Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime?

31 Mar

A few weeks ago, I completed an Indiegogo campaign to raise the pay rates of an upcoming anthology of short stories.  Thanks to the 91 contributors and the dozens more who provided signal boost and other forms of encouragement, Strange Bedfellows will open for submissions in a few days, paying professional rates of 5.5 ¢ a word.

It was, frankly, a lot of work.  Designing the campaign and dreaming up the perks were the easy parts.  What followed were almost daily (or several times daily) promotional tweets, Facebook posts and blog mentions, followed up by over 300 personal e-mails to potential donors.  And the work doesn’t stop with the end of the campaign.  The process of thanking and acknowledging donors and sending people their perks has to be completed and a mechanism to let people know about progress of the project needs to be designed.  (For people looking for hints to running their own campaign, there are lessons learned at the end of the blog.)

I didn’t do a precise breakdown but Indiegogo claims that roughly 25% of all funds raised come from family and close personal friends.  Another 50-60% come from your ‘community of interest,’ that is, people you have both a personal connection with and who share an interest in the proposed project.  The rest comes from relative or complete strangers who are attracted to the concept.  In really big campaigns, such as the recent Kickstarter campaign to make a ‘Veronica Mars’ movie, it is the third group who dominate.  But there are far more campaigns of the scope and scale of Strange Bedfellows than there are of the ‘Veronica Mars’ type.

Although most of the crowd sourcing buzz centres on arts projects or on neat technological devices, these web-based fundraising systems (and there are at least seven or eight that I know of) have been used to promote development projects in the third world or for personal campaigns to help people whose houses have burned down or, especially in the United States, have inadequate medical coverage to deal with catastrophic illness.

While it may seem like this is something new and amazing (if the breathless media coverage is to be believed), crowd sourcing money (CSM) has been around forever.  Like most innovation – whether on the Internet or in an exciting new short story – the Indiegogos of the world take a couple of existing ideas and jam them together, then present them in a shiny new package.

Anyone in the arts knows that most projects need external support to succeed – beyond what can be raised by sales of the product itself.  Ranging from bake sales to casinos to government grants, artists scrounge together the cash to support themselves while they do their work.  The elephant in the room is, of course, direct solicitation.  Most people hate to do it, particularly if they seem to be the main beneficiary.  After all, it seems like begging.  That’s why so many organizations use go-betweens, professional fundraisers and the like, who for a fee or commission will deliver the message for you.  Which is exactly what fundraising web-sites do – present your message in a somewhat arms length way and take a cut of the proceeds when you succeed.

However, CSM web-sites mine other sources than traditional fund-raising models which are based largely on concepts of philanthropy (i.e. people give money because it is a ‘good cause’ rather than for more personal reasons). On the one hand they encourage a sense of ownership among contributors – they are joining a team to support a creator, even if the end product may be distant and even uncertain.  No one can know for sure that Strange Bedfellows will be a good anthology or that anyone will read it – contributions have elements of both faith and risk, as well as an interest among contributors in making it succeed.  This is quite different than giving to an established theatre company or research lab.

To me, it’s like buying penny stocks on the venture capital market.  People I know don’t do it because they expect to get rich (though they won’t object if they do) but because it provides a chance to be in on the ground floor of something exciting.  It will be interesting to see if that sense of ownership results in a greater commitment down the road to making the project succeed.  The question for me is: will my contributors feel more inclined a year from now to talk up the book through social media and word of mouth than people with no ‘investment?’  Of course, beyond some immediate perks and a copy of the book, my investors won’t actually profit monetarily from Strange Bedfellow’s success but, presumably they will receive psychic rewards.

The third key component of CSM is the sense of community.  In the modern world, communities are constructed, built around areas of interest and shared values rather than proximity – but community is still community.  Recently, my in-laws contributed their efforts to help out a neighbour in distress.  The whole town – a little place in rural Alberta – came together one weekend and held an auction.  The amount paid for the donated goods – from pies to flat-screen TVs – far exceeded their value.  But by raising money through an inclusive community event, neighbours were able to give money while preserving the dignity of the recipients.  It wasn’t charity; it was community.

Philanthropy, investment and community are all parts of a successful CSM campaign.  Giving because you support the cause, giving in the expectation of return, even if only psychological, and giving because it’s what neighbours do – bringing those disparate elements together in an easy to use world-wide platform is the real innovation behind Indiegogo and Kickstarter.

Lessons Learned

Fundraising costs both time and money; be prepared to invest both and take into account the cost of raising money in your campaign.  The web-site itself will charge between 4 and 9% of contributions, depending on how you structure your campaign.  In addition, Paypal will take their cut when the money is transferred to you.  Providing perks is not generally free; besides the cost of goods, there is the cost of postage.  I didn’t take all of this into account and, as a result, will wind up spending more than I originally planned to produce the anthology.

Asking people for money is not always easy.  Even people who love you, don’t necessarily want to give you money.  Sometimes they want to but can’t right now; you can never really know what goes on in people’s bedrooms or bank accounts.  Be direct but give people options of other ways to support you; acknowledge that this is not how everyone wants to support the arts (or whatever).  It’s their money and their choice; be sensitive to that in making the ‘ask.’

A ‘thank you’ is a ‘please’ according to an old fund-raising mentor of mine (who BTW, gave a donation – thanks, Sam).  People have given you something – they deserve your thanks and appreciation.  The thanks is shown directly, through a note or e-mail.  The appreciation is shown by carrying out the project as promised and keeping people in the loop about progress.  It is also shown by paying attention to details, like spelling names right in the acknowledgement sections of Strange Bedfellows.  On a pragmatic note, you can run one successful CSM campaign without thanking people; you can’t run two.

Signal boosts are an important contribution.  Simple tweets or posts spread the word and get people to the fund-raising site.  When supporters went a little farther by blogging about it (thanks to Peter Watts, Chadwick Ginther, Liz Strange, David Brin) or posting a detailed appeal (Robert J. Sawyer and Dani Kollin), I actually saw a jump in contributions – especially from people I didn’t know.

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