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An App to Crowdfund Higher Education for Refugees

EdSeed is a new mobile app that aims to connect individual and corporate donors with displaced university students. We talked with cofounder Rama Chakaki about the app’s pilot phase and edSeed’s ambitions to expand refugee education.

Written by Kim Bode Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Palestinian students attend their graduation ceremony at the end of the academic year on July 1, 2017, at Birzeit University in the West Bank town of Birzeit, near Ramallah. AFP/ABBAS MOMANI

While there is no shortage of bright prospective students, very few refugees make it to university. Among myriad restrictions, for many it is simply unaffordable.

Rama Chakaki, an impact investor originally from Syria, realized there is also no shortage of young, tech-savvy potential donors who want to help refugee students. What they needed was a way to match displaced students with individual and corporate donors as well as foundations.

So Chakaki and her cofounders set up the mobile application edSeed in April, which is currently in testing phase. Some 500 displaced students have signed up, while 12,000 individual donors and three corporate donors have expressed interest, she says.

When it launches, students will fill out a social media-style profile including the university and the program they will attend, which will be verified by edSeed. They are “proactively catering” to refugees and internally displaced students from Syria and Gaza, Chakaki says, by partnering with education organizations like JusoorBareeq Education & DevelopmentUnite Lebanon Youth Project (ULYP) and University of the People’s Syrian refugee initiative, as well as reaching out to universities in the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon and Jordan.

Donors can select students to support and send funds directly to the university or the scholarship foundation. Based on the donations they have already received, Chakaki anticipates individuals to donate between $10 and $100 and corporate donors from $10,000. This spring, the app was selected by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MITSOLVE refugee education challenge.

We spoke to Chakaki about edSeed.

Refugees Deeply: What is the need for an app to fund refugee students? Do donors not already have established funding channels?

Rama Chakaki: Only 1 percent of refugees attend university. As the number is so low, it’s evident that donor institutions and corporations are not reaching enough refugees.

We did a study that showed that individuals who are accustomed to crowdfunding and saw the refugee crisis unfold are eager to support refugee higher education, provided that they have a mechanism to pay that is secure and guarantees that the funding is going into the right hands. That’s why we decided to create an app that is very easily accessible to the refugees, gives donors access to the profiles of students and assures them that the money is going directly to the educational institution or scholarship foundation that is backing the student.

Refugees Deeply: Why a mobile app and not just a website?

Chakaki: Our research showed that a lot of refugees or students affected by conflict don’t have access to laptops, but they all have mobiles. On the donor side, it was 50/50 [percent preferred using either a mobile or desktop], but a lot of millennials and younger donors felt very comfortable with the mobile version. We modeled the app after Instagram and SnapChat, so it’s more of a social network and less of a traditional crowdfunding-looking site. We’re adding a website, but because we had limited budgets to spend initially, when we were piloting it we thought we’ll start with what hasn’t been tried and tested first.

Refugees Deeply: The donors can filter through the students by degree, location, gender and university. How do you make sure that doesn’t discriminate against certain students?

Chakaki: Like a lot of crowdfunding sites, there’s no guarantee that the funders aren’t going to opt for one type of campaign over the other. It’s up to the donor to decide what they prefer to donate to. We’re going to try to complement that with monthly campaigns to promote certain profiles. For example, one of the campaigns we’re working on is women in STEM from Syrian refugee backgrounds to make sure that this cohort becomes visible and gets funded.

We’re also trying to work on a campaign for students from Gaza, because a lot of the media and U.S. government policy is saying, “We don’t want to fund Gaza,” even though there are students who are not politically affiliated and [who] desperately require the funding. We will profile the students for individual donors who care about helping people in Gaza.

We’re also getting requests from donors who are interested in, for example, helping students with disabilities. Then we’re reaching out to nonprofits that support students with disabilities and are looking for higher-education funding. That’s the kind of approach we’re taking to make sure that there is no discrimination.

Refugees Deeply: What happens if a student doesn’t get enough funding to start university?

Chakaki: Traditional crowdfunding programs will cap their fund-raising [after a certain time frame]. Firstly, we’re making sure that there are extensions. Secondly, in parallel to the crowdfunding, we’re approaching organizations to pull together an amount that closes gaps in funding for certain students. We see this as a platform that brings together all those stakeholders that are looking at funding refugee students for higher education. The more we onboard to the platform, the easier we’ll be able to bridge those gaps for students that don’t reach their target.

Refugees Deeply: What happens, for example, if a student drops out. Do the donors then get their money back?

Chakaki: No. If a student has already enrolled, is going through the program and then drops out, whatever the donor has donated had already been received by the university. But if a student, after crowdfunding and before the start of the semester, decides to no longer pursue the education, that allocation will go towards another student of a similar profile.

Refugees Deeply: What have you found to be private and corporate donors’ main incentives to give money to refugee students?

Chakaki: Incentives vary. We’ve found that some people are doing it as a response to seeing the crisis and feeling compelled to do something of impact. At the beginning of the Syrian crisis a lot of people were very proactive in emergency aid, like medical aid, food and shelter. Now they’re seeking to help strategically, long term and with the highest impact. If [they help] someone to graduate from university, that one person can get employment and lift an entire family out of poverty.

A second appeal is “I had benefited from somebody else’s generosity and now I want to give back to someone else.” A third is you can get tax deductions if you’re American or some other nationalities. For the Muslim community, under the Zakat or almsgiving, they get spiritual credit for doing that. Different communities are doing it for very different reasons.

Refugees Deeply: How do you hope edSeed will grow and where do you see its limitations?

Chakaki: We hope that, within three years, we can raise 6,000 scholarships. Beyond that, we hope to accelerate the growth to be able to handle more. We’d like to go beyond university education [and allow young refugees to] enroll in apprenticeships. We’d like to work with organizations that are giving other types of degrees that can quickly give some refugee students economic independence. Last, we’d like to maybe partner with mentoring organizations and offer other services beyond funding.

A limitation could be obviously if we don’t get adequately funded to continue to build the app. We’re mitigating that challenge by raising donations now to provide us with at least three years’ sustainability in the future. There are always other technologies that come up and render you obsolete, so we have to keep up to date with what’s happening. Then, there may be disruptions in the higher-education sector, like online, entrepreneurship and micro degrees that render funding requirements obsolete, but until now I don’t see that happening.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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