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Students Turn to Donors on the Internet

Mohammed Nassar, a 28-year-old Palestinian from the town of Qalqilya in the West Bank, is like many of the ambitious young men and women in his hometown. He is eager to study abroad to increase his chances of finding work.

But he is doing one thing differently: He is trying to pay for his education by “crowd funding” his studies on a site called Indiegogo.

Crowd funding helps people raise money for projects through the Internet by seeking small donations from a large number of people. It has recently shifted from a focus on start-up businesses to social projects such as education, on sites such as Adopt A Classroom or Student Funder.

After studying architecture at Birzeit University in the West Bank, Nassar began dreaming of establishing a school for architectural design in his home country. To do that, he felt he needed deeper academic knowledge. He realized that his studies were too limited and there was no educational outlet for his passion where he lived.

“Mohammed was a student who was eager for more insight,” Layla Qarout, who taught Nassar at Birzeit University and is now teaching in University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee. “He constantly challenged himself by doing a lot of independent research, but the scope for him to do that was limited.”

He has his sites set on a master’s degree at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London, which would run him around $30,000. A cheaper alternative would be the National School of Architecture of Versailles in France, where a subsidized education would only be $800 annually, but living expenses would be up to $25,000 a year.

Since Nassar has struggled just to cover his living costs in Palestine, he knew that he needed help to study overseas. Searching for a scholarship would have been the obvious choice. But he preferred to try and raise the funds himself, saying scholarships are “politically exclusive” in the West Bank. As in many Arab countries, Palestinian students believe that scholarship programs are rigged to favor those in certain families or with particular political leanings.

Nassar says he sent 1,400 emails worldwide to secure a job and received one offer in Shanghai that fell through due to visa issues. So he turned to crowd funding. He set a $34,000 target, which he thinks should be enough to achieve his dream. He gives donors rewards, such as t-shirts with his designs, for their contributions. Donors can either see their gifts as expensive purchases or as donations that come with a gift. “It’s a much more democratic way of having your studies funded… You can offer the reasons, services or products that you want to offer and its goal is clear,” Nassar said.

A 2011 World Bank report titled “Crowd-funding’s Potential for the Developing World,” described many social projects that have been able to use the Internet to overcome financial obstacles. While the platforms were originally meant as a way for entrepreneurs to find investors, they theoretically work just as well for students looking for sponsors.

Some students have already succeeded at using this method. One such person is Rana Baker from Gaza, Palestine, who is now finishing her master’s degree at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Sciences (SOAS).

Baker used the website MyDonate. After receiving the offer of a place from SOAS, the $25,000 price tag on her education was the last hurdle to negotiate. Baker, who’s in the school of Migration and Diaspora studies, wanted to get out of Palestine herself. “I have criticized the Palestinian education system for its unwillingness to move to participatory learning,” she said.

Besides being a democratic and do-it-yourself form of fundraising, crowd-funding is more flexible. Many students receive their acceptance letters to universities after the application deadlines for scholarships. Crowdfunding’s flexibility also means that prospective students choose how to market. “I think that is where it could get complicated,” said Qarout. “If it becomes a very popular tool, it might become very difficult for individual students to state their case for why they should receive funding. They may still need to offer something.”

Nassar thought of this and decided to create designs for merchandise (mugs, t-shirts, frames), also believing buyers would pay more for those products if they believed in his ambitions. “People may think I am just trying to use emotional blackmail to sell products, but I can’t be bothered if they do, my actual ambitions go far beyond that,” Nassar said.

Baker used her skills as a journalist and blogger to convince funders of her academic aspirations. The marketing is the hardest part, both of them say. They have relied heavily on their friends and acquaintances and intensive Twitter and Facebook campaigns. Baker’s success is no guarantee for Nassar. “I know it may be difficult… but my funding is flexible and I will renew after the end of the funding deadline (May22),” Nassar said.

Some websites offer assurance that the projects advertised on their website are legitimate. Normally, these sites force applicants to set a funding limit, so as to make sure it is not a platform for sustained money-making. In a democratic market, there is a “buyers beware” element and as with any online transactions, there could be potential scammers waiting to capitalize on the goodwill of others, ruining it for all of the Nassar’s and Baker’s out there who would benefit from the opportunities make it happen.


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