Brooklyn Urban Garden Charter School co-founder Susan Tenner on what crowdfunding has meant for her nonprofit

About four years ago, civil rights education attorney Miriam Nunberg approached Susan Tenner through mutual friends, and asked her to join a group of parents in the Park Slope, Windsor Terrace, and surrounding neighborhoods of Brooklyn, NY for a conversation about the district’s middle school application process. They were concerned. The district, everyone knew, had both a capacity problem and an equity problem. Getting your kids into a good school was terribly stressful, period. The group wanted to provide another high quality option that would be accessible to everyone, one that would be founded on the proven power of outdoor and experiential education. One whose roots would be in social, economic, and environmental sustainability.

Tenner joined the conversation alongside a committed group, and the rest is history. Today, BUGS – the Brooklyn Urban Garden Charter School – of which Tenner is co-founder and executive director, is one of the most racially and economically diverse schools in the city. Since the get-go, Tenner has harnessed all the skills she honed during her prior 25 years of nonprofit management experience in education and social services for kids, and for homeless and immigrant populations. Finding herself, for the first time, without the support of any fundraising department, she set to work learning everything over again, the DIY way. One tool she came to rely on from day one was crowdfunding. Over the past four years, she and her team have successfully crowdfunded an awesome school garden, a very cool composting contest, a rainwater catchment and management project, and an overnight outdoor adventure for the school’s first graduating class. We caught up with Tenner for a chat about what crowdfunding has meant for her, and for BUGS.


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What was it like to dip your toes into crowdfunding?

“We started doing an ioby campaign before we even really opened – it was our first week of school, I think, maybe even before. An employee of ours told us about ioby and we saw that they currently had a match from the Jack Johnson Ohana foundation for eco projects, and that was the real lure for us. We’re a standalone, private nonprofit, and so having all those additional costs and sort of building the plane as we fly it, we really appreciated the handholding and help that the ioby team was able to give us, as a similar startup — an innovative, small, accountable, relationship-oriented group. They immediately had a can-do attitude, a real personal connection. They really supported us to get it done. The format was easy, and they let us ask all our silly questions. It was super exciting.

Not only were we opening the school, but I had just had cancer surgery and was in the middle of chemo. It was so intense. And I really was not going to use crowdfunding if I didn’t have that sense of turnkey readiness. The school was also overstretched and starting out, taking baby steps.  We couldn’t afford to do anything that wasn’t a sure shot. And I wouldn’t have made that decision personally or on behalf of the school if I didn’t know I had matching funding and positive people’s support.”



How has crowdfunding fit into your fundraising repertoire?

“I had done fundraising through the years, in my over 25 years of nonprofit management experience, but I often had a development department to work with, and largely did grant writing, and so this was different for me. In starting the school and doing everything kind of scrappy and startup-y, you know, you end up being an expert in everything, from having to build your website to deciding which benefits you’re giving your staff, and doing everything from scratch. So that was what was so helpful to us as a grassroots organization was to have the ioby team almost as an extension of us, sort of working for us, with us, to do it. And by the way, everyone at ioby is super nice! That’s a big thing. Everyone’s just very nice and positive and responsive, and that makes a difference.

Crowdfunding  feels very new. Annual appeals or seasonal appeals by paper mailing were the most similar tool I used. Aside from that we had mostly done  grants, which are driven by policy set at the government level — funds are allocated for certain initiatives. Private foundations often set their own policy priorities now,  too. Gates and the Walton Foundation have much more of an opinion about the policy agenda they want to move forward, whereas before there may have been a sense of more  neutrality. What’s so different about crowdfunding is that you don’t have to pay at that larger scale to play. You don’t need to be an endowed foundation to invest in an idea. A crowdfunding appeal  is about inspiration and  about relationship: everyone weighing in and voting with their credit card for the ideas and the change they personally want to be part of in the world.”


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What has crowdfunding meant for your community?

“I think what’s so neat about it is that as a community-based charter school, it really helps confirm the community. It’s another venue through which the community comes together. It’s almost another commons, another meeting place. When we’ve done these campaigns, the staff will send it out to all of their friends and family and supporters, and the students and parents would do the same. So you have this sense of the extended family – literally the grandparents getting involved – and it’s very heartening to see that. It’s been really positive to feel the support that’s not just financial, it’s when you see the thermometer go up and you see other people getting really excited! Of all the work that we do – we send newsletters, have outreach events, and we do all these things to communicate – the ioby campaigns do have this extra level of excitement about them.”


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Words of wisdom for other leaders?

“The connection between money and entitlement, or money and control, that’s a huge subject. What’s neat about crowdfunding – which was part of the Obama campaign, right? – is that a lot of small donations brought together have a really different feeling than one person who dumps down a lot of money and holds  the purse strings. You have a different feeling of collective responsibility, or collective ownership or joy. Grow that feeling!

A genuine thank you goes a long way. When we did our last campaign, for the end of the year trip, there were certain teachers who pulled in donations from their families. When we personalized our thank you and sent pictures from the trip, I made sure to say thank you and make the connection to the teacher. We researched the donors, and saw if they’re parents, and if they’re not, we try to figure out who they are. We don’t always have that time, but I prioritized that on the last campaign.

Another thing I’ve learned is that it’s very hard to prioritize the smaller campaigns and grant deadlines. It’s never good timing—running a school and fundraising. But you’ve got to keep putting the lines out, fishing, or you’re never going to pull up any fish.

I still have questions: how can we use this tool more? How can we use it to best effect? What is the relationship between the teachers’ personal campaigns for additional funds for their work or class and the school’s campaign appeals? I’m not an expert. I’m just on this exciting journey of using this tool and trying to leverage it more this year around special events at the school and national events like Earth Day. And so I’m really eager this year to see what more I can learn.”


Feeling inspired? Want to take action in YOUR neighborhood? If you have awesome ideas about how to make your town greener, safer, and more fun, let us help! Tell us your awesome idea right here. We’d love to help you get started today.

Pssst…. In OTHER ioby news: ioby works in communities with long histories of disinvestment, the majority of which are African-American neighborhoods where residents’ household incomes lie below the city’s median. This week, ioby co-founder and Executive Director Erin Barnes shares her thoughts on the pervasiveness of structural racism, the role of the nonprofit world in dismantling it, and why ioby has made the decision to spend 2% of its budget, moving forward, on Racial Justice work and professional development for individual staff and the team. Don’t miss it.