Faced with tight school budgets, Brooklyn parents and educators turn to GoFundMe for support

teacher in classroom GoFundMe
Trevor O’Loughlin, a teacher at Excel Upper Middle School in Canarsie, is one of dozens of educators using GoFundMe to raise money for school programs.
Photo by Megan McGibney

As the new school year approached at Williamsburg Charter High School in East Williamsburg, Academy Leader, Angie Helliger, began thinking of ways to make the school’s second back-to-school giveaway bigger than last year’s. 

With some families at the school coming from shelters and other displaced homes, Helliger had arranged for a fundraiser where book bags, notebooks, pens, rulers, and other supplies would be purchased and given out. 

Last year’s event was a success, and this year, she wanted the fundraiser to be better. A former coworker sponsored the fundraiser by donating about $1,400, and WCS set up a GoFundMe page that raised an additional $550.

teacher with students GoFundMe
Angie Hellinger (center) turned to GoFundMe to boost an annual fundraiser for backpacks and school supplies. Photo by Megan McGibney

Some of the donors were people Helliger had known over the years, while others came from outside Brooklyn. Although Helliger said that her school has little trouble getting sponsors, raising money on GoFundMe is also helpful.

“GoFundMe is just easier to get outreach,” Helliger says. “[It] makes it easier to spread the word and spread what we’re doing, and get people to donate or to send things or to be a part of it. We’re hoping that once we do more community outreach, we’ll be using GoFundMe more often because it helps us get a good amount of money.”

Helliger and WCS are not the educators in Brooklyn turning to the online crowdsourcing site to raise money for their schools and students. This year, 11 teachers, families, and schools across the borough turned to GoFundMe to raise money for essential school programs like art classes and after-school courses. 

Schools use GoFundMe to raise funds for for supplies, programs

The use of GoFundMe in schools has been growing over the years, and tens of thousands of people launch fundraisers on the platform for their school supplies and programs. According to the United Federation of Teachers, the average New York City public school teacher spends $500 a year on school supplies; a portion of that money is reimbursed. Nationwide, teachers spend between $500 and $750 on supplies, despite low salaries in some areas.

The use of GoFundMe in the education sector has become so common that the platform created a centralized hub for such fundraisers back in August. Users can also donate to the platform’s Education Fund, which distributes the money among its verified fundraisers. 

“Budgets so often can be a little bit tight for these teachers,” said Leigh Lehman, GoFundMe’s Director of Communications. “So it’s great to see the community support them and show up year after year.”

Trevor O’Loughlin, a music teacher at Excel Upper Middle School in Canarsie, has turned to GoFundMe to raise money for percussion instruments for an afterschool music program he is working to launch. Funds for art programs in schools are decreasing, he explained.

“Art teachers of all sections, music, dance, visual arts, and also the students prove the resilience of the subject,” O’Loughlin said. “People want to have music in schools. Students want it. Artists want it. The community wants it.”

O’Loughlin is working to purchase snare drums, tom drums, a marimba drum, and sheet music. He said percussion instruments last for years, which would help his afterschool program to last a long time. As of Sept 18, $1,750 of O’Loughlin’s $2,000 goal has been raised, and he said he does not know some of the donors.

“People I have never even talked to, never met, went and donated to the GoFundMe,” he said. “Because they could see that it was for Brooklyn students, supporting them for music education and they just wanted to do that.”

Educators are not the only ones making use of GoFundMe. At Bed-Stuy’s P.S./I.S. 137 the PTA is using the platform to set up an after-school program, run by the Aster Initiative, for many of the school’s parents who need after care. 

According to PTA treasurer Stephanie Unwin-Kuruneri, many parents of the Title 1 school are not able to afford the program themselves, and the school’s budget cannot cover the needed funds. Although the PTA has applied for a few grants, Unwin-Kuruneri believes GoFundMe is the fastest way to get the $100,000 they need. 

“I think it’s accessible,” she said. “You don’t have to be a computer whiz to be able to create a website to start it up. I also personally donated to teachers’ funds, especially during the pandemic. Budgeting is a nightmare citywide. Even just looking at the grants that are available from the [Department of Education], just logging in is really difficult.”

students at p.s 137
The PTA at P.S. 137 is working to raise money for an after-school program for parents who cannot afford it. Photo courtesy of P.S. 137/Instagram

Lehman said GoFundMe is no longer just for individual teachers, but for entire schools. The conversation over teachers spending their own money, she says, has evolved to include wider school communities.

“Some of the burden no longer has to be immediately felt by the teachers in the schools,” Lehman explains. “We also have seen more of the schools involved because of the space GoFundMe has allowed for people to join in, in a way they weren’t necessarily able to before. I think this now allows for more people to join in your community. Not just your immediate neighbors but now perhaps aunts and uncles that are living in other states…and now they’re perhaps contributing five or ten dollars to those schools in support.”

Educators say city and state gov should provide more support

Although Helliger would like to see GoFundMe’s Education Hub continue to help Brooklyn schools, she still wants to see leaders at City Hall and in Albany do more for education so schools no longer have to rely on fundraising to fill the gap.

“The state can do so much more,” she said. “But that’s such a big conversation that having something like GoFundMe is like giving us a little bit of hope that we’re able to reach more people without having to go and do the even bigger work. At least having that platform has definitely helped with raising money for these communities and these families.”

Kaliris Salas-Ramirez, an education advocate and member of the Panel for Educational Policy, said it’s not surprising to see many turn to crowdfunding after significant budget cuts have left schools with tight budgets. She thinks the pandemic has brought a newfound respect for teachers and school communities.

However, she does not believe crowdfunding is the future.

“While I hope that doesn’t become the norm,” Salas-Ramirez says. “I think people are going to take advantage of having that for sure. At the end of the day, the people who are going to be able to crowdsource are folks who have access to the Internet, understand English, know how to elevate it on social media, and have time for that. That’s not the majority of our schools.”

Unwin-Kuruneri agrees. 

Ideally the city and state budgets should be doing this top-down process, but so much red tape is there that if we all waited for everything to clear, the ship would sail for too many kids and teachers,” she said.

As for O’Loughlin, he is excited to see donations come in for his fundraiser. To him, platforms like GoFundMe are the way to bring such programs to under-resourced schools. 

While many schools in affluent ZIP codes have the privilege of major donors and benefactors,” he says. “The vast majority of schools don’t have that available to them. Crowdsourcing changes that by democratizing the funding and gives schools the opportunity to have comprehensive arts classes. While I believe that the city should invest in arts education, I’m not going to sit by and let my music program go unfunded. That’s where crowdsourcing comes in.”