September 2, 2013

Crowdfunding at Cornell Enables Student Projects

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Cornell University is now crowdsourcing funds for projects through a partnership with USEED, one of the first platforms developed specifically to support projects in higher education.

USEED operates much like Kickstarter, a popular crowdsourcing website where supporters of art projects, events and products can donate money at different levels, according to University officials. Cornell’s Office of Alumni Affairs and Development launched two projects on USEED this summer in response to the popularity of donation-based crowdfunding platforms.

Two projects are currently crowdfunding on the platform: an outdoor classroom fundraiser for Dilmun Hill, Cornell’s student-run organic farm, and a LGBT Leadership Academy to educate current students  to be leaders in the LGBT movement beyond campus.

“We wanted to do a small-scale pilot project to better understand if and how crowdfunding could work for Cornell,” said Andrew Gossen, senior director for social media strategy for Alumni Affairs.

Contributors to USEED projects can donate at specific levels, denoting different involvement in the projects. Smaller donations are typically to indicate support for something, while larger gifts can result in project organizers granting benefits like dedications to the donator.

According to Gossen, crowdfunding is ideal for online networks, where people can share information about projects they are involved with across all of their social networks. USEED uses storytelling to encourage contributors to donate, letting project organizers give updates on what they are working on.

“If alumni, parents and friends of Cornell are spending more time online, we need to meet them where they are,” Gossen said. “Direct mail, phonathons and other annual giving efforts remain critically important to Cornell’s fundraising success, but adding crowdfunding to our overall strategy helps us evolve as the world is changing.”

As of Aug. 22, Dilmun Hill’s outdoor classroom project had already fulfilled its goal of raising $5,000.

“We were surprised that we exceeded the goal. It’s nice to see that students are supportive of student organic projects,” said Betsy Leonard, Organic Farm Coordinator and overseer of the Dilmun Hill Student Farm.

Emily Burrichter ’14, student manager of Dilmun Hill, said that USEED would help extend the reach of Dilmun’s programs around the community.

“USEED is not a main source for funding; it does, however, supplement our funds to be able to do something like expand our education and outreach programs,” Burrichter said.

According to Leonard, the money raised by USEED will provide foldable chairs, tables and a kiosk for Dilmun Hill, which will be used to help the farm further connect with the Ithaca community. The $5,000 goal was set based on the total cost of these supplies, according to Burrichter.

Donations came mainly from faculty, staff, alumni, parents and students. Lakeview Organic Grain, a supplier of grain to the student farm, also gave a large gift to Dilmun Hill through USEED.

Cornell’s LGBT Leadership Academy has a goal of raising $15,000, $3,500 of which has been donated since Aug. 26.

“Our community was a pilot candidate because the University is looking to engage its LGBTQ alumni through their LGBT affinities. We’re an emerging alumni community, thanks to the Cornell University Gay and Lesbian Alumni Association’s recent reinvigoration, and the University wants to support the causes we care about,” said Olivia Tai ‘11, secretary and communication chair of CUGALA.

The LGBT Leadership Academy Project currently has 15 volunteers using email to solicit donations. The project reached 13 percent of its goal on the first day, and Tai said she believes they will meet their fundraising goal.

“We’re still waiting for our first major donation from a celebrity or well-known LGBT group — fingers crossed. [Still], we are in awe of the spectacular show of support from our current donors,” said Tai.

According to Gossen, projects that reach the 30 percent fundraising mark usually reach their final goal.

“Since we’re already almost at that milestone, we’re confident that the LGBTQ Leadership Academy will reach its goal as well,” Gossen said.

Alumni Affairs and Development staff worked with the different colleges and groups on campus to find projects that would work well with USEED’s crowdfunding system. According to Gossen, a good story, a feasible funding goal and engaged alumni and student volunteers were the criteria for using USEED.

“We’re going to experiment with a range of different types of projects and see what works. The criteria are evolving, and they’ll continue to evolve as we get more experience,” Gossen said. “Broadly speaking, however, we’re looking for projects that align with specific priorities and are likely to engage specific audiences.”

Original Author: Kevin Milian

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