CO-Fund and the Power of the Informal Organization

There are two sides to every organization, system, structure or society: the formal and the informal.

Let’s start with the formal side. When most people think about an organization, they think of the things they can see—the people, the concrete objects, the structure, the hierarchy, etc. When you think of a school, for example, you likely think of classrooms, students, teachers, principals. The formal side creates efficiency, communicates authority, and is often the only way to get a large amount of work done.

But now let’s look at the informal side. The informal side of an organization is all of the things you can’t see – the constellation of collaborations, relationships, and networks that grow organically. These are the things that often drive most systems, for example, how the people in the system informally collaborate, communicate, and interact to achieve their goals.  In the school example, the informal side is represented by the relationship between the teachers and the principals, the cliques of students, the ways that everyone gets their work done outside of the formal processes and protocols.

Anyone who has been inside a formal organization or system (and who hasn’t been?) knows that they have limitations. In fact, the formal may even stand in the way of what we need to accomplish because it often limits innovation, imposes bureaucracy, and emphasizes rules and protocols over human connection.

However, what makes the informal side so powerful is that it often helps to compensate for the weaknesses of the formal. Some of the most powerful examples of this can be seen in the informal networks that transcend formal boundaries: the Underground Railroad, the back channels of lobbying and influence in the U.S. Congress, and the rumor mill at any middle school. All of these examples serve a need or achieve an outcome that no planned, formal structure could ever accomplish.

Similarly, CO-Fund has built its mission on solving a problem with the formal system. The U.S. financial aid system has grown out of a desire to “do good:” help students who can’t afford to go to college. And it has done that over and over. But its limitations are enormous, and as CO-Fund has smartly recognized, it leaves out low-income students who cannot make up the difference between the financial aid amount they receive and the true cost of going to college. In response, CO-Fund has created a way for students to use their informal networks to make up that difference and make college a reality.

The brilliance of CO-Fund lies in the fact that it saw a problem created by a formal system and created a simple way to compensate for it. Rather than accept that some students are just left out, it strives to use the informal organization and the generosity of others to give students a chance.

Amy Gallo is a writer, editor and business consultant. She is a mentor to Brown’s Starr Fellowship Program (Co-Fund’s Katie Goddard and Graciela Kincaid are 2010 Starr Fellows). Her writing on management issues appears on


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A Counselors’ Perspective

The National College Advising Corps is at the forefront of a movement to increase college access for low-income, first generation college students. My name is Sonia Russo, and I am proud to be a member of the National College Advising Corps at Brown University. I work at the Providence Academy of International Studies to foster a college-going culture and to ensure that every student who wants to go to college can. Often, this means overcoming extreme barriers to my students’ academic success and their drive to attend college. According to the National College Advising Corps, nearly 25% of low-income students who score in the top quartile on standardized tests never go to college, and many of the remaining 75 percent never attain bachelors’ degrees. These are sobering statistics, and ones that I work to reverse every day.

Because of the unique population that I work with, for whom money to go to college is just one barrier among many, any organization that can come up with a creative way to overcome these barriers is important for the work I do. Many of my students this year expressed interest in applying to private universities. Although they are very expensive, most do not offer financial aid that is sufficient to cover costs for low-income students. Even most public universities do not offer sufficient financial aid. My student Juan, who is one of four inaugural CO-Fund Fellows this year, is an excellent example of the significant barriers that low-income college-bound students face, and why any financial help that they can receive to close the financial aid gap between the aid they’ve been offered and the cost of the school is critically important.

Like all of my students, Juan is extremely smart with a keen intellect. Juan was born in Providence and moved to Mexico with both of his parents when he was 12 years old. At 15, Juan made the decision to leave them to finish his education in the United States because attending a good college had been a lifelong goal for him. Returning to the United States was not without its own obstacles. Juan experienced a lot of instability in Providence, moving three times his senior year alone, being bounced between different family members, and at one point living on his own with his high school age siblings in an apartment. Financially, Juan has been completely independent as well. His mother is unable to contribute anything financially for him since she is struggling herself in Mexico. His father has made it impossible for Juan to contact him in the Dominican Republic.

These obstacles should have been enough to discourage Juan from pursuing his goals. But there is a reason that Juan will be at Georgetown and overcame the intense obstacles he was facing. The difference between Juan and most of my students is that Juan has the strongest sense of determination that I’ve ever seen. When Juan puts his mind towards something, nothing is going to deter him from accomplishing his goal. Juan has been more on his own in his college process than any of my other students, but somehow he made it. Through all the moving around, the emotional upheaval, and the lack of financial support from anyone, his single-minded determination to go to college was enough to see him through.

