Discover Scholars – taking online education fundraising to a more personal level?

I just came across Discover Scholars when I was taking a look at the finalists in this year’s Open Web Awards, where they have been shortlisted in the Non-profit Causes category.

They’re an interesting non-profit organisation that awards scholarships to students across the US – but with all their funding coming from individual donors who use the Discover Scholars website to select the type of student they want to help with their education.

Donors can specify any combination of student characteristics, from home state or region and past academic achievement to what major the student wishes to take and their career interests. The student’s level of financial need is also assessed.  Then the organisation aims to match the donor with a student from the list of those who have applied for funding (see the video above for more information).

This transparent funding approach is very much in-line with the growing demand from donors for more understanding of exactly how their money is being used and the desire to feel closer to what they’re funding. Recognition of which has led to a growing range of nonprofits – like Global Giving and Donors Choose – using the web to let donors select the specific project they want to fund.

However, the difference here is the framing of the offer to the donor – introduced on the homepage with the line… “Wish there were a scholarship foundation that supported the students you would choose to support yourself? With Discover, now there is…” – which is very much focused on the individual being funded rather than a class of students or a study-related project,

The only other organisation I can think of that takes the funding transparency down to the individual level is micro-investment organisation Kiva. But Kiva and Discover Scholars are very different in the way they actually offer donor choice.

While Kiva really does link supporters directly with individual businesspeople, with Discover Scholars the donor actually only gets to specify the type of individual student they would like to support and the final selection is made by the organisation. According to the Discover Scholars FAQs, their original intention was to operate like a ‘’ for  education fundraising, but this wasn’t possible due to IRS rulings on tax-exempt donations. So, what we’re left with is a ‘semi-personal’ donor choice – which seems to me an unfortunate imposed compromise that doesn’t really deliver on the personal funding opportunity suggested on the homepage.

The organisation currently seems to be in start-up phase, as there are no details as far as I could see about the number of donors nor the number of students who have applied for funding. From the amount of detailed background available on the site the need for such funding has clearly been very well thought through by its founders. However, I fear that this could be a case of a great personalised core donor proposition being significantly weakened because of the need to change the way it is implemented and that this will seriously impact their ability to attract significant volumes of donors in the way other online fundraising startups have. Here’s hoping I’m wrong.

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