Back-to-School Needs: 21st-Century Fundraising Platforms

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By Phillip Jackson, Chief Commerce Officer, Rightpoint 

High Tech School

We’re living in an interesting time for learning. I’m no expert, but as a parent of two school-aged children I can’t help but notice the degree to which education has become tech-enabled. And that comes at a cost.

There are a lot of factors contributing to this trend, beginning with the emerging — and highly embraced — teaching styles. The number of students who are involved in alternative forms of education are at an all-time high, as reported on Education Next. These formats range from private tutors who replace the in-school experience, to homeschool co-ops like explained here on The Homeschool Mom, where multiple families provide the materials and curricula, rather than follow a state-based homeschool program, such as Florida Virtual School (FLVS).

We also see the influx of technology in this year’s back-to-school season. Staplesconnect has rolled out a mobile app that teachers can use to provide parents with classroom supply lists to parents who can then one-click purchase everything.

But there’s one area where technology is sorely missing, even though any parent will tell you it occupies a big chunk of their time and attention: fundraising. We need some disruption in the digital marketplaces that schools rely on for their fundraising.

Endless Fundraisers

School groups raise more than $1.5 billion annually selling stuff. Just about every school asks its students to raise funds to support extra-curricular activities and to purchase supplies for the classroom. Parents and relatives of school-aged children are bombarded with funding requests (71% of parents said they’ve asked their friends, family, and co-workers to buy stuff to support their kids’ fundraising efforts). When a goal is met, either by an individual student, classroom, or activity like the chess club, the kids get a reward, typically a trinket that attaches to their backpacks.

Consider the logistics that are required to measure and plan these fundraisers from end to end. They start with sophisticated email flows that enable a child to ask Aunt Mary to purchase a box of chocolate to support her school. Aunt Mary will receive the request from her niece or nephew, but is it in compliance with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which requires parental permission to collect and store personal data? If it’s not, Aunt Mary can’t share that request with her husband or coworkers.

Taking Inspiration from eCommerce

Many schools use platforms designed for school fundraising, like GiveGap or 99Pledges, but often they’re clunky and require the parents to coordinate their children’s efforts within their families (“Did you remember to ask Uncle Vinny? Don’t pester cousin Eric, he’s been out of work since the pandemic.”).

The school fundraising experience is the polar opposite of what one expects from a modern eCommerce, and it’s at best, clunky; at worst, fundamentally broken. Recently, I received an email from my eight-year-old niece, subject line: Nora has a fundraiser for Uncle Phil.” (Nora doesn’t actually have email but that’s a whole other story.)

I opened the email and was taken to a site that required me to register in order to continue. The site was clunky, the font was too small to read, and I have no idea how much I need to spend in order to help her reach her fundraising goal. Keep in mind that I have a few nieces and nephews, as well as children of my own. Obviously I want to help, but I also don’t want to spend more than necessary.

The store itself offered no categories, just a long list of items to wade through. Eventually I settled on a can of premium unsalted fancy nuts, at a cost of $35. Of course I can get the same nuts from a grocery store, but I understand I’m supporting my niece. I round up for charity, pay $16 for shipping, plus sales tax. When all was said and done, I paid $60 for nuts. Only when I received the package a month later did I realize my $60 bought me an 8-ounce can.

School fundraising is a billion dollar business, as reported here on the Chicago Tribune. There’s no excuse for these platforms to be so disjointed and poorly designed.

More people are aware of the tropes of eCommerce — design patterns, information architecture hierarchy, a well established search and browse experience, discrete product pages with critical information about the items or a returns policy. All of this is lacking, and they’re not difficult to build.

Take Cues from Corporate Gifting Infrastructure

Corporate gifting has experienced a monumental shift over the past few years. Prior to the pandemic, companies sent out branded mugs or water bottles to their employees and clients, which often ended up in the trash. Today, corporate gifting is much more opt in and personalized; recipients are asked to choose a gift (or not) that they actually want. The programs are powered by a drop ship network of brands offering a wide variety of items.

These networks already exist, which means that corporate gifting was simply a matter of adding an additional feature, rather than developing a whole new sales channel. They’re an ideal application for the school fundraising use case.

The Unmet Opportunity

What’s interesting about the school fundraising experience is that it’s outside of the shopping experience (I purchased nuts to help my niece, not because I was hungry). I’m motivated by an entirely different set of criteria, which if you think about it, presents a huge opportunity that has yet to be addressed by any technologist.

Whoever solves these challenges, and solves them in disparate group contexts — public, private, charter schools, co-op schools — will be a hero to parents and their investors.

About the Author

As Chief Commerce Officer at Rightpoint, Phillip acts as head of Commerce strategy, partnerships, and evangelism. With over 15 years of experience creating unique online customer experiences, he has both built and managed ecommerce for some of the world’s most recognizable brands. Phillip also hosts the successful podcasts Future Commerce and Merchant to Merchant, with over 1 million downloads. 

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