September 10, 2003
Funding Dreams, A Dollar at a Time

Means for Dreams is an incredibly exciting new service supporting public education in Washington, DC. It allows teachers in the school system to propose small projects that they’d like to launch, along with an amount of money they’d need to get the project off the ground. The site then collects contributions from individuals and organizations, and when the target amount is reached, the aggregated contributions are released to the teacher. They also provide donors with documentation of their contribution, so they can claim it as a deduction on their taxes. The whole project is funded by grants from foundations, so 100% of all contributions goes to the projects they are earmarked for.

Here’s a few of the projects that Means for Dreams has funded so far:

  • Examining Violence: A teacher in Ward 1 raised $552 to purchase 50 copies of “Fist Stick Knife Gun”, a book examining what happens to children who grow up in a culture of violence, for his/her students; previously they had to limit themselves to a brief excerpt
  • Interdisciplinary unit on Egyptian culture and history: A teacher in poverty-stricken Ward 8 raised $267 to buy books and magazines for a special unit on Egyptian history, which is critical since the school system will not buy social studies materials other than a standard textbook
  • Looking Beyond D.C.: A teacher in Ward 5 raised $184 to buy an electronic globe that gives details about life in other countries of the world, which can open the eyes of students who have never been outside their own neighborhood in their lives

Means for Dreams calls this kind of site a “philanthropic exchange”, which I think is an excellent term for this kind of mini-market in social improvement. It’s an inspiring example of the anthill philosophy — if we each take a little, we can collectively do a lot — in action in my community.

That’s not to say that it’s perfect, though; there are a couple of things Means for Dreams could do better:

  • Put faces to projects. Right now the projects don’t display the name of the teacher who’s proposing them. This reduces the feeling of connection to another human being that donors get and therefore reduces the incentive to donate. A name and a picture would go a long way towards solving that.
  • Build in accountability. Means for Dreams does not seem to have any inherent accountability mechanism. How do I know that my money is going to what I was told it was going for? What’s more, not all teachers are alike — some are more resourceful than others, and I’d naturally want to help those who could do the most with my money, but there’s no way to distinguish one from the other. This is, in my opinion, a mistake since it obviates one of the biggest opportunities of these types of exchanges — the opportunity to reward people who get results. What they ought to do is let donors — and only donors — follow-up off line and rate how satisfied they are with how their money was put to use, and then give more prominent placement to new proposals from teachers whose past proposals have been rated highly. In this way you could help over time draw lots of resources to a corps of star teachers, rather than forcing those teachers to start from square one with each new proposal.

These are minor quibbles, though — Means for Dreams is a great idea and a big step in the right direction. A big thumbs-up goes out from me to MoD and its sponsors, including the AOL-Time Warner Foundation and Volvo Group North America.

Posted by Jason Lefkowitz at September 10, 2003

Thanks so much for your good words about MeansForDreams. Our website went live in November 2002 and we are still going: $33,000+ contributed by individuals to fund over 100 teacher proposals! We're also still learning and we appreciate reactions and suggestions; although since we all do this as volunteers in addition to full-time jobs, we can be slow in responding.
So please be patient and please, please help us promote the site!
Mary McCain
Founder and President

Posted by: Mary McCain on May 18, 2004 8:19 AM
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