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New group funds scholarships with a click of the mouse

When people see friends struggling to pay for college, they might ask themselves how they could make a small but meaningful contribution to their education. With his new nonprofit organization, CO-Fund, Cody Simmons '10 wants to make it easy for people to donate to a range of deserving high school students in need of scholarships.

Through its website for online person-to-person donations — co‑ — the group allowed its selected students last semester, known as fellows, to pool donations from family, friends, church organizations, sports teams and other contributors, with the goal of collecting $2,500 of scholarship money for each selected fellow. The group's "CO" stands for "college opportunity."

Graciela Kincaid '12, head of student relations, said CO-Fund's work could make a big difference. "I think that not being able to pay for college is a surprisingly common experience and I don't think it gets talked about that much," she said.

Simmons said the organization is based on the idea of helping others the same way that one would help "your mom's friend's son."

During organizational stages, CO-Fund worked closely with the Social Innovation Initiative, a program run by the Swearer Center for Public Service as a part of its Social Entrepreneurship Program.

Alan Harlam, director of social entrepreneurship at the Swearer Center, said his field "involves people who start businesses that are literally purposed around solving a social mission."

For CO-Fund, the Social Innovation Initiative bridged the gap between the Brown community and the outside world.

"They needed to partner with organizations to find students and, through relationships with the Swearer Center, we were able to find great organizations that were already involved in college access," Harlam said.

These groups, which help recommend the fellows, include College Visions — an organization in Providence that works with high school seniors — and the University's College Advising Corps.

After students are selected, their profiles appear on CO-Fund's website, where potential donors can learn about them and their situation.

Though the fellows never need to repay CO-Fund for their scholarship, they are urged to "pay it forward," an aspect of the program that Simmons called "morally binding."

In order to pay it forward, fellows can choose one of four options: working with CO-Fund or its partner organizations after graduating, donating to other CO-Fund students, participating in community service projects or attending graduate school.

The CO-Fund staff doesn't "want the repayment of this money to be a financial burden to someone who is coming from a financially disadvantaged family," Harlam said.

Three of the four inaugural fellows are starting college this semester, and the other is a college sophomore.

A fellow named Maritza, who just graduated from Classical High School in Providence, has her first college classes Wednesday. She said she hopes to pursue a double major in psychology and linguistics at the University of Rochester and aspires to work in speech pathology. To protect her identity, the group did not release her last name.

"I feel really lucky that I got chosen," she said. "I think there should be more organizations like CO-Fund."

Kincaid and Katie Goddard '12, head of educational research and resources, received Starr Fellowships from the Swearer Center this summer to work full-time on the organization, Harlam said.

Kincaid said their work included researching fundraising, completing grant applications and learning about social media strategies involving Facebook and Twitter. Kincaid and Goddard also examined last semester's results. Through evaluating their "pilot launch," Kincaid said they hoped to determine "what elements of our model should be changed or reconsidered and how we could make it better next time around."

Kincaid said she thought the company's launch went well and she was pleased that the fellows' scholarship money was distributed to their colleges.

"I'm really proud that we got our first tuition payments out and that a lot of it was raised through contributions on the website," she said.

Both Simmons and Kincaid said CO-Fund is off to a good start, but they are still looking to improve.

"We definitely wanted to raise more than we needed for these first few students and we've done that," Simmons said.

Simmons said that CO-Fund needs to raise funds for future fellows and get more college students involved with the organization.



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