How This DC Entrepreneur Has Helped Universities Raise Almost $1B

Kestrel Linder

August 4, 2020

Kestrel and his co-founder saw that the alumni giving programs of universities were ineffective. They turned their solution into a company that is helping nearly 1,000 K-12 schools, colleges, and universities revamp their fundraising.

Hi Kestrel! Can you give us a short intro to who you are and GiveCampus?

I am co-founder and CEO of GiveCampus, the leading fundraising platform for educational institutions. We provide software, hardware, and services that make it easier for schools to raise money from more donors. Since our founding in 2014, GiveCampus has facilitated close to $1 billion in charitable giving to nearly 1,000 colleges, universities, and K-12 schools in 47 U.S. states, D.C., Puerto Rico, and eight foreign countries. We are headquartered in Navy Yard, although we’re currently working remotely due to COVID-19.

Our mission is to advance the quality, the affordability and the accessibility of education. Over the past two decades, the percentage of people giving back to schools has declined across virtually every major demographic. This is particularly alarming given that higher education is more expensive than ever and schools are receiving less public funding. As a result, schools are increasingly dependent on an ever-shrinking number of donors and struggling to cultivate a culture of giving among younger generations.

GiveCampus’s five products – The Social Fundraising Platform, Giving Forms by GiveCampus, The Volunteer Management System, GC Connect, and Spotlight – and our industry-leading partner success program offer a modern solution to the challenges school fundraisers face.

With GiveCampus, schools offer a seamless giving experience and leverage the power of existing social connections to tell their story and reach previously untapped donors.

“We saw a big business opportunity paired with a chance to build solutions that would drive meaningful, lasting value for society, and that was the magic combination that we needed to leave our jobs and get started.”

Our newest endeavor in pursuit of our mission is The GiveCampus Social Mobility Initiative. We are donating $1 million in free fundraising support for programs and initiatives that deliver targeted assistance to low-income students, first-generation students, and underrepresented minorities. Quality education is an essential driver of upward social mobility, but it remains out of reach for too many.

We are also growing our team to accommodate our rapidly expanding partner community. We brought on 15 new team members in the past year, and we’re continuing to hire across our engineering, product, business development, partner success, and marketing/sales teams, even during the pandemic. 

What's your backstory and when did you realize you wanted to start your own company?

I spent the first decade of my professional career consulting with the defense and intelligence community. Starting a company was not on my radar until 2013, when my co-founder (Mike) and I began discussing the possibility at a wedding. Around the same time, we realized that neither of us was giving back to our alma mater, Johns Hopkins, despite having the means to do so. We were frustrated by nonstop donation solicitation calls and thought the giving process was antiquated. My wife Hilary, who is a Peabody award-winning filmmaker, was raising money for a film through Kickstarter and we wondered why schools weren’t using a similar model--one that made it easy and fun to give back to something you care about. That was the seed that became GiveCampus.

“Since our founding in 2014, GiveCampus has facilitated close to $1 billion in charitable giving to nearly 1,000 colleges, universities, and K-12 schools in 47 U.S. states, D.C., Puerto Rico, and eight foreign countries.”

Our idea came together as the worsening economics of education reached a crisis point that persists today: student debt was ballooning, school budgets were being slashed, and marginalized students were increasingly unable to access higher education. Meanwhile, fewer and fewer people were giving back to schools. We saw a big business opportunity paired with a chance to build solutions that would drive meaningful, lasting value for society, and that was the magic combination that we needed to leave our jobs and get started.

How did you hone, improve, and validate the idea for GiveCampus?

Once we had this seed of an idea, we needed to talk to the experts to truly understand educational fundraising from every angle. We embarked on a months-long “listening tour” where we talked to schools across the country about the unique fundraising challenges they face and why they weren’t using crowdfunding platforms. Over and over again, in response to that question, we heard “it wasn’t built for us”  – because schools have such specific requirements, they needed something tailored to their needs.

Based on this insight, we focused our early efforts on building a product that solved some of the common pain points and delivering an exceptional experience to the small handful of schools willing to take a risk on a new company they had never heard of. We transformed that small number of early users into advocates for the business. Schools are unique among nonprofits because they rarely compete for the same donors, so they freely share best practices and recommendations. Our users are invested in helping their peers at other institutions, and from the beginning, we’ve been proud that recommending our products has been one easy way for them to do that. We built up the GiveCampus community from 15 schools in August 2015, to more than 100 schools in August 2016, to more than 300 schools in August 2017. Today, we have nearly 1,000 partner schools.

