“Education as a cause is definitely maturing – we’ve seen the number of education-related fundraisers jump 300% in 2020-21 over the previous year. Most of them are for educating the underprivileged but a large chunk is people raising money for themselves,” says Zaheer Adenwala, co-founder of Ketto. Similarly, on Milaap, the first five months of 2021 have seen 9,200 campaigns related to education raise Rs 6.6 crore, compared with 11,000 campaigns which mopped up Rs 10.3 crore in all of 2020.
Not all meet their targets
The results vary. A standout success story this month has been of anti-caste activist, rapper and researcher Sumit Samos Turuk, who managed to raise Rs 37 lakh to fund his MSc in Modern South Asian Studies in Oxford within a day, of which Rs 27 lakh came within a span of three hours. Harshali Nagrale, who is looking to improve the participation of women and those from marginalised communities in political spaces and wants to do her MSc in Elections, Campaigns and Democracy from the University of London, has raised about 65% of her fund target.
Vyas, 23, on the other hand, has so far managed to reach less than 20% of his target amount. “My friends suggested that I start the fundraiser so that people who see merit in what I am trying to do can support me, and that’s why I thought I would try it,” he says. It will be tough, he adds, to repay a hefty bank loan because he intends to return to India after his degree to further his dream of working on peace education, which is unlikely to be monetarily rewarding.
Simranjeet Singh, who has been accepted for a PhD in engineering sciences from Oxford, has managed to raise 1% of Rs 90 lakh he says he needs to raise in less than 40 days. “My father is a cab driver and my mother is a homemaker. The value of our house is about Rs 15 lakh so it will not be sufficient collateral if I apply for a loan,” says Singh, who is currently in the University of Alberta as a research assistant – a position he says just about covers his living costs. At the heart of a successful campaign, says Milaap cofounder Mayukh Choudhury, is the story the person is telling. “People donate to other people because they empathise. Establishment of that empathy is baseline.” Networks, too, are critical.
“Unlike with medical causes, it is more difficult to get strangers to help in education-related fundraisers, which is why you need a strong network,” says Ketto’s Adenwala.
Nagrale, for instance, says Ambedkarite groups abroad turned out to be strong allies. “They could understand the change I was trying to bring about. In a week, I was able to reach Rs 15 lakh,” says the 25-year-old student, whose father is a retired mill worker and mother is a homemaker, neither of whom had studied beyond Class 7.
But while setting up a donation link online might seem like an “easy” option, putting up one’s story for the world to see and comment on when it gets shared on social media, can come at a cost. Most of the recipients of these fundraisers say it has been their last resort. “It’s not easy to deal with perfect strangers saying you’re selfish, criticising you. It makes you question yourself. Fair comment is welcome but there are personal, targeted comments, too,” according to Vyas, who says he makes the effort to explain his side. “Maybe I’m learning about non-violence even before the formal course,” he adds wryly.
The criticism on social media seems to worsen and gets more personalised when the person raising funds is from a marginalised community and even more so if you are a woman, going by some of the personal experiences shared by those who have tried to raise funds. “There were people saying those from your community have always been beggars, savarnas who said you don’t have the aukat (standing) to get a loan, so why did you apply for the course,” says Nagrale.
Turuk, a Dalit Christian, told another media outlet he had to suspend his campaign due to the hate messages he received though he still needed to raise some more money for tickets and other costs.
Kashmir native Sahreen Shamim, who raised Rs 28 lakh on Milaap to part-fund her Oxford Masters last year, says she began rethinking her decision to solicit donations at one point because of the online harassment. “There was character assassination, misogynistic attacks… it was extremely stressful. There were nights I couldn’t sleep because of the trolling,” Shamim says on the phone from Oxford. “Being from a sensitive area, there were even people who came home and threatened me, telling my family to stop the campaign.”
Even as crowdfunding has become more acceptable, this dark side of online trolling has remained unchanged. Juhi Sharma, a Chennai-based documentary filmmaker who had turned to crowdfunding back in 2017 when she got admission for her Masters in directing in New York, would know. “Those were the early days of crowdfunding. The backlash came out of the blue. It got really ugly because a lot of the insults were woman-specific,” she says. Sharma had to put her course on hold in the final year, again due to a funding crunch but her experience of 2017 made her wary of trying to raise money from donors online. “It was terrible for my mental health.”
For those who reach out to her asking whether they should take the crowdfunding plunge, her advice is that they try everything else, including a bank loan first and to use it only if there is no other choice.