About ten years ago I stumbled upon a revolutionary website that introduced me to the concept of microloans: Kiva.org. With as little as $25, I could contribute funds to individuals all over the world, and especially in impoverished third world countries, in order to help them achieve their business goals. People who wouldn’t normally have access to traditional banking systems were now able to obtain loans and expand their income, providing better lives for their families. Within a year, my partner and I had contributed to more than a dozen businesses and were rewarded as our funds were paid back both monetarily and through the sense of joy we experienced each time we were sent an update or photo from the person we’d funded.
After my introduction to Kiva, I started wondering if there wasn’t a way to contribute financial resources to individuals in need without the need of a payback. Sure enough, within a few short years, the concept of crowdfunding exploded. Crowdfunding is, in essence, the potential to leverage the power of social media in order to build widespread support for a project. Crowdfunding builds upon the idea of crowdsourcing: “the act of outsourcing tasks, traditionally performed by an employee or contractor, to an undefined, large group of people or community (a “crowd”), through an open call.” (Wikipedia)
The basic concept of generally goes like this: you pitch an idea, set a fundraising goal and choose a deadline for raising funds – typically 30 to 45 days from start. (The last point has been rendered obsolete with the introduction of new, never-expiring platforms like GoFundMe).
A 2014 Forbes article quotes a Crowdfunding Industry Report by Massolution which states that an estimated $5.1 Billion was raised through online crowdfunding in 2013. 2014 brought new crowdfunding sites that further accelerated the rapid industry growth.
Kickstarter was the major crowdfunding website that started it all – whether needing the cash to fund an innovative consumer product, a CD release or to get an indie film made, people who might never have had the ability to see their dream in action began to connect with others who understood their vision and, more importantly, were willing to bankroll it with as little as a single dollar.
Kickstarter’s unique concept still rests in its all-or-nothing approach – if your financial goal isn’t met by the end of the campaign, everyone who contributed gets their money refunded and the project creator walks away with nothing. This was meant to encourage 1) realistic fundraising goals, and 2) the public’s trust that their money would actually be used for a project that got enough funding to actually get made.
Because of their history and the public’s familiarity with its concept and reliability, Kickstarter still remains the most popular platform for crowdfunding. However, the competition for funds is fierce, and now there is such demand for campaign creation that Kickstarter’s team has implemented a system of pre-approval – which means you compete with other idea pitchers before you even have a chance to be featured on the site. Due to the fierce competition, having a high-quality video that explains your pitch is pretty much a necessity.
However, there are a couple of other newer crowdfunding sites that are rapidly gaining in brand name recognition and giving people a chance to raise funds without forcing them to take an all-or-nothing risk. The most reliable competitors to Kickstarter are Indiegogo and GoFundMe.
This spring I launched a campaign on Indiegogo for a new memoir project, and two months later I continued it using GoFundMe as a platform. Both sites have a lot of similarities, and while I chose Indiegogo initially and would still recommend it to start with (I’ll explain why in a minute), I found that GoFundMe offers the most flexibility via their open-ended campaign platform. This means there is no expiry date to the pitch, and you can keep the link live and continue receiving donations over time, as long as people are still willing to support your project.
It’s no secret why I chose not to go the Kickstarter route – the all-or-nothing approach was a deal-breaker for me. I’m not a gambling person, and I don’t have thousands of fans and family members to solicit from. I also dreaded the figures – as of today’s Kickstarter stats, only 37.12% of projects are successful. I feared having to beg everyone for donations for a month and raise only a portion of my needed amount – only to lose it all. It wasn’t a gamble I was willing to make.
So I went with Indiegogo because they have a beautiful and intuitive website interface and lots of the artists I know were using them at the time to fund their project. I think I set a deadline of 45 days for my campaign, and then it was live and searchable within minutes. No glitches, no staff preapproval process – just smooth sailing all the way. They also have a much larger international presence than Kickstarter, and aren’t as North American-centric. An important factor for me, given that my book research involved travel to eastern Europe.
