LSU Locker Room Gift Spurs GoFundMe for Library

Louisiana State University (LSU) recently received $28 million, raised privately, for its football locker rooms. Ginger Gibson Burk, an LSU alum and political reporter in Washington, DC, was happy that the football team got a new locker room but “it was a reminder that the library is in a state of disrepair and needs to be addressed,” said Burk. She started a GoFundMe campaign on her phone on her way to work to raise money to fix and update LSU’s Middleton Library.

exterior of LSU Middleton LibraryLouisiana State University (LSU) recently received $28 million, raised privately, for its football locker rooms. The gift has been controversial. Ginger Gibson Burk, an LSU alum and political reporter in Washington, DC, was happy that the football team got a new locker room but “it was a reminder that the library is in a state of disrepair and needs to be addressed. I thought, why not draw a little attention to an issue still continues to plague the university and put my money and other people’s money behind it?” said Burk. She started a GoFundMe campaign on her phone on her way to work to raise money to fix and update LSU’s Middleton Library.

The library is over 50 years old, Burk explained. “It’s got an incredible amount of structural problems, whether…leaks, age, antiquated stacks, old furniture, or stained carpet,” she said. “It’s in really bad shape. The university has just not been able to prioritize, or it has not risen to the top of the funding list.”

On the train, Burk had been searching GoFundMe to see if someone else had started a campaign. When she found that no one had, she started one herself. The campaign has so far raised over $6,000 of the $20 million needed. While only a drop in the bucket, that’s many times what Burk anticipated. “I thought it would raise $1,000. When I started, I posted it on Facebook and a few alumni groups that I belong to. It took off from there,” Burk explained. “I didn’t call news outlets or ask anyone else to push it. I think it’s evidence that I wasn’t alone on this issue.” Many gifts have come in amounts of five or ten dollars.

Sara Whittaker, assistant vice president of communications and marketing at the LSU Foundation, explains that most donors give restricted funds so the university cannot allocate them however it wishes; it has an ethical and legal obligation to fulfill donor intent. Whittaker explained that to rebuild or renovate Middleton Library would require lead donors, who can provide multimillion dollar gifts, to contribute to a massive campaign specific to the library. In March, LSU announced a $1.5 billion campaign that includes initiatives identified for the libraries, though not their physical plant, including the Digital Scholarship Research Award and Collections Endowment programs.

In the meantime, early into the GoFundMe campaign, LSU reached out to Burk to make sure it honored her intent and the donors. “Libraries have identified funds to address immediate needs,” said Whittaker, and worked with Burk to have the funds raised through the GoFundMe go toward those needs.

Said Burk, “I’m pleased that they are listening. That’s what this was about. It was about sending a message that alumni are paying attention.... [LSU] still couldn’t give us what they wanted, but they were listening.”

Burk is one of many to turn to crowdsourcing to make a difference: GoFundMe notes that it has over 50 million donors who have helped raise over $5 billion so far, though not all of GoFundMe’s campaigns are tax deductible and one third are for medical bills, according to Forbes. Facebook reported in November 2018 that Facebook Fundraisers, another popular crowdfunding platform, raised $1 billion in the first three years.

The rise of crowdfunding’s popularity, of course, has a lot to do with the ease of using the technology. “It doesn’t take much. It takes an iPhone and a cell signal on a train and you can start sending that message to officials that you care,” said Burk.

But simplicity is not crowdfunding’s only appeal. John Taylor, principal at John H. Taylor Consulting, said that the popularity of crowdfunding is also the result of changing donor priorities. Back in the 1980s and ’90s, donors regularly gave unrestricted gifts, but that has changed. Younger donors are “making gifts to specific priorities, and crowdfunding takes advantage of that,” he explained.

Still, crowdfunding isn’t an unmitigated blessing for nonprofits; some platforms collect fees that reduce the amount given, and data collection is another challenge; some provide little or no information to nonprofits about donors, hindering the ability of nonprofits to build relationships with these donors for the future. Whittaker points out that the Foundation will likely just receive a lump sum in a check, instead of getting data from the individual donors themselves.

But with all its limitations, the crowdfunding campaign means that alumni and friends of LSU are getting energized to rally behind the library—and the media coverage associated with it could up the chances of finding the lead donor needed.

Burk concludes that, while she wishes she had the multi-millions to donate to a new library, “It doesn’t mean we can’t mobilize, we can’t organize, or we can’t send a message that this is something we care about.”

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