Leadership - Say 'Yes', not 'I would if I could'

If budgets won't stretch far enough, try crowdfunding and other unusual solutions

Balancing the books is becoming increasingly difficult for school leaders. The demand for a technology-led education has high costs attached, while the global downturn has meant budget cuts for schools and left parents with little money to assist in kitting children out with essential equipment.

The easy option is to plead helplessness and practise the refrain "I would if I could ." Unfortunately, this often leads to teachers digging into their own pockets. Figures from the National School Supply and Equipment Association show that in 2009-10 state school teachers in the US spent more than $1.3 billion (pound;850 million) on school supplies and instructional materials.

But school leaders have options, as long as they are willing to look at alternative sources. Search the internet and you will soon come across the concept of crowdfunding, where members of the public pledge cash to projects they are inspired by.

Websites such as Kickstarter have helped numerous projects get off the ground, and now school-specific websites are popping up. This is how James Rosser Elementary School in Mississippi solved the problem of many of its students coming to school without basic equipment, such as pencils and notebooks, because their families couldn't afford them. Rather than allow the students to suffer, the school turned to DonorsChoose, which was created specifically to help teachers. The school set out to attract $750, and within a couple of weeks of the project going live on the site it had exceeded the funding target.

Since DonorsChoose was founded in 2003 by Charles Best, a social studies teacher in New York City, it has been a phenomenal success, raising more than $181 million for almost 362,000 projects throughout the US. The nature of the projects varies. Some are looking for modest amounts for basic supplies such as stationery, whereas others aim to purchase more expensive school equipment, such as microscopes, or to fund field trips. It costs nothing for teachers and schools to list their project on the site and about 70 per cent hit their funding targets.

DonorsChoose has spawned a number of copycat initiatives. PledgeCents was launched in April after co-founder Andyshea Saberioon recognised that educational funding cuts in the US were having a negative impact on students and teachers. "Just like every other industry in the US, the education sector has seen drastic cuts," he says. "PledgeCents is not the cure to educational funding issues, but if we can alleviate some of the stress and tension that schools and teachers are feeling because of current funding issues then we have done a great job."

Some companies offer more specific funding options if school leaders have particular projects in mind. Solar Schools in the UK, for example, helps schools raise funds to install solar panels in addition to other carbon- reduction measures. At the time of going to press, 33 schools were registered with the organisation and 14 of these had already hit their target.

But crowdfunding isn't the only fundraising option for school leaders thinking outside the box. Matthew Quinn, headmaster at Oaklands Catholic School in Hampshire, south-east England, says that "in response to creaking budgets" schools are increasingly becoming creative about how to raise funds.

"For example, many schools rent out their assets during the evenings or holidays," Quinn says. "Clients include sports associations through to caravan clubs. Schools are also beginning to use the educational capital that exists within their own staff by running training courses. If you can charge pound;100 per delegate, attracting 20-30 participants, the multiples begin to add up."

Although these options are not always applicable, and are certainly not the answer to budget crises, they do represent an opportunity for school leaders to get projects off the ground and to support staff and students despite financial pressures. And they should help to change the standard response from "I would if I could ." to "Here's what we could try ."

In short

  • Crowdfunding is a great way to raise money for specific projects, such as paying for a piece of science equipment.
  • The websites DonorsChoose and PledgeCents in the US have been set up specifically for teachers. In the UK, Solar Schools was created to help schools fund green initiatives.
  • Alternatives to crowdfunding include renting out property and equipment to local clubs and associations or organising training courses run by teachers for external delegates.

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