Online fundraising helps schools, but requires district oversight

Crowdfunding is becoming an increasingly popular method for the public to voluntarily provide support for education. For example, Donors Choose reports that it has collected nearly $736 million and fulfilled over 600,000 classroom project requests since its establishment in 2000. GoFundMe claims an average of $70 million per year for 100,000 projects.

“Crowdfunding through internet platforms such as GoFundMe, Donors Choose and similar sites opens up new opportunities for districts, county offices of education and school-affiliated organizations to raise funds for projects, equipment or supplies,” said CSBA Senior Policy Manual Consultant Diane Greene. “It is one more tool for addressing the needs of our schools and students, along with more traditional types of fundraisers by parent-teacher organizations, student organizations, educational foundations and corporate sponsorships.”

In general, donations received through crowdfunding should be subject to the same conditions and criteria as donations received through other means. However, the unique nature of such platforms may raise additional considerations that should be addressed in district policy.

“Despite the obvious benefits of online fundraising, districts need to be aware of all such campaigns conducted in the name of the district, a district school or a district employee. It’s important that the district set ground rules that ensure transparency, fiscal integrity and effective use of the funds,” Greene suggested.

Policy regarding online fundraising campaigns that will benefit the district, regardless of whether the campaign is proposed by a district employee or another person or organization, should require prior approval from the superintendent or other designated employee. Criteria to be considered in determining whether to grant the request should be clearly spelled out in the policy, and could include the extent to which the proposed fundraiser:

  • is consistent with the district’s vision, goals and priorities;
  • conforms with the board’s goal to provide equity in resources across school sites and student populations;
  • is compatible with existing infrastructure, if it involves the purchase of technology, equipment or furniture;
  • supports a one-time purchase and does not create an ongoing obligation that the board may not be able to sustain;
  • does not violate any law or district policy, such as policies that establish criteria for the selection of instructional materials or that protect the privacy of student information and photos;
  • does not pose any potential conflict of interest;
  • and meets any other factors considered relevant and nonarbitrary.

Mechanisms for financial transparency should also be addressed, including a requirement that the campaign describes the purpose and use of the funds and states that funded resources will be owned by the district. Any communication regarding the fundraiser should clearly state that donations are voluntary and are not required for the student’s participation in educational activities. Finally, districts should ensure that donations are subject to fiscal accountability measures related to the collection, accounting, expenditure, inventory and audit of donations.

Some districts may also choose to specifically identify the crowdfunding platforms that may be used, based on the policies and agreements required by certain sites, the way in which the site collects donations, whether donations are sent directly to the school to ensure they will not be diverted or misused and/or the fees or percentage of donations charged by the site.

Districts should regularly communicate their policy on online fundraising to all staff members. Given the widespread use of crowdfunding platforms by teachers for everything from classroom materials to field trips to furniture, there may be a misperception that staff is authorized to launch such campaigns at their discretion. It is the district’s responsibility to provide clear direction for any fundraising efforts that are linked to district programs.

Boards that choose to adopt policy to govern crowdfunding campaigns are encouraged to review CSBA’s sample Board Policy 3290 – Gifts, Grants and Bequests.