Non-profit uses crowdfunding to launch a preschool

May 13, 2014

(Photo courtesy of VOCEL)
VOCEL could be the first to use crowdfunding to launch a preschool.

One Chicago non-profit could become the first of its kind to use crowdfunding to open a preschool.

In Chicago’s Austin neighborhood, two educators are renting a couple of classrooms at the Chicago Jesuit Academy. So far, they’ve got little chairs pushed under short tables and pieces of furniture waiting to be assembled.

“We expect to see just children coming in and being joyful, being children in this space. Lots of conversation, lots of talking and sharing,” said Jesse Ilhardt, director of education for VOCEL.

Ilhardt said by the time a child living in poverty reaches age four, they’ve heard 30 million fewer words than their higher income counterparts.

That’s why Ilhardt and Executive Director Kelly Lambrinatos founded VOCEL, a small education non-profit that focuses on early language development for children from under resourced communities. Ilhardt said they hope to enroll 17 kids between ages 3 and 5 from lower income neighborhoods.

“Our approach is rooted in the idea that children need the sophisticated language skills to be able to solve social problems and learn when they get to formal schooling. And so our program is all about language, language at all times, conversation. Our teachers are considered intentional language builders,” she said.

Kelly Lambrinatos said what started as an idea nearly two years ago is more than 65 percent of the way to being funded for launch. They plan to open their doors in September, and Lambrinatos wants to collect their first year budget of $250,000 by then.

They’ll have access to public funds, but won’t have the metrics to back up their program until after the first year. So for now, they’re turning to crowdfunding on the website Crowdtilt. The mode itself is not unique to startups, but the approach hasn’t yet been used to launch a school.

Crowdfunding websites like Kickstarter have been around for just a few years. But they’re becoming a popular way for entrepreneurs to get cash to launch a startup or for charities to raise money for social causes.

“We saw the power of a lot of other crowdfunding campaigns. Have kind of been exposed to the world of kickstarter. So for-profits using Kickstarter as a means to fundraise for different products they want to launch and we just thought, ‘why couldn’t we do it for a preschool? Why couldn’t we be the first crowdfunding preschool here in Chicago,” Lambrinatos said.

VOCEL has raised more than $70,000 with just a day to go. If they hit their $75,000 target, crowdfunding will make up 30 percent of their budget.

According to Clarity, a marketplace for business advice, the crowdfunding industry has more than tripled from 2011 to 2013. Last year, more than $5 billion was raised. Fundraising for social causes were among the top campaigns.

Liz Howard is with the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. She said the campaign could be a standard for future school launches.

She said before these digital fundraisers, getting money to start something like a school meant making a pitch to parents and neighbors of the surrounding community. There was a personal connection with that project.

“This particular online initiative enables you to spread the word farther and gain donors and stakeholders from a broader, more diverse geographic area,” Howard explained.

But she said the potential for donor fatigue could be greater.

“If you are a part of the social network of one of the original founders and you may live a thousand miles away, you aren’t as connected as the people who are seeing it and living it every day,” she said.

That’s why Lambrinatos sees crowdfunding as a temporary source for VOCEL.

“It takes a lot of money to get this off the ground because there isn’t public money in terms of starting a non-profit preschool but over time those public revenues will come in through the city, state and federal grants that are available once we’re no longer in that startup phase,” she said.

Lambrinatos hopes private donors will only make up 10 percent of their funds by year four when VOCEL plans to expand to six classrooms and include infants and toddlers in their enrollment.

Susie An is a business reporter for WBEZ. Follow her @soosieon.