With help from me, Juan completed essays and applications for 6 highly selective liberal arts schools and the University of Rhode Island. We coordinated his financial aid application process literally across the borders of three different countries, without contact information for his father. Together we made countless phone calls, faxes, and wrote emails to the financial aid offices at all of his schools. Juan didn’t even have enough money to submit a critical financial aid form, so we had to make sure his schools would be willing to accept a paper copy that he could submit for free. By the time we sorted all this out and Juan got his acceptance letters, the next worry became whether Juan could pay his deposit to attend the school of his dreams, Georgetown University. Luckily, due to Georgetown’s excellent financial aid policy, Juan has no student loans his freshman year and only had to pay $50 to secure his spot in Georgetown’s class of 2014.

Through all of these worries and tough spots, Juan made it. But these barriers he faced and is still facing were enough to shut down many of his other classmates. To be honest, I’m still not 100% sure that Juan will be okay. He will struggle academically and he will need to find a way to persevere through that and advocate for himself. His financial aid award will not be as good his sophomore year. He needs to buy items for his dorm room and he’ll need a laptop, and I don’t know where the money to pay for this will come from. Luckily Georgetown includes the cost of books and travel in the budget they use to calculate financial need for a student, so we don’t have to worry about that.

But the rest of his classmates were not this lucky. Their financial aid packages were not anywhere near as substantial as Georgetown’s. They face even more extreme financial barriers to their education than Juan. Even with their financial aid packages, which in many cases include a significant amount of student loans, there is still a gap between the aid they received and the full cost of the school. Some schools don’t even include books and travel in the budget they use to calculate financial need for students. It is my hope that as the CO Fund grows and flourishes it will be able to help even more students who weren’t as lucky as Juan. These students really do need assistance to help close the substantial gap that remains between their dreams and their financial reality. I hope that the CO Fund is just the first of many creative, new ventures that find innovative ways to close this gap.

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The Meaning of $20

    My name is Katie Goddard, and I am the Director of Educational Research and Resources for CO-Fund. Based on the nature of CO-Fund’s platform and the training in entrepreneurship endeavors connected with the organization, I have learned a lot about the power of $20 over the past few months. That may sound menial, but let me explain.

    So far at Brown, I have studied the affect of income on educational achievement and witnessed the resultant inequalities.  This knowledge connected me to CO-Fund’s mission:  to facilitate the funding of higher education for deserving, college-ready students. Working with CO-Fund is an opportunity to affect really meaningful social change, not only because it will have a transformative effect on the lives of students, but also because it will empower an entirely new set of donors that can give to college scholarships and make tangible changes for students. Now, I am a part of this process—I see students reap the benefits of micro-donations, and to watch the gap in tuition costs shrink because of our efforts.

    For me, accomplishment means raising $2,500 for each of our CO-Fund Fellows through the practical miracle of $20; it means channeling the power of a student’s community, or any people who have a vested interest in educational access. $20 can change the lives of students. CO-Fund harnesses the full power of a single $20 donation, and then does that over and over again.

    In another respect, $20 represents the powers of micro-giving and entrepreneurship. CO-Fund has been my introduction to the nonprofit sector and the micro-giving market, and I want to combine my background in education studies and public policy to make this learning experience more meaningful and relevant to my work.

    CO-Fund operates on the idea that anybody, regardless of their income level and the amount they donate, can have a positive tangible effect on a student’s life by improving their ability toget to college.  Working with CO-Fund is a chance to both impact a funding change in favor of financial equality in our system and to continue to mentor and directly influence our students.  To do this, we rely on the power of a $20 donation.

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Our First Fundraising Event

We raised almost $600 at our first fundraiser last week…thanks to all of those that came out!!

The CO-Fund Team

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External Challenges to Education

CO-Fund has chosen to launch its pilot program in Rhode Island. CO-Fund is based out of Brown University, here in Providence, creating a natural fit for launching our idea and partnering with local organizations.  Moreover, the state has become a centerpiece for national attention on educational reform.

The state of Rhode Island, however, has made national news this month for its underperforming school system. In late February, The Central Falls school board voted 5 to 2 to accept a plan proposed by Schools Superintendent Frances Gallo to fire the 100 faculty and staff members at Central Falls High School. Central Falls High is one of Rhode Island’s lowest-achieving schools, the only one outside of Providence. With 800 students, it has a four-year graduation rate of 48 percent. Of the top six lowest performing schools, the remaining five are in the city of Providence.  

While the demographics of Central Falls certainly pose additional challenges for educators in meeting the goals set for students (students in central falls have above average limited proficiency in English, and significantly higher economic disadvantages) they bring to light the challenges of education reform in the nation.

