Alvaro Salas earned a full-ride scholarship to Cornell University’s Masters in Public Administration program. To do that, he raised support from 657 people using a sophisticated email, Internet and event campaign in his home country of Costa Rica.
Salas is an ambitious, 27-year-old with his wife, Carla, and daughter, Valentina, from Costa Rica. He wants to make a difference in his home country of 4.5 million people. He already has a law degree and an MBA from Costa Rican universities and wanted to round out his education with an MPA from a top school in the United States.
“I believe that education is the best weapon to move through the social ladder,” Salas said, during a recent phone interview from Ithaca, NY. “If you want to implement change and reform, you need to be educated.”
He was accepted to programs at Columbia University, Carnegie Mellon University and Georgetown University. But Cornell offered him the best funding, covering 70% of tuition. Funding the last 30% of tuition and his living costs still proved a major obstacle to Salas and his goal of attending Cornell.
He turned to crowd-funding web site, Rally.org, to raise $100,000 to cover living costs, books and the gap in tuition costs. He opened a campaign or “cause” on the Rally page titled, the “Alvaro Salas’ Education Funding for a Peaceful Central America” and with a clever logo pitting a book and a heart sign being > than a gun symbol.
Salas presented his campaign as a chance for donors to fund a person who aims to work for Costa Rica and improve the country, region and people there. While GDP was a respectable 4% in 2010 and 2011, the country has an economy lopsided toward the tourism and services sector and a weak security force (no military) and with growing problems of crime and drug-trafficking, particularly in the capital city of San Jose.
“The Central American region is in a dire situation and needs visionary leaders with integrity, strong commitment, and pure passion,” he wrote. “It’s my dream to become that kind of leader, and for that I need the best education.”
Rally.org is a well-funded Internet startup that rivals Kickstarter and others in the crowd-funding space such as Social Teeth, Lucky Ant and Solar Mosaic. While Kickstarter typically focuses on funding artisanal products by designers and artists designing a new watch, starting a new magazine or making a new album, Rally makes more money funding political races, non-profit causes and other events worthy of a “rally.”
For example, political action committees and Super-PACs can make donations on Rally.org to candidates and the site makes a fee by processing such donations. Although the company is non-partisan, Mitt Romney used Rally.com to process all of its Internet donations (Obama’s campaign has its own proprietary system).
“Education and healthcare are definitely interesting for us,” says Nick Warshaw, a spokesman with Rally. “There is an interest in expanding those two verticals, expanding into the PTA market and school clubs. Once a school club starts, the platform helps grow itself. We think schools are a really good vehicle for that kind of growth.”
Rally.org CEO and co-founder Tom Serres met Salas and, later, told Salas he should crowd-fund his education. Serres says education is a major focus of the organization now. “Education related causes is a major focus for Rally.org,” Serres wrote in an email to WiredAcademic. “Recently, we had a young student in South Carolina, Derris, raise $400 for his school supplies because he did not want to burden his mother with the costs.”
Rally staff say there are several education “Rallies” in addition to Alvaro’s among the 20,000 Rallies and 3 million users of the site. Some charter schools are trying to fund on the platform. A school robotics team in Omaha is trying to fund a robotics program at their school. A southern California school is trying to raise money to start Shark Radio, a radio station at their middle school. But “Alvaro has raised the most money” and shown how someone can use the platform for funding an education-related cause.
Warshaw offers the following tips to people raising money for a cause on Rally.org:
1) Telling Your Story With Photos. “It’s really about communicating your story in a compelling fashion. How you do that in the modern Internet is multi-media packaging. Photos tend to do better than other pieces of content. Photos with good captions tend to do more than even a video or a long text post.”
2) Acquire Email Addresses. “People assume they set up a donation form and page and think money will magically arrive. You should try to acquire email addresses. It’s still king. Facebook and Twitter are great but are not conversion tools. Emailing people is better.”
3) Keep Your Text Content Short. “Limit the size of your text and what you write tends to be much better. People sometimes want to write long paragraphs and people end up not reading it. We’ve limited how long people can write.”
Salas also demonstrated that causes should use a mix of online and email marketing along with in-person events. He held rock concerts and reggae concerts and dinner parties as fund-raisers during the two months he raised money for his education. He gave speeches to many church and civic groups in Costa Rica and met with many business people to raise donations. He ended up with 657 supporters and meeting his initial fundraising goal (he has a bit more funding to raise for the coming year).
But a larger phenomenon happened from his campaign. Some are considering creating a scholarship for others in Salas’ name. “It’s like a domino effect.”
Some business leaders in Costa Rica now want to fund 5 Costa Ricans per year to study abroad. “They saw the flaw in the system to study abroad,” he said. “A lot of people get accepted to some of the best universities in the world but have to turn it down because they don’t have the money. The business sector realizes that if we don’t create human capital, the business sector will be affected.”
Salas said he is working hard to receive top grades to set a good example for future scholarship programs for Costa Ricans. He’s also keeping careful accounting of his expenses and use of funds, having those audited independently and then sending the reports back to his donors to demonstrate the kind of transparency he believes government leaders should use in Costa Rica.
Salas’ goal is to return to Costa Rica and get involved in movements and causes to make the country better, whether politics, business or non-profits. He believes some lawmakers are not doing their job. Job growth tends to be low-wage jobs and other economic growth he thinks has stalled.
“I am trying to support the new generations to get involved with these processes and to start from bottom to the top to involve transparency, accountability and involvement,” he says. He wants the country to conquer its problems of organized crime and to create more jobs, tech clusters and foreign direct investment. “How can we make a step forward?” he asks.
At Cornell, Salas became student body president of his class of graduate students in public administration this semester. “I was the first Latino elected as president of the program,” he says.
He now uses Rally.org to raise funds for conferences the school is sponsoring and other causes. He’s also plans to use it for other causes in Costa Rica. In a way, it has become his platform for future projects in politics or other arenas if he wants.