The thing that makes GoFundMe third in my view (behind Kickstarter and Indiegogo) is the fact that you need to raise a threshold of $500 before your campaign can be featured and searchable on their public site. The link still works, but it’s not searchable via their website. However, GoFundMe makes up for this major flaw by allowing you to withdraw the donations as soon as they come rolling in, instead of waiting for an expiration date.
There are, of course, other websites where you can raise funds for humanitarian cause or a charitable purpose – the most popular among non-profit organizations is FirstGiving. But since this is a Basic Guide for Artists (and since my word-count for this article is reaching epic proportions) I’m going to limit myself to these top three sites.
If you take a moment to visit my crowdfunding project pages at Indiegogo and GoFundMe, you’ll see how I set them up and the kinds of thank-you Rewards (or Perks, as Indiegogo calls it) you can provide to your donors. It’s extremely important to offer something back – because people need to see proof of their donation in action. Even if your project might be delayed in completion – and one of the biggest complaints about Kickstarter and other platforms is that the projects often run late in delivery – you still need to keep your backers informed as to how things are going.
All in all, I raised close to $2000 for my book using a combination of Indiegogo, GoFundMe and private donations via Paypal – I’d set up a donation button on my website and sent the link to anyone who expressed discomfort over registering on a crowdfunding website. I was actually surprised at how many people opted to donate directly to me. Although I still came short of my goal of $8000, the money I did raise was invaluable and helped cover my flight ticket to Romania, as well as part of the cost of accommodations.
A 12-Step Battleplan on how you can get your project funded:
1. Do Your Homework
Look up the most successful campaigns on Kickstarter – after you watch a few pitches, a pattern starts to emerge. The best campaigns will use humour or emotion to elicit a response from their potential backer audience.
2. Develop a Social Media Strategy
Identify any particular target audience and figure out how to reach them. It might involve joining new groups and discussions on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Reddit, Yahoo Groups, Google Plus and anyplace in between. If you have any media contacts, try to line up interviews as soon as the campaign goes live. Remember that it takes time for a story to be developed, approved by an editor and then broadcast on television or in print, and a campaign can go by really fast. So make sure your media exposure will take place while the campaign is still live.
If you already have a fanbase or following built around your artistic or professional profile, you need to leverage it. You may need to contact each person individually, so start early. Customize your promotion to suit your platform. Don’t just ask your friends and fans for money – ask them to spread the word among their own friends and contacts. Asking them to donate a moment of their time to share your link (especially if they don’t have a job and money to contribute financially) is equally important.
4. Create a Winning Pitch
Be passionate about what you’re trying to create. Show your emotion and let people feel how important this is to you. Don’t hold back, and don’t just assume others will understand how critical it is. This isn’t a time to be subtle, so go forth with all guns blazing. Try to make an impression from the first paragraph. Don’t assume people will scroll down and read your entire pitch, so try to grab them from the first sentence.
If you have the ability to film your pitch – do it. The added human factor of your audience seeing and hearing you speak from your heart about what you want to accomplish will make a huge difference. I’ve seen fantastic videos and poorly-made ones, and in my opinion if you don’t have the skills or equipment to produce a good video, it’s probably better to skip it and focus on other visual imagery such as photos. At the bare minimum, you absolutely must have a photo of yourself so that people can see who they are backing.
5. Project Confidence
Above all – can you deliver on your pitch? Do you have the experience or credentials to get this done? If you’re pitching for a movie, do you have any knowledge of media production or camerawork? If you’re pitching for a book – have you ever written and/or published anything before? In essence – are you qualified or equipped to get the work done?
“People don’t want to back a campaign that’s not going to work,” says writer and entrepreneur Seth Godin about his crowdfunding experiences. You have to convince your potential backers that you are a winner, that cool kid who’s going to re-enact a David vs Goliath epic battle and triumph in the end. Most people want to support others succeed and vicariously join in that feeling of triumph and success.
