Hummingbird monitoring, travel costs for the Blue Thunder Marching Band and a study to find out whether organic food really is better for people: Those were among the projects that benefited from PonyUp, the Boise State University Foundation’s crowdfunding program.
The foundation handles an annual revenue of more than $30 million and oversees donations that pay for scholarships, major building projects, endowed chairs and more. But it has joined universities across the country in embracing crowdfunding to raise money for relatively modest projects, most in the $5,000 to $10,000 range.
“Donors give to all kinds of things at BSU — departments, scholarships, capital projects — but this highlights areas of immediate need that the community wouldn’t necessarily know about,” said Chris Anton, executive director of the foundation. “They’re not high-dollar items, but they enhance the campus experience.”
The first round of PonyUp began in the summer of 2015. It also included campaigns to rehab the Boise State Observatory and an alternative spring break project, Partnership Jamaica, to build schools in that country.
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442 Number of donors who contributed to the first round of PonyUp
Cara Walker, the university’s senior director of annual giving, directs PonyUp. Along with helping worthwhile university projects raise money, university leaders hope PonyUp will attract new donors and help the university identify donor interest areas. BSU also hopes to engage young alumni who are already comfortable with platforms such as Kickstarter and GoFundMe, said Walker.
In its first round, PonyUp raised $39,280 from 442 donors. Of those donors, 75 percent were first-time donors to the university.
“With just our first five projects, we’ve met one of our objectives: to attract new donors,” said Walker.
A SENSE OF OWNERSHIP
“I didn’t expect we’d get totally funded. I was surprised by how supportive people were,” said Brian Jackson, an assistant professor in the BSU physics department and a “project owner” for the PonyUp campaign to “Bring Back the Boise State Observatory.”
In fact, 115 donors, including alumni, current students and staffers, stepped up to donate $10,000 — $2,000 above the campaign’s goal of $8,000, which was met in a mere two weeks. The money will pay for a new robotic mount for the observatory’s telescope. The telescope will be a “huge public outreach tool,” said Jackson. Plans include live streaming from the telescope via YouTube.
The university opened its observatory in the 1970s atop the Education and Science Building. It was popular among students and hosted viewing parties, at which people could see eclipses, Saturn’s rings and other astro-phenomena. But plagued by financial woes and theft, the observatory closed in 2006, said Jackson. His arrival on campus as a research astronomer revived interest in reopening it, and he started researching ways to raise the money.
Writing a grant to an organization such as NASA for just $10,000 wouldn’t have been practical because of the amount of work required for a relatively small amount of money, Jackson said. He knew of successful crowdfunding campaigns at other universities, including MIT, and decided to participate in PonyUp. He took the lead in spreading the word about the campaign through Twitter, Facebook and his blog, astrojack.com.
Crowdfunding, Jackson said, gets donors invested personally in projects.
“One of the most gratifying aspects was that people would email me directly to tell me their story,” Jackson said. “One former student was here when the observatory was running and was sad when it was shut down. He lives across the country” but still has ties to the university and supported the campaign.
PonyUp campaigns help make giving tangible. A $10 donation to Partnership Jamaica, for example, paid for one new bucket to transport concrete and building materials.
One donor, Don Carona, gave the largest single amount to support the observatory — $1,000. He said he was inspired to donate by his ties to Boise State. Years ago he lived in Boise working at a sporting goods store.
“I was in a bad place. No money, no home, getting pushed around,” said Carona.
A BSU professor visited the store and invited him to sit in on his classes. “It snowballed. A lot of faculty members encouraged me,” Carona said.
He credits the kindness of the university community with helping him find his way to academia, to graduate from college in Texas and to find his calling in astronomy — he now directs the Physics Observatory at Texas A&M University. He wants his donation and a restored BSU observatory to inspire other students as he was inspired.
“There’s never a way to repay someone’s kindness unless you can do something for someone else,” Carona said.
The $1,000 donation came with the offer of a home visit from Jackson and his telescope. Carona said he’ll settle for a visit to the BSU observatory next time he’s in Boise.
ALL ABOUT THE BIRDS
Jessica Pollock is a research biologist with Boise State’s Intermountain Bird Observatory. That group’s successful PonyUp campaign raised more than $6,600 to study hummingbird migration routes, among other things. It means Pollock and the other scientists can actually concentrate on science, not fundraising for their 2016 project.
“The money isn’t a huge amount of money. But for us it is huge,” Pollock said. “Generally, we are scraping from year to year, trying to get donations, trying to apply for grants. Those are very competitive. Sometimes you get them, sometimes not. Sometimes we get federal funding from (the) Forest Service, but that’s not guaranteed. We’ve been piecemealing.”
Fundraising had been slow this year, said Pollock, so the invitation from the Boise State University Foundation to participate in PonyUp came at the right time.
The Intermountain Bird Observatory is part of a larger network of groups that watch hummingbird populations. Because of grassroots fundraising, Boise State will be able to contribute its findings.
BUILDING LEADERSHIP SKILLS, RESUMES
The university chose the company ScaleFunder as its fundraising platform for PonyUp. The company specializes in educational institutions and, unlike some platforms, it provides information about donors to Boise State.
“This allows us to follow up with folks who support us and let them know how their donations help, but also build our donor base,” said Walker.
The university pays a service fee to use the platform. Unlike other crowdfunding platforms, ScaleFunder does not take a portion of donations.
Along with attracting new and younger donors, and identifying the kinds of projects they want to support, PonyUp helps the university “tell its stories,” said Walker. Each PonyUp campaign features a write-up of the prospective project and a video made by students and organizations, often on smartphones.
In the first round of PonyUp, all but the marching band campaign met or exceeded its fundraising goals. But even in the case of the band, which raised $10,000 instead of the desired $15,000, participating in PonyUp was valuable, said Joe Tornello, band director. Unlike some crowdfunding platforms with “all or nothing” policies, PonyUp participants get the money even if they fall short of their goal.
“If it would have brought in $2,000 or $20,000, it was money that we didn’t have,” said Tornello.
PonyUp also benefits students interested in philanthropy. Walker is enlisting help from the Boise State Student Foundation to manage the project. Students with the foundation have used their own social media networks to spread the word about the various PonyUp campaigns. Next semester, when the second round of PonyUp campaigns begin, students will help applicants tell stories through video and more. Eventually, said Walker, members of the Student Foundation will take over her role and direct the program.
“Students are getting good leadership skills and building their résumés,” she said.
Any faculty member, department, program or student group can apply to fundraise through PonyUp. Close to 15 applicants have already applied for the next round, which will launch in January or February, said Walker. A panel will choose between five and seven projects to participate.
Anna Webb: 208-377-6431, @IDS_AnnaWebb
How can I give?
The next round of PonyUp projects will launch early in 2016. Click here to visit the PonyUp website.