Innovation: Secure school fundraising
When Alana Platt and her colleagues began building Classmunity, they thought it would be something like Kickstarter for the K-12 education setting. What they ended up developing was a software as a service product that aims to remake how school districts, administrators and teachers handle fundraising.
“Fundraising, over the last few decades, hasn’t changed very much,” Platt said, noting that fact is particularly true in education.
The crowdfunding portion accounts for about a quarter of the Whitefish Bay startup, which was a finalist in the 2016 Governor’s Business Plan Contest. The rest of the web-based service involves a district-specific fundraising website. Teachers or others can quickly set up a campaign that administrators approve before it goes live. Parents, students and the community are then able to share and promote the campaign, while administrators are able to monitor progress and see to which accounts money is going.
Platt said she isn’t aware of another service that allows administrators the ability to track fundraisers that closely. The ability to streamline approvals is also important, she said, noting the processes districts use run from paper forms to verbal signoffs to nothing at all.
“It’s very scattered,” she said.
The ability to offer oversight and security helps districts counteract the potential for fraud. A former Janesville high school employee pleaded guilty in May to embezzling more than $300,000 from the school over roughly a decade. There was a similar-sized case in Shorewood in 2014 and parents and staff have been prosecuted for lesser amounts throughout the area.
Platt said cases like those are “just the tip of the iceberg.”
“It’s really very prevalent,” she said.
For Elkhorn School District superintendent Jason Tadlock, the ability to provide security for the district, donor and teacher or staff member was the attractive part of Classmunity. His district was the first client for the company and he now also consults with Classmunity on financial issues.
He said nearly all educators have the best intentions, but crowdfunding sites that aren’t run through the district can put them in awkward positons. As an example, he said a teacher raising money to buy an iPad for a classroom creates ambiguity about who actually owns the device.
Tadlock added that being able to track ongoing fundraisers gives administrators the ability to demonstrate to the public they have good control over the finances of fundraising.
“There’s so much potential fraud or lost revenue in that area,” he said, noting it makes him feel better about donating. “I feel much more comfortable about contributing to something that’s run and operated by the school district.”
Classmunity launched its service four months ago and already has four districts onboard. There are plans for an app to make fundraisers easier at sporting events and in other live situations.
The company also is exploring the potential for advertising, hoping that local businesses inundated by requests will see a better return on investment by displaying their support on the district fundraising pages.
Revenue for Classmunity currently comes from a five-tiered pricing model that runs from a basic subscription at $99 per month to the unlimited plan at $499 per month. The tiers differ in the amount of support, the number of accounts, the cost for a credit card reader and the online fundraising campaign fee. Those fees range from 6 percent down to 0 percent, not including credit card fees.
Tadlock said each district will need to consider which pricing plan fits best. He said the other crowdfunding sites take a percentage as well, but Classmunity offers more robust support and the ability to remove the fee.
For Platt, an assistant professor in computer science at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, and her team, building the service wasn’t the challenge. Classmunity does some of its work out of the Whitewater Innovation Center and was able to produce a working prototype for $1,000 and sweat equity.
The challenges are going to be continuing to build and finding additional customers.
“The name of the game is scaling at this point,” she said.