After three years of successful competitions, mentors for the robotics program at Westlake High School* saw a distinct need for increased fundraising. It’s no secret that school budgets have been strained for years, becoming even more so recently. Westlake’s competition robotics programs were feeling the crunch and needed help.

Founder Linda McMahon, already aware of the many benefits to students and the community from having such a competition program, dove into researching the issue, discovering:

  • School budgets leave the high school program saddled with a >$20K shortfall (as of 2007; the number has since increased) from the minimum needed to operate a first-rate competition robotics program.
  • There are myriad other competition robotics programs within the district, both school- and community-based, all of which needed additional financial support and publicity.
  • There was interest at Eanes Independent School District (EISD) schools and within the Eanes community for additional competition robotics programs, as well as other types of STEM-competition programs, all of which could benefit from such an organization.
  • Many businesses and industries were unaware of the existence of and benefits realized from competition robotics programs, which needed to be more widely publicized.
  • EISD is falsely recognized as a district with more money than it needs, and its student population is falsely identified as all coming from “rich” families that can and do readily pay for whatever is needed.
  • EISD’s and the District’s individual schools’ demographics make acquiring grant funds challenging.
  • Less than 3% of most all nonprofit funding comes from grant funds, with >75% coming from individual donations.

The need was apparent and Linda forged ahead with a business plan for a new educational and scientific nonprofit organization. Linda’s plan proposed that the organization offer a wider reach than only Westlake High School’s competition robotics program. Smaller programs, even those not tied to an EISD school, could turn to WESTA for umbrella support, without having to jump through the hoops needed to start their own nonprofit and at much less expense than operating under other nonprofit umbrella groups.

Realizing the need for parent “booster” support, Linda’s plan also called for the involvement of parents with children active in its sponsored programs in its operation and decision-making. This included not only representation at EISD PTO meetings, but having the organization focus not solely on fundraising but on more wide-reaching support of its sponsored programs, enhancing the benefits to participants and their families, the community, and future employers of program graduates. In fact, the organization’s bylaws require that its officers all be parents of either current or former program participants. This allows the organization to also double as the “booster” organization for Chap Robotics programs within the Eanes ISD, ensuring a close link to its primary, if not sole, service area. Since its inception, the organization has grown beyond that of a booster club into more of a fundraising-based nonprofit that supports the competition robotics teams in the EISD community.

However, Linda also recognized the unique dynamic of competition robotics programs, which depend on and benefit from professionals who volunteer as mentors to its sponsored programs. This allows for ongoing student interaction with engineers, programmers, designers, and others, creating adjunct educators who provide hands-on inspiration, guidance, and education to student participants (and even educators at EISD schools) directly from those actively involved in local industry. Most competition robotics programs include this type of mentorship component. It’s how both Linda and her husband initially became involved. This involvement is extended into WESTA’s leadership, which includes mentor representatives, as well as at-large members who are industry professionals, allowing for expert advisors for special educational offerings (particularly off-season) and acquisition of capital equipment, software resources, etc., for placement with competition programs. These types of interactions also help identify potential internship, summer job, research, and similar opportunities, further extending the benefits WESTA provides to program participants.

With help from a parent with a law background, Linda drafted the organization’s bylaws and circulated among current parents for a few days for input.

In September 2010, WESTA* formally became a Texas nonprofit corporation and, soon after, it received its designation as a federal 501(c)(3) educational and scientific charitable organization.

UPDATE: In March 2014, WESTA’s status as a federal nonprofit was automatically revoked. This is not an uncommon occurrence for small nonprofits that rely solely on volunteer help. WESTA is taking the necessary steps to achieve reinstatement of its 501(c)(3) status, retroactive to the date of revocation, for the benefit of its programs and donors. It has also taken and is taking steps to ensure that this situation does not reoccur. WESTA remains in good-standing as a Texas nonprofit.

* Westlake High School is located in the Eanes Independent School District (EISD), located in Austin, Travis County, Texas.