Founded 134 years ago, the Alpha Boys’ School is a famous Jamaican institution – renowned both for its work in supporting boys in need, and for its proud musical legacy and its role in raising notable musicians in jazz, reggae and ska.

The sheer magic of the institution draws you in once you step through the front doors. The overwhelming sense of “Can Do”, “I Believe” or “Upward and Onward” (the school’s motto) that emanates from the very walls is the driving force and foundation, on which the institution has been able to churn out talented, socially conscious and uplifting members of society. It is no wonder that they were able to pull off one of Jamaica’s most notable KickStarter campaigns.

KickStarter is a crowdfunding platform used to raise money from the public for creative and educational projects. Or­ganizations and individuals, called project creators, use this more non-traditional approach to attract ‘backers’ – donors who pledge funds to support their projects. Projects must meet their funding goals in order to receive the money, and in return, the ‘backers’ are rewarded with prizes, as well as the knowledge that they helped to make a dream come true. Crowdfunding typically indicates that projects are funded by raising many small amounts of money from a large number of people, and Kickstarter is one of the leading sites for making this happen.

The Alpha Boys' School. Image by Virgin Unite.
Joshua Chamberlain. Image from Virgin Unite.

Alpha Boys School, as with most charitable organizations, depends on the benevolence of others to support their work and vocational programmes. Their model, however, is chang­ing. Spearheaded by Project Manager, Joshua Chamberlain, who works closely with the nuns and other stakeholders, Alpha Boys School is introducing entrepreneurial endeavors that will not only teach its students new skills and attitudes, but also earn revenue for the school’s continued operations. It recently launched an online radio station, Alpha Boys School Radio, which served as the impetus behind the KickStarter campaign. We caught up with Joshua to find out more about the crowdfunding experi­ence and the lessons he learned...

How did the radio station serve as the impetus behind the KickStarter campaign?

The radio station was launched in September 2013 with the help of one of our partners in the USA - Gritty (WXGR). It is an over-the-air community radio station on the east coast, and they set up a non-profit to develop internet radio stations in communities of need. Based on the success of Alpha Boys' School Radio and the international reputation of the Alpha Boys' School brand, they felt KickStarter would be a great way to engage our fan base and raise funds.

What was your funding target and how will the funds be used?

Our target was US$23,000, and we raised a little over this amount. The funds will be used to develop a radio studio & media lab, including renovating a room in the old Junior Home and buy­ing equipment (recording, editing, etc.) used to create content for radio. The boys will be trained in the technical skills of radio production and broadcasting, as well as basic media literacy.

How did you attract donors?

We used online promotional tools, such as social media, but found that our biggest results came from direct outreach. Tapping into our network, reaching out to people, sending emails and making calls to let them know about the campaign drew them in. The radio station has been successful thanks to a lot of word of mouth and push from promoters, especially big name advo­cates, such as Maxi Priest, Shaggy, Sean Paul, Toots and the Maytals. Their endorsement carried over into the campaign. We also created a video featuring the students talking about the project themselves, and this proved to be the most compelling piece, even more so than the donor prizes.

Speaking of donor rewards, yours were quite unique. What were some of the most popular offerings?

The Alpha Wear JA t-shirts are always a popular item. We also offered specially designed posters by Michael Thompson aka Freestylee: Artist Without Borders, not to mention the smartphone audio samples by dancehall pioneer, and Alpha past student, Yellowman.

What were the biggest challenges and lessons-learned?

It was really not easy. To run an effective campaign, you have to be on it daily – pushing out infor­mation and drawing people in. It takes manpower and effort, and we had to learn a lot through trial and error during the 45-day campaign. We gained a lot of insight into what tools work and what tools didn’t work, and it taught us a lot about balancing our mass appeal with our personal appeal. All of our backers made it happen, but we had some big financial support through a few key ones, such as Rototom Sunsplash, the annual European Reggae Festival held in Spain. They found our personal appeal to be very compelling.

So, what do you think was the real key to raising the funds?

The story and the Alpha boys themselves. People seemed less interested in the prizes and more interested in the story. The video featured Alpha students, who are the best spokespersons for the project, and it played a key part in helping people feel connected to what we are doing. It was humbling to see from how far and wide the support came.

Student at the Alpha Boys' School. Image from Virgin Unite.

– This is a guest blog by the Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship Caribbean team.

Join us next week to explore how to fund your start-up in our next Hangout with Google for Entrepreneurs. With co-founder of Indiegogo, Danae Ringelmann, 500 StartUps founder Dave McClure, and Homejoy co-founder Adora Cheung. #RaiseYourRound.

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You can support other entrepreneurs like Joshua and the Alpha Boys School through donating to the Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship in the Caribbean.