Those two elements – a much-needed product and exceptional experience – are still our guiding principles. The foundation of our business is both the advanced technology and the exceptional partner success support we provide to complement it.

What were the inflection points along your journey, and how did you facilitate them?

From the very beginning, it was a priority of ours to build a sustainable, long-term business for every stakeholder, including our employees and our partner schools. We bootstrapped the business to profitability within the first year, and we have raised less than $1 million in outside capital. This approach has helped force discipline, and it is a key ingredient of our success.

This was possible because we proved early on that GiveCampus technology and expertise can help schools raise more money from more donors. In short, it delivers real, measurable, undisputed value. One campaign in particular illustrates how our platform can make a massive difference for schools. The College of the Holy Cross launched a Valentine’s Day-themed Giving Day in 2017 and raised a whopping $1.8 million from more than 6,000 donors in just 24 hours, surpassing the record for all liberal arts colleges for the number of donors to a 24-hour giving challenge. Our partner schools still look to that campaign for inspiration.

Each new product we introduce is an exciting moment for the company and for our partners. Last year, we launched our first hardware product, GC Connect, which allows fundraisers to easily accept donations at in-person events. This spring, we launched another software product, Spotlight, which allows schools to create mobile-friendly, branded video landing pages. In addition to the major launches, every tweak we make and new feature we add to our technology (mostly due to feedback from our partners) helps accelerate our partners’ – and therefore our business’ – success.

This year has also been a major inflection point in terms of understanding the impact we can help schools make, especially against the backdrop of a pandemic, economic uncertainty, and our country’s long overdue reckoning with racism. We’ve helped schools raise more than $43 million for COVID-19 related campaigns, and we’re seeing schools of all shapes and sizes launch thoughtful campaigns for racial justice. The GiveCampus Social Mobility Initiative is of course another critical response to stalling opportunities for disadvantaged students. I’m proud of incorporating feedback from our partners and our whole team—which includes many former educators and fundraisers—about how to design and execute an initiative to empower schools to move the needle on social mobility.

What have been the most helpful or influential resources you’ve learned from?

Our experience with Y Combinator was transformative. We were part of their Spring 2015 batch, and it was an invaluable experience. They taught us how to think about the company in a totally new way, and how to imagine something larger and more impactful than we could on our own. We’re very lucky to have YC as an investor, and to be able to draw on the expertise and experiences of YC’s partners and the founders of other YC companies.

“Michael helped me realize that it was a much bigger risk to not start my own company than to start my own company.”

A book that all GiveCampus team members are required to read is Measure What Matters by John Doerr. It explains the impact that disciplined goal-setting and progress-tracking can have on a company, drawing examples from the systems used at Intel, Google, The Gates Foundation, and others. What I love about this book is showing how setting the right objectives is perhaps the most strategic work you can do in any role and at any stage of a business. We practice structured goal-setting at GiveCampus, and this helps us achieve important milestones and builds a culture of transparency and collaboration. Everyone works together to make sure their goals are aligned across teams, and everyone has complete visibility into the goals of others--including me.

What advice do you have for someone looking to break into tech or start their own business? Or, what advice would you give yourself when you were getting started?

First, don’t do it alone. I couldn’t imagine starting a company without a co-founder--and especially someone I know well and trust deeply. It’s a roller coaster, and it’s a lot more fun with a friend.

Second, set financial goals for the business and break even as quickly as possible. This is the best proxy for knowing a business is real, and it gives you control over your destiny.

Was there anyone in particular you want to shout out who helped your career along? An individual, or community?

I don’t know that I would have taken the leap without the encouragement I received from Michael Seibel, and I know for sure that I wouldn’t be the founder I am without his counsel over the last six years. Michael helped me realize that it was a much bigger risk to not start my own company than to start my own company. I was at a point in my life where I could take a chance. I had a supportive spouse, I had a friend who wanted to start a company with me (and who knew how to code!), and we had what seemed like a viable idea. It’s rare that those variables coincide, for anyone, and there is a massive opportunity cost to not taking advantage if and when they do.

Where can we go to learn more about you and your work?

Want to learn from others in the DC Tech community?

Join DC Tech People and get a weekly roundup of stories 👇

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
Share this story: