I saw a team go from 0 to 60 so fast it would make your head spin. From 50% funded to – get this – over 130% funded.

All because they faithfully sent their personal emails to the friends and family who had yet to give, and because they reignited their community with a sense of passion and urgency.

They did it. We did it.

I called my dad to share with him the news. I was beaming with pride and excitement for WOCHA’s big accomplishment. He was thrilled to hear the news and that his support helped push them over the line to “success” (which is a term I now use loosely, as these women were winners from the beginning).

“After all,” I told him, “You were one of their first supporters, and look what they were able to accomplish because of your gift.”

The guilt turned to pride. The fear, to power.

 

Epilogue

If you were to ask any of the women fundraising what their experience was like, they would all give you unique stories of passion, fear, and elation.

On the opposite side of the country, I captured snapshots of it from afar. The encouraging and supportive emails to each other. The twitter feed of excitement, humility, and gratefulness.

I am honored to have been a part of the WOCHA team as they completed their first crowdfunding campaign. It was terrifying and thrilling and one of the realest things I’ve ever done.

Because of this experience, I can no longer look at a crowdfunding project in higher education in its finality and call it a failure, regardless of how much the team raised. The emotional journey these volunteer fundraisers are going on requires constant introspection and vulnerability. This is a win. It is a success for their education and for their future.

After that, it’s a success for humanity.

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