The Big Idea

Visit the Middstart website at go/middstart.

It’s a well-known fact: Middlebury students come up with loads of inventive ideas. And if those ideas could gain traction, imagine how the world might change. But finding funding for student projects has been difficult.

“Students were coming in with ideas for projects, innovations, and companies they wanted to start, and we needed to find the resources to help them get their ideas off the ground,” says Liz Robinson, director of the Project on Creativity and Innovation in the Liberal Arts.

To that end, Middlebury has launched MiddSTART—a unique fund-raising tool that links students with the individuals who sign on as benefactors of their projects. “It’s the first of its kind in higher ed,” says Maggie Paine, director of advancement communications, who helped conceive the concept loosely inspired by fund-raising sites Kiva and Kickstarter.

Although it was launched just this spring, MiddSTART is proving to be very successful. Its driving force is its ability to link so many different people around a common goal.

Ansally Kuria ’12 was one of the first students to bring her project to fruition through MiddSTART. She had been trying for months to fund Let Children Be Children, aimed at mitigating the effects of sexual violence against women and children in Nairobi. Among other things, she wanted to paint, decorate, and buy play-therapy materials for children’s counseling rooms in the Gender Violence Recovery Center at Nairobi Women’s and Children’s Hospital. She had applied for a number of grants, with little success.

In May, Kuria’s project—with the fund-raising goal, deadline, and background information—was posted on the MiddSTART website. In just 12 days, it was fully funded.  By the time Kuria left campus for the summer, her project had 76 donors, giving 127 percent of the $2,000 requested. Many of them had posted messages on the site, and she had responded.

Kuria used MiddSTART as the “powerful networking tool it was designed to be,” says Molly Sullivan, assistant director of annual giving, who advises students on how to use media and social networking on MiddSTART. She linked her project to Facebook, e-mailed everyone she could think of, and networked actively. A number of those who contributed to her project turned out to be “friends of friends,” who had been forwarded her MiddSTART link.

Another early, successful MiddSTART venture is the Team Kohn Scholarship, established by Bobo Sideli ’77 along with lacrosse alumni, in honor of Pete Kohn. Its success was “all due to networking,” says Paine. Ten thousand dollars—the minimum amount needed for a MiddSTART scholarship—was raised and exceeded by almost 66 percent before the deadline, with 101 donors. “People just wanted to honor Pete Kohn, and they contacted one another,” says Paine.

Happily, a number of the donors to MiddSTART are also new donors to Middlebury. That’s because, according to Paine and Sullivan, this new form of fund-raising, known as microphilanthropy, connects people directly to their passions and allows small donors to see that their gift matters. They can follow the project’s progress online and see the names of the other donors on a list that displays the names in colorful blocks, like a digital patio of engraved bricks.

As experience with MiddSTART progresses, the power unleashed through collective action and combined resources will become ever more apparent. Now that she has ample funding, Kuria hopes she has enough money to paint the children’s wards, also. “With students from high schools doing the painting,” she says, “we might just be able to.”

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