6. Show How the Money will be Spent
Don’t just talk about how important this is to you. people need to see a detailed explanation of how exactly you’ll be using their money. The more detailed the plan, the more credibility you’ll gain for your project. Make a ballpark figure on what it will cost to supply materials, or what the travel and research costs might be, within reason.
7. Get your Hands Dirty – Promote Every Day
It still surprises me how many people think they can just launch a crowdfunding project and it will magically get funded. For every idiot who wins the Kickstarter lottery by pitching a harebrained concept like making potato salad and gets $50,000, there are thousands of worthwhile, well-thought-out projects that go unnoticed and unfunded. So don’t assume that yours will be the one that gets lucky, because the odds are against you.
This mentality of “If you build it, they will come” is just plain wrong, because it enables you to get lazy about soliciting donations from everywhere around you. Remember: close to 50 percent of donations will come from people you know. Yes, you read that right. For campaigns to go viral, your friends have to share with their friends, who in turn tell all their friends and relatives about it.
Email everyone in your contacts list. Tweet about it every other day. Contact people who aren’t normally on social media – email them at their regular email addresses. Ask them to check out your campaign link and tell you what they think. I’ve received cheques in the snail mail and Paypal donations directly. Don’t just rely on Kickstarter or Indiegogo – money can come from unexpected sources!
8. Don’t use Social Media exclusively as a Promotional Tool
Don’t start friending new people and joining new groups to just post a link to your crowdfunding campaign. Some group moderators might consider such an approach as spamming. Worse yet, new friends and potential new acquaintances will see your approach as not entirely genuine. So take the time to build new contacts and relationships with people before telling them about your campaign. Build meaningful engagements that will last well beyond your campaign’s expiry date.
It might take a lot of time, but you have to make the time to contact people individually. Personalize your emails and Facebook direct messages to each person – don’t just mass-email a “Hey guys, I need your help” message, because it will be ignored. It’s much harder to ignore a personalized request than a spam-type message. Yes, this involves tailoring your messages to each person in your Facebook or LinkedIn account, but you’ll likely get people’s attention that way.
9. You might need to use Social Media Advertising
The average crowdfunding campaign earns less than $10,000. If you have a significant goal, you will need to buy ads. From my experience, Facebook ads (and to a smaller degree, Twitter ads) are likely the best option to target consumers, but getting the right key words to target a particular audience is crucial. Don’t make your reach too broad or too narrow, but also remember that you can’t spend too much money – the whole point of this is to earn donations for your project, not spend for advertising. Create a budget for the ads – say, $50 – and stick to it.
10. Set a Reasonable Intention
If the project costs will be very high (say, over $10,000) consider breaking up the crowdfunding campaign into several chunks. This is especially important on an all-or-nothing platform like Kickstarter, where if your goal is too high you risk losing everything you’ve already raised. It’s something I’ve seen over and over, and it’s really sad considering how much energy and hope people put into their fundraising.
Even if your funding model is flexible, such as on Indiegogo, don’t consider it an invitation to set an unrealistic goal. I’ve recently seen an Indiegogo campaign for a book by a first-time author set its goal at $40,000. This is excessive and will be perceived as unreasonable by almost anyone who reads that pitch – the author didn’t mention any travel plans or particular reason why he would ask for such a high figure and, given his lack of a writing background, it appeared like a delusional request. When it comes to crowdfunding books – where there isn’t a high cost for manufacturing materials and the most expensive item on your list might be a laptop or word processor, you have to be especially careful to be realistic. Even if the project involves travel for research, try to keep your budget as tight as possible.
Remember that people naturally and subconsciously want to side with a winner. Don’t let them smell the possibility of a failure by making an unreasonable demand.
