The Download: D.C. upstart Edbacker aims to bring crowdfunding to the classroom


Gary Hensley of Edbacker presents at the Challenge Cup at 1776. Edbacker helps schools use crowdfunding to raise money. ( Jeffrey MacMillan / For The Washington Post )
November 10, 2013

Crowdfunding, meet the classroom.

District-based upstart Edbacker aims to bring the burgeoning practice of crowdfunding to K-12 education by allowing teachers and school administrators to raise money for equipment, field trips and school projects via the Web.

Founder Gary Hensley said the idea came to him after his daughter’s school held a fundraiser to build a new track. Though the students sold $35,000 worth of gift wrap, candy and other products, only about $13,000 actually made its way into the school coffers, Hensley said.

“This is just so ridiculous that this much effort went into it and most of the money was given to the [fundraising] company and not to the school,” he said.

Three D.C. charter schools are slated to launch crowdfunding campaigns on the Web site Monday after meeting with the company’s founders earlier this year to learn about the site:

Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools wants to fund a trip to New Orleans to learn about the city’s ongoing efforts to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina. It is seeking $35,000.

E.L. Haynes aims to raise $X,XXX for a general fund that will support efforts to prepare students for advanced education or the workforce.

Howard University Middle School intends to collect $5,000 for a printing station for its students.

Washington YuYing Public Charter School, a Chinese language immersion charter, aims to raise $5,500 for a fifth-grade trip to China.

This the second entrepreneurial venture for Hensley, a former high school administrator. He sold his prior company, Intagrade, which identified students likely to drop out of school, to Pearson Education in 2009.

Edbacker isn’t alone. Founded in 2003, DonorsChoose.org has raised more than $200 million to date for more than 160,000 teachers, according to its Web site.

Hensley said Edbacker differs in that rather than sending donors a simple thank you, schools are encouraged to create some kind of reward for those who give money. One teacher, for example, gave away personalized artwork created on her iPad.

The average donation to an Edbacker project is $90, Hensley said. In the seven months since the company got started, 28 schools have posted campaigns on the site.

“Schools have reached a point where they have to examine new ways to raise money as a school if they want to provide a quality education,” Hensley said.

“Having been in the system, you can never be sure how much funding you’re going to get. When you don’t have those programs or you don’t have that budget, then you have to find creative solutions for that,” he added.

Surprise Ride walks the plank

It all began with bored nephews.

Sisters Donna and Rosy Khalife were looking for ways to entertain their young relatives when a business idea hit them: Parents of young children might pay to receive a box each month that contains an activity designed to “spark their curiosity about the world and their creativity.”

Now the pair will bring Surprise Ride , the District-based company they started in May, to your living room when they compete on “Shark Tank” this Friday at 9 p.m. The ABC show gives entrepreneurs a chance to pitch their ideas to deep-pocketed investors who might cut a life-changing check.

“It’s been a long process filled with a lot of hard work and uncertainty, I would say, and every step of the way your expectations are constantly managed,” said Donna Khalife, 29, a Harvard Business School graduate.

“Surprisingly, once you’re in front of those sharks, it feels like a real investor meeting,” she added. “You forget that there’s cameras rolling and everything you say is being recorded.”

The Khalife sisters were selected among thousands of applicants to fly to Los Angeles to tape an episode of the show. Though they already know the outcome, the sisters can’t reveal any spoilers until Friday night.

“Now with this air date, we’re kind of prepping in a different way, getting ready to expect people to come to our Web site and a surge in orders,” said Rosy Khalife, 22.

Surprise Ride counts 250 monthly subscribers to date. A monthly subscription costs $29.99, including shipping. Rates are also available for three-, six- and 12-month subscribers.

Last month’s photography-themed box included a book on photography, a disposable camera and scavenger hunt, a picture frame to decorate and a cyanotype photography kit.

A growing number of companies with a similar business model are cropping up, offering monthly subscriptions for boxes stuffed with cosmetics, dog supplies, handicrafts, men’s apparel and other items.

Steven Overly covers the business of technology, biotechnology and venture capital in the Washington region for The Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication. In that capacity, he has written about start-up struggles, investment trends and major drug discoveries.
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