Last year, Stephen Colbert personally funded all existing South Carolina public school requests on DonorsChoose.org: that’s nearly 1,000 projects totalling over $800,000. And this was an incredible gesture and likely made an enormous difference to those children and their teachers.
But it should not have come to that. Projects like DonorsChoose were supposed to fund important and fun bonuses to public schooling. Like trips or new computers or cool advanced supplies (like a 3D printer) that might not be in a budget but would dramatically improve public education.
But more and more, necessities, like books, pencil sharpeners, and other basic educational necessities are showing up on DonorsChoose because they’re not getting funded. And while it can look like crowdfunding these supplies is an important stopgap measure to ensure that kids still have access to an education, it almost isn’t. Because we forget that these are public goods. Public structures. Public systems. And we’re supposed to fund them publicly. When our public education depends on the whims of private donors, we have a civic problem. That demands civic, common solutions.
In a recent Wired article, Crowdfunding for the Public Good is Evil, Peter Moskowitz unpacked the problem:
In a new study, Daren Brabham, an assistant professor and crowdsourcing consultant at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, compared the language used in the press to describe crowdfunding with the rhetoric of politicians who support cutting funding to “superfluous” programs in areas like the arts. He noticed a disconcerting amount of overlap: Both were chock-full of buzzwords like empowerment, bootstrapping, and efficiency. “If you want to cut funding to something,” Brabham says, “what better way is there than to point to a Kickstarter that made it and say, ‘If the people really want it, they’ll pay for it’?”
Hofman [, a public school teacher who has put basic school supplies on DonorsChoose six times recently] is already seeing this happen. “I hate the fact that I have to use DonorsChoose,” she says. “It gives administrations and politicians an easy way out. They don’t have to worry about giving their teachers what they need anymore, because other people will.”
The trend appears to be extending beyond bankrupt schools, if the sudden rise in funding platforms for once-public initiatives is any indication. On Ioby, a platform focused on public infrastructure, organizers have bankrolled recycling facilities and public art displays. At civic crowdfunding siteCitizinvestor, a large chunk of the proposals come from departments that have recently had their budgets slashed—as in Central Falls, Rhode Island, which needed to raise $10,000 to clean up a park.
The scope of these projects may seem limited now, but it won’t stay that way forever. Once we start privatizing what was once squarely public, governments will all too eagerly push those expenses off their ledgers. The effect snowballs, and crowdfunding becomes an excuse to leave more and more basic services up to the crowd.
[The whole article is great and you should read it.]
The bottom line? We should not be crowdfunding for basics. But it’s not hard to see why we are.
As we de-emphasize the importance of our public systems and structures, and the idea of the public good at all, our dedicated government employees are forced to direct appeals like DonorsChoose.org for basic supplies. And cities go to Citizinvestor to try to fund park cleanups that should be publicly funded when their budgets are cut. When we fail to invest in critical public services, people seek alternative funding, whether from nonprofits, private donors, or the crowd.
And when those needs are filled, it takes the pressure off politicians and government officials to solve the root problem: there isn’t enough room in the budget for necessary public services. We are not making the necessary strategic decisions and setting the right priorities to ensure that our public structures are built and maintained well into the future. And that has to change. And it will, if we imagine the government we want (one that adequately funds public structures) and do what is necessary to make that dream a reality.
Let’s make sure that at least the basic, and preferably more than just the basic, needs of our public structures and systems are met through public funds. DonorsChoose should just be for those special extras that made school amazing for us. When we make it about pencils and chalk, we all lose.