11. Your Success or Failure at Crowdfunding does Not Reflect Your Project’s Intrinsic Value
This is the most important thing I can tell you – don’t take it personally if people you thought you could count on don’t come through for you. In my mind, this is the most important thing to remember – it hurts far more to be ignored by people you’ve been friends for years than by casual online acquaintances.
There were girls I went to school with, women I had histories with, old classmates who were employed in good government jobs. People who frequently posted photos of fancy restaurant dinners and weekends away at exotic retreats. People who always seemed to be online on Facebook….except for the month I started posting about my fundraising campaign. It’s a phenomenon I’ve read about on other people’s blogs — your so-called friends mysteriously vanish, make up some excuse about not having seen your post, or promise to take a look later and then never respond to your messages….until your campaign is finished. Then suddenly everybody is talking to you again. There’s no more awkwardness about not wanting to cough up $5 or $10 to support your vision.
I don’t consider people like these friends anymore. It’s a harsh statement to make, but in this age of social media we often fool ourselves into thinking we are more popular than we really are. You can boast of a thousand Facebook “friends” but in reality have less than ten people in your close circle who really “get” who you are.
Crowdfunding has a funny way of revealing who is really in your court. I can understand the reluctance of people who don’t know me personally to get involved in supporting my campaign (although donating a single dollar wouldn’t kill them). But I have to admit that yes, I did experience disappointment and feelings of betrayal when individuals I considered friends for decades (and who were gainfully employed) wouldn’t even acknowledge my messages or offer a single dollar as a donation. Even as a gesture of faith.
In fact, I noticed an interesting juxtaposition between friends in lower-income brackets and those making higher figures – in general, the ones with less money actually donated more to my campaign. With a couple of exceptions I’m very grateful for, many of those who considered themselves upper-middle class or in the highest income bracket were actually the stingiest.
It’s next to impossible not to take this personally, not to see the lack of donations as a correlation to someone’s lack of faith in you. Because it is. I’m going to be frank here, but if someone who’s known you for most of your life, is privy to your hopes, ambitions and passions and recognizes what this project means to you and still makes an excuse or refuses to help, it’s not about not having $5 to give.
Support comes in many ways – people can still share the link to your campaign on their Facebook wall, with their friends or Twitter network. They can send you a message of encouragement, if nothing else. Someone who doesn’t offer a single dollar and doesn’t share the link with anyone cannot claim to have any support for your dreams. This is a hard fact to accept, but in the end you must understand that it’s not to do with you. Their unwillingness to help is more due to stinginess, jealousy or perhaps one’s lack of faith in their own ability to crowdfund successfully. No matter what the reason, it’s not your fault.
Forget the nay-sayers and the unsupportive. Show them how they missed out on being part of something truly wonderful and possibly even revolutionary. Above all, remember this: Someone’s rejection of your dream isn’t a judgement on the strength or worthwhileness of what you are trying to accomplish.
The famous Greek philosopher Epictetus once said, ‘In prosperity it is very easy to find a friend; in adversity, nothing is so difficult.’ When you’re popular and on top of the world, everybody is your friend. But when you’re down and need support, be it emotional or financial, the herd thins out and you begin to see who your real friends actually are.
12. You’re Not Doing This Alone
Whether you get all the funding you need, or a small portion of it – it’s important to be grateful. Even if you asked for $10,000 and received only $100, it’s a hundred dollars you didn’t have before and it brings with it the knowledge that others have faith in you. Don’t think about those who didn’t support you – think of the people who did. Persevere and get the work done. Over-deliver on everything you promised.
Even when things get rough, remember that you have a crowd of supporters behind you – these people implicitly understand and support your vision. Some will be close friends, others new acquaintances and even complete strangers who donate anonymously. This is the beauty of crowdfunding –you are embraced by a strong circle of supporters who are your motivation and a battalion for your self-esteem. Your campaign backers are walking with you at every step of the way. You’re doing this for them as much as you’re doing it for you – so use their willingness to take a chance on your dream as fuel for your fire.