Crowdfunding your research

Dear researcher

Thank you very much for sending through your funding proposal. You mentioned that you are trying to obtain corporate sponsorship for this project. That is excellent, and you should continue.

You might also like to think about using a crowdfunding service. Crowdfunding allows you to raise funds from the public. It isn’t for everybody and it is a lot of work but I think that it might suit your project.

To this end, I’ve done a quick analysis of your project’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) that might help you to decide if you want to try to raise funds this way. I hope that you find it useful. Let me know if you want to go ahead.

Before I begin, I should make it clear that everything that follows is just my opinion. It’s early days for crowdfunding, and I don’t have any working experience with it yet.

Strengths

Credibility: Through your project, you aim to archive some of the traditional music in Ghana. You have strong support and involvement from some key traditional musicians in Ghana and from a well respected Ghanian musicologist. I think that this Ghanian support is vital, whether you are seeking funds from crowdfunding or other funding sources. It establishes your credibility more than anything else.

Rewards: At the end of the project you will have some wonderful recordings of traditional Ghanian (palm-wine) music. These could be offered as rewards to crowdfunding supporters. Most crowdfunding projects offer a variety of rewards for supporters, depending on how much they fund. Digital copies of the music would be an excellent reward. However, you should be aware that this may violate the tax-deductible status of any donations to the project. Have a word with your University lawyers to understand how tax-deductible status can work for donations to universities.

Networks: Two of your Australian team have been associated with an African choir in Australia. The past and present members of the choir provide a network of supporters who can to spread the word and might want to fund the project. Also, having run a community choir, you will be familiar with the range of fund-raising events that might help this this project. Look out for other networks that you could reach out to, such as the fans of the music (particularly among the Ghanian diaspora) and the Professor’s ex-students.

Media: Your project is quite media-friendly. We could try to promote the project through the Australian music media as well as the mainstream media. Do the Ghanian diaspora in Australia have a local newspaper or radio show? That would be helpful.

There is also an active blog network that discusses African issues. Ethan Zuckerman, for example, might be interested in the project. Ethan is the director of the MIT Center for Civic Media and has a long-term interest in Ghana. He writes an influential blog called My Heart’s In Accra – he might like to let his readers know about the project.

Weaknesses

Budget: Your current project budget is a little over $60,000. While this isn’t an impossible ask, it is a big ask for Australian crowdfunding. While Pozible, the main crowd funding service in Australia, has had at least one project that has raised $240,000+, most aim for $20,000 or less (generally far less). For example, the Baucau Music and Art Festival in Timor Leste raised just over $20,000.

One option would be to use crowdfunding to raise a specific part of your funding, such as production costs. This would be especially effective if you already had matching funding from other sponsors.

Another option would be to try Kickstarter, the main American service. They have had multiple projects that have raised over $1 million. However, this would require an American bank account, which means an American collaborator that you can trust – trust with all your funds, at that.

You could try one of the services that specifically aim to fund research, such as Microryza or Rockethub.

While there are many different crowdfunding services, they generally use one of two distinct models.

  1. All or nothing: Many crowdfunding services, including Pozible and Kickstarter, operate on an ‘all or nothing’ basis. You nominate a target. If you don’t reach your target, you don’t get anything. If you reach your target, you get the funds (minus transaction costs). The all or nothing approach can help you to get across the line – it can create a sense of urgency in the closing days of your campaign, which can generate excitement in your supporters. However, it does mean that you need to think very carefully about what your target will be.
  2. Keep everything: Some crowdfunding services, including Rockethub, operate on a ‘keep everything’ basis. You still nominate a target to indicate how much you need. However, you keep every dollar you raise (minus transaction costs). If you only raise $10, you still get $10 (less transaction costs). Rockethub charges higher transaction costs for campaigns that don’t reach their target, so you still should think carefully about your target amount.

You should also be aware that all of these services will charge significant transaction fees. The crowdfunding services make it simple to set up a page about your projects, push it out to social network services like Facebook and Twitter and process incoming donations. If you can do all this yourself, then the cheapest way to do this is to conduct your own fund-raising drive, just like you would if you were a kindergarten or a public radio station. On the other hand, if you want to use their services, they will charge you 5 – 10% for the convenience. In addition, there will be credit card processing costs which might up to 5% in some cases. So you might budget 10 – 15% for transaction costs. That means another $6,000 -$9,000 on top of the budget.

Opportunities

Building an audience: The key advantage of running a crowdfunding campaign is that you will build an audience for your project before it has even begun. It might take 2,000+ people to reach your goal. Each of those people will have shown their support by giving you real money. They have a very real interest in your project.

This can provide a great boost to your project, especially since it is about music. There will be an audience for your results before you even begin recording. Once you do start releasing the music, they will be there to appreciate it, provide feedback and push it out to their networks.

Threats

Lack of experience: While you clearly have a lot of experience in raising funding for community groups, and I have a lot of experience raising funds through research grants, none of us has much experience raising funds through crowdfunding services. Nobody does (except maybe Deb Verhoeven’s team). Crowdfunding services for research are new. They take advantage of social networking services on the Internet, like Facebook and Twitter, to make it easy to reach out to your extended network.

This means that there are lots of new skills that you will need to master. These include:

  • Making a short pitch video. This video will introduce your project and ask people for donations. It is a key element of your campaign.
  • Using e-mail effectively. The main way to reach out to people is via e-mail. Writing an effective e-mail that solicits funds isn’t hard, but you do need to think about it a bit. For example, you need to make sure that your e-mail isn’t dismissed as spam. You also need to make sure that you only contact people that you have a clear connection with, people who might be interested in helping you. Otherwise, spam…
  • Using social networks. You should also run your funding campaign via the social networks that you are on (if any). Twitter is particularly effective for generating a buzz around your project. If you aren’t very active on social networks, then there might be a bit of a steep learning curve to get up to speed.
  • Contacting the press. As well as conducting your own campaign, you will want to try to get some press coverage for your project. This will include traditional press (radio, newspapers, TV), as well as online press (bloggers and prominent tweeters). As I indicated earlier, there are some influential bloggers who are interested in this topic. They can help you reach out to potential funders.
  • Running events. As with your community choir, fundraising events can help to focus your efforts.

Running a campaign like this is a lot of work in a short space of time. Because we are unfamiliar with some of the tools, there are a lot of lessons to learn in a short amount of time. Besides, this is all about reaching out to people and engaging with strangers. This can make for an intense experience.

I think that your project would be an excellent candidate for crowdfunding. If successful, it will provide funds for your project as well as building an audience for the music. I’d be happy to help you if you choose to proceed. Let me know.


This post is based on recent advice I sent to a proposal that came from a friend of a friend. I’d like to thank the project leader for permission to re-purpose it for the Research Whisperer.

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About Jonathan O'Donnell
Jonathan O'Donnell helps people get funding for their research. To be specific, he helps the people in the College of Design and Social Context at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. He loves his job. One day a week he does his own research into privacy, identity and transactions on the Internet. He likes that day, too, even when it makes his brain hurt.

One Response to Crowdfunding your research

  1. Ray Phelan says:

    Technofunding is a crowdfunding website which specializes in Technology and Science projects. http://www.technofunding.com

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