President Obama even cited Rhode Island has a relevant example in early march. While he explained the actions in Central Falls to fire 93 teachers should be a last resort, he explained, “if a school is struggling, we have to work with the principal and the teachers to find a solution,” Obama said. “We’ve got to give them a chance to make meaningful improvements. But if a school continues to fail its students year after year after year, if it doesn’t show any sign of improvement, then there’s got to be a sense of accountability.”

“And that’s what happened in Rhode Island last week at a chronically troubled school, when just 7 percent of 11th graders passed state math tests — 7 percent.”

Rhode Island’s school challenges are important for CO-Fund because the problem of under-resourced schools and students is real, current, and in need of innovative solutions. Indeed we are not serving to improve high school performance, but those that lack resources for highschool are far more likely to lack those same resources for college. This is where Co-Fund will fill the gap. This is where you can help.


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Understanding “The Gap”

    For most people, the sheer idea of paying for college is enough to invoke a pang of panic, and rightly so. Not only does the current financial aid process involve a lengthy and confusing system of various forms and FAFSA applications, loans, and scholarships, but many families are also burdened with considerations about how much they can afford to pay in the first place. This combination has proved to be dysfunctional for an increasing number of low-income students and their family. Combined with the current economic recession and lack of adequate information, it has opened up “the Gap.”

    This gap refers to unmet need; the burden that students are left with after all is said and done with the college admissions, scholarship, and financial aid processes. According to the U.S Education Department’s Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, the average unmet need for low-income students trying to attend a public four-year university is $3,800. This amount is enough to keep college-ready students from being able to attend the four-year institution of their choice. For other students, the gap means that they are forced to attend less selective colleges, community college, or have to work through college. College decisions for these students are based not on desire or academic deservingness; they are based on money.

    CO-Fund sees this widening gap as a significant problem in the college admissions process, but it is something that can be alleviated to the benefit of the student, their donors, and society at large. We aim to raise “micro-scholarships” of $2,500 per Fellow per year to help with their college expenses. 

    Alot of people ask if this $2,500 will have any real effect on making college more affordable to students. We believe that it will. Over five hundred universities participating in the 2009 Scholarship America Collegiate Partners Directory agreed to accept up to $2,500 in outside scholarship funds for a student before reducing the need-based aid provided by the university. We want to help the students, not take away from their potential to receive other scholarships. Furthermore, with the combination of our great support-base and financial assisstance, we’re going to help students believe that they can afford to go to and get through the four-year institution of their choice.  

    So, with $2,500 scholarships, raised by online micro-donations as little as $1, CO-Fund is going to chip away at the gap that prevents deserving college-ready students from achieving their educational goals. Student by student we will make people believe that they CAN afford college and help them get there. With all the resources in society and the plethora of people that want to help, “The Gap” is unacceptable. It’s time to do something about it, and CO-Fund is stepping up.

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Selecting the CO-Fund Fellows

    CO-Fund is excited to announce that the first four CO-Fund Fellows have been selected!  James, Maritza, Juan, and Makayla have joined the CO-Fund Family and are ready to begin fundraising.  Representing high schools from the local Providence area, the Fellows are incredibly motivated, well-rounded, and smart students that deserve the best college education that they can get.

    While you can learn more about the CO-Fund Fellows on our website, we want to take the time to explain our selection process. This entire process really hinges around the crucial relationship between CO-Fund and its partner organizations.  CO-fund’s platform benefits advising organizations with an established presence in high schools, such as the National College Advising Corps and College Visions, by providing a vehicle to raise the necessary funds for the college tuition of the very students they already help.  In turn, our partners benefit CO-fund by providing direct access to and personalized screening of students, thereby greatly streamlining the selection process and highlighting truly deserving students to join the CO-fund family.  Furthermore, the ongoing relationship between CO-Fund Fellows, Mentors, and the organization ensures that students will be supported to and through college.

    For our launch in Providence this spring, we asked each of the mentors from our partner organizations to refer two students to us.  The mentors provided a recommendation letter for each student, and the students responded to a few key questions that would appear on their CO-Fund profile.  We then reviewed these applications and arranged casual interviews with each student and their mentor.  In these interviews, we explained the CO-Fund vision and process, and made sure that the students understood and were comfortable with what would be expected of them.  We also asked the students a few questions to get a sense of their passion, work ethic, and dedication to achieving their goal of attending college.  Finally, the CO-Fund team regrouped and decided which students to select.  We kept in mind important factors such as the students’ college-preparedness, personal background, and motivations for becoming a Fellow, and sought to create a well-balanced first CO-fund “class.”

    As soon as we began meeting with students, we realized that the hardest part of this process would be turning anyone away.  It was extremely difficult to select such a limited number of students. However, we are incredibly proud to be working with James, Maritza, Juan and Makayla, and I know I speak for the entire CO-Fund team when I say I am so excited to be working with them! 

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