Feb 9, 2011
How much did your elementary education cost? The clever folks at Building Tomorrow have found a great way to use that simple question to drive an innovative campaign that connects the costs of a primary school education in the United States to the work they do building schools in Uganda.
I first learned about the campaign through a friend's Tweet, and followed the link thinking that I would learn just how ridiculously expensive education is in our country, and maybe be encouraged to donate money towards schools that need help in the United States. Much to my surprise, after answering two easy questions, I was brought to this page:
Inspired by their simple-yet-effective calculator app, I called up Maggie Kirkpatrick, Assistant Director at Building Tomorrow, to learn more about it.
Founded in 2005, Building Tomorrow is a surprisingly small organization, consisting of only three people (yes, you read correctly). In spite of their small size, they have helped build seven schools in Uganda, and are in the process of building another three. All of their schools are, ultimately, public government schools. Building Tomorrow provides the infrastructure for the schools, and partners with local ministries of education who provide the teachers. The idea is, once Building Tomorrow leaves the area, the schools can still function at full speed. The schools are all primary, P1-P7 (equivalent to our elementary schools) and can host up to 325 kids per school. They focus mainly in rural Uganda, because, well, it's where they have personal contacts and the rural areas are where the highest population of kids reside, with the least amount of access to schools.
Campaign Messaging and Strategy
I asked Maggie if they had implemented any specific kind of outreach campaign for the calculator, or if most of the publicity had happened organically. She said it was a combination: the outreach team consists of only 2 people. They spent a significant amount of time emailing blogs and news outlets, doing research to find out who might be interested in promotion, and doing their best to email people they thought might be willing to help. But, for the most part, it has spread organically via social networks.
The messaging, as Maggie put it, was "very deliberate. The only way people are going to buy in is if we don't spam them with messaging," and I argue it's the messaging that made this campaign successful. It's the reason I clicked on the link and followed through. Maggie made another point I thought was interesting: this campaign messaging won't ever be out of date. It's always relevant, it's always going to be interesting to see how expensive your education was and how you might be able to contribute to someone else's.
The key contributors to this campaign are young people in the United States. High school and college kids take the brunt of the workload in spreading the word and fundraising. Building Tomorrow takes the money they have raised and creates "challenge grants" in Uganda, proposing to local communities that the organization will fund the school if the community puts in the legwork. What results is a community effort to literally lay the brick for their schools, while the bricks are provided by Building Tomorrow. Schools are built by family members - grandmothers, fathers, sisters - and local community members.
Building Tomorrow currently has over 20 college chapters, all working to fundraise for schools in rural Uganda. In addition, they have a partnership with Key Club International. 100% of the money raised goes directly towards construction of the schools, and as Maggie said, "We work hard to make that a commitment."
Finally, they have donors and do some grant writing that helps fund operating cost for the organization, but my guess is the operating cost is low given they are currently only a three-person company.
Tools and Technology
Clearly there is a technical aspect to this campaign in addition to the deliberate online strategy. Some resources that Building Tomorrow used included working with sparked.com to get tips on how to build an accurate calculator. The technology behind the calculator is relatively simple, and uses data from the National Center for Education. The calculator uses no more than some basic html and a "digital excel spreadsheet." I wonder about the sustainability of such a simple system. The calculateit.org app itself is built on software provided by Exact Target, who also help with email campaign management, and hosts microsites and landing pages.
The calculator has been loaded just about 2,000 times since it launched 2 weeks ago. Most donations are coming from first-time visitors to the site.
When I first clicked through to the Building Tomorrow website, it’s because, to put it simply, I was intrigued. To me, this was already a successful campaign having fit a few basic criteria:
At the end of the day, it's not a campaign that has been earth-shattering in terms of numbers - it's not seeing 100,000 or even 10,000 views every day. But right now, a small 3-person organization that has existed for 6 years has funded the construction of 7 schools in rural Uganda that host a total of 2,275+ children. I think that’s pretty amazing.