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March 5, 2015

Crowdfunding platform provides new option for donors

The rise of such sites as Kickstarter, Indiegogo, GoFundMe and has prompted the University to launch its own EngagePitt crowdfunding platform to connect faculty, staff and student projects with donors.

EngagePitt ( kicked off with a handful of pilot projects in December that have helped fund new equipment for the Pitt Rowing Club, a Black Action Society speakers panel, a Graduate School of Public Health Global Health Brigade service trip to Honduras and Society for Women Engineers outreach events.

A Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI) EngagePitt campaign to equip ambulances with apps for earlier detection and faster treatment of sepsis ended at midnight last night, March 4, garnering support toward the goal of equipping a half-dozen EMS trucks with wireless devices and connections as part of CTSI researchers’ ThinkSepsis pilot project.

Currently featured on EngagePitt are opportunities to help send Panther Racing’s open-wheel racecar to the Formula Student Germany competition; to support the Pitt Men’s Glee Club’s 125th anniversary tour and recording, and to fund the Pitt Science Outreach Club’s summer science camp and the School of Medicine’s annual Scope and Scalpel musical.

Danielle Atkins, an annual programs associate in the Office of Institutional Advancement who coordinates the EngagePitt site, said applications are being accepted and additional faculty and student-led projects will launch soon. Projects are presented on a rolling basis with approximately six active projects and three-six completed projects featured on the page at a time.

Unlike outside crowdfunding sites, EngagePitt is a free tool for users: there are no fees or credit-card processing charges, which can add up to as much as 3-10 percent on some sites, Atkins said.

Nor are there all-or-nothing provisions. Even if the financial goal isn’t met, donations still go toward the project and are tax-deductible gifts to the University, she said.

Donors still may receive perks for various levels of giving, but Atkins said that Pitt project organizers are encouraged to offer intangible thank-yous, such as a shout-out on social media or an experiential event for top donors, rather than costly swag. “We don’t want them to raise $1,000 but spend $500 for T-shirts,” she said.

Groups seeking to use EngagePitt must apply and be approved by a University-wide “engagement team” that determines whether crowdfunding is the right approach for their project, Atkins said. Still, no one really gets rejected, she said. “We just find a different avenue for funding or have the group strengthen their application and try again.”

While Atkins is there to offer training and assistance, each group is expected to lead the way in managing its fundraiser  — promoting it on their own social media channels and within their own networks.

“You need people willing to put time and effort into the project,” she said, adding that the first week or two of the fundraiser are important. Identifying lead donors who will commit gifts early on helps set the project up for success, she said. It’s advisable to raise 10-20 percent of the goal prior to launching the crowdfunding effort. “People like to support success,” she said.

Crowdfunding works well as a secondary source of fundraising — raising $5,000 of a $20,000 project, for example — she said.

Atkins said that IA still is developing guidelines for the ideal size of EngagePitt projects. Pilot projects were kept under $5,000 “because we didn’t know what this tool was capable of,” but with a connected, tightknit group of supporters, some campaigns have exceeded that figure, she said.

Student groups’ projects often are a natural match, but even researchers, who typically are looking for funding in the six-seven figures, can find a niche. For example, the ThinkSepsis project requested support for a specific, tangible segment of its research: outfitting EMS trucks with the necessary wireless devices and apps.

Lynn Shea, IA communications and marketing manager, added that setting reachable goals is important. “We want to demonstrate value to the supporters: You gave. You made it happen. Here’s the result,” she said.

“We’ve proven pretty quickly that younger alumni and young donors really get this,” Shea said.

The University found that the pilot projects motivated a lot of first-time donors, Atkins said, adding that this method of fundraising is helping current students see broader opportunities for philanthropy at Pitt. Beyond donating to the University or a department, a Pitt crew team member can decide to support crew after graduation, or a bioengineering student may want to support a STEM-oriented project.

Another plus: “Even a moderate gift makes a huge impact” on these projects. “It’s a way for (students) to start thinking about themselves as philanthropists.”

The digital platform isn’t just for millennials, she added. “It resonates with all ages,” she said, noting that older generations also enjoy being able to follow student groups online and see what’s happening on campus.

Guidelines and an application form are posted at

—Kimberly K. Barlow