- Associated Press - Saturday, November 22, 2014

COLLEGE PARK, Md. (AP) - What do beekeepers, marching band members, engineers and choir singers all have in common?

They all raised money for various projects through Launch UMD, a new crowdfunding platform at the University of Maryland, College Park.

The website works just like Kickstarter and other crowdfunding platforms that enable individuals or groups to solicit online donations for specific projects. Donations can come from anyone, but only members of the university community - students, employees, alumni, parents - can seek to raise money.

The projects can be anything, so long as they’re somehow tied to the university . That’s the beauty of the platform, said Brian Logue, the university’s senior director of annual giving.

Logue said Launch UMD is a way to engage as many donors as possible while raising money for all areas of campus, from academics to sports to civic service.

“It’s this idea of “micro-affinities’ - of tapping into someone’s relationship or strong feeling toward a particular cause,” Logue said. “It’s a way to attract people to make a gift for something on campus that they might not have otherwise.”

Launch UMD was unveiled in the spring with five pilot projects, all of which surpassed their fundraising goals. One of the most successful campaigns was run by the Mighty Sound of Maryland, the university’s marching band, which sought money for a new van to transport musicians and their bulky equipment around campus.

The band raised $30,330 - well beyond its initial $8,000 goal. Logue said the campaign was so effective because band members reached out to anyone ever touched by the Mighty Sound of Maryland, including the legions of sports fans, athletes and cheerleaders.

In all, the five pilot projects received 664 donations totaling more than $71,000.

New projects are added to the site four times a year. A panel of university employees reviews applications from groups that want to be featured and chooses those with the most potential for success. The deadline for the next round of applications is Jan. 10.

Eight of the 16 projects currently featured on the site had surpassed their fundraising goals as of Tuesday night. A project titled “Sentinel Hives: Guardians of Honey Bees” is a standout. The group raised $22,105 - nearly three times its initial goal - for research on threats to honey bee populations.

Another notable project is the Startup Shell Innovation Fund, which had already raised more than $11,000 with 25 days left in its campaign. The Startup Shell is a student-run business incubator and co-working space on campus.

The group needs money for equipment, furniture, licensing and lab fees, community events and other expenses. The goal is to sustain current student capacity and eventually expand to serve more students.

Lily Sooklal is one such benefactor. The junior bioengineering major is working out of the Startup Shell to develop a rapid diagnostic test for respiratory pathogens. With more funding for the incubator, she said, she could keep moving her idea along.

“There are a lot of great groups on campus that need funding, but they either don’t know how to ask for it or they don’t have the resources to get out there,” Sooklal said. “So having UMD provide a platform for that is awesome.”

Other projects, such as the University of Maryland Wind Orchestra, are still chugging along to hit their targets.

The orchestra was one of 10 ensembles worldwide selected to perform at a conference in California this summer. The group is seeking $7,500 to cover travel expenses. With four days left in their fundraising campaign, the musicians had raised a little more than two-thirds of that amount.

Unlike some crowdfunding platforms, Launch UMD allows fundraisers to keep all donations they receive, even if they don’t reach their goal within the specified time frame.

Crowdfunding has become a crucial component of the university’s overall fundraising strategy, Logue said, even though the concept has not yet been widely embraced in the higher education arena.

“It’s still catching on in higher ed,” he said. “But schools that haven’t jumped in yet will probably be doing it within the next few years.”

Creating Launch UMD was pretty straightforward, he added. The university chose a vendor to operate the platform and will pay an annual fee that Logue said is “not much” compared to the amount of money the site can raise.

“This kind of program could fundamentally change the way colleges and universities seek donations,” he said.

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