Crowdfunding: training that pays for itself

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Pocket change, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

Researchers who run crowdfunding campaigns are trying to raise funds for their research. That would seem to go without saying.

Except, if that’s the case, and if research funding is so hard to get, then why isn’t everybody doing it?

When I looked for crowdfunding campaigns run by academic staff at Australian universities, I found only 63% (27) of universities were represented [Data on Figshare]. As far as I could tell, 37% of universities hadn’t had any crowdfunding campaigns run by staff members. Of those that had, only three (7%) had run more than five campaigns. Why is that?

I need to do more work before I can answer that question, but some of the answers revolve around prestige (these aren’t national Research Council grants) and inertia (it is hard to get big organisations to do new things).

I can’t change the lack of prestige around crowdfunding. That will take time – in some quarters, eons may pass.

But I can tackle inertia.

One way to get over the fear of a new thing, is to show that it’s really an old thing that looks new. That is where training comes in.

Professor Deb Verhoeven, who is one of the primary forces behind research crowdfunding in Australia, believes that crowdfunding trains researchers in the skills that they need for the 21st century. I’m inclined to agree with her.

To attract funding from your personal network, you will need to know how to ask people for money. That is axiomatic for a crowdfunding campaign. This is a skill that most academics have never been trained in and, as a result, few have mastered.

At a time when almost every government is restricting the amount of funding, while also looking for more evidence of public support for research, this is a very important skill to master.

In addition, to undertake a successful crowdfunding campaign, you will need to be adept at the art of research communication. In particular, you will need to know how to:

  • Pitch a project to the general public.
  • Build a network of supporters via social media.
  • Talk to the traditional media (e.g. radio, TV, and print).
  • Make a short video.
  • Last the distance.

A crowdfunding campaign provides an intensive, experiential way to learn all of those things. And when I say intensive, I mean intense! Almost everybody that I have spoken to has said, “I didn’t realize how much work it would be”, or words to that effect.

You learn by doing, so a lot of the time you will feel like you have been pushed into the deep end of the pool. It doesn’t matter how much theoretical training you get in how Twitter works, until you get on there and tweet with a purpose, you won’t really know how it works (or how much work it can be).

Paying it forward

I think the first step in any crowdfunding training program is to go out there and fund a project. The best way to learn about what you think is and isn’t effective is to review a few research crowdfunding campaigns for yourself. If you find that you don’t want to fund any of them, then maybe crowdfunding isn’t for you.

Several people that I’ve talked to have mentioned that they became a bit addicted to crowdfunding as a result of supporting their colleagues’ campaigns. There is a strong sense of satisfaction that comes from donating to the common good through crowdfunding.

Pitching a project

In crowdfunding, your pitch document often consists of one to two pages of text and a short video.

If you’ve ever competed in, organized, or judged a Three Minute Thesis competition (3MT), then you will understand the basic approach that is required. Strip your message, your ‘elevator pitch’, back to the essentials without losing your link to the broader issue. Include all the relevant details and no more.

It is a difficult thing to do, but there are abundant training materials available for Three Minute Thesis and it is a format that many academics are familiar with. It provides a structure for developing both a short written statement, and the bare bones of a script for the crowdfunding video.

Asking for funds

There is a big difference between describing your research to Uncle Ken at a family get-together, and asking Uncle Ken to support your research with a $50 donation. While most researchers are familiar with describing the value of their research, they aren’t very experienced in actually asking for funds. This is absolutely an area where training can help.

Most universities have an Office of Sponsored Giving a Development Office or an Advancement Office that has charge of raising donations for the university. They may already provide training on how to ask for funds.

If not, then YouTube is your friend. Amanda Palmer gives great advice in her TED talk on ‘The Art of Asking’. Searching YouTube for ‘asking for donations’ will provide you with a host of advice, too.

Building a network

Using social media to build a network generally means becoming proficient with both Facebook and Twitter. Your university’s social media group may provide training with either or both of these tools. If they don’t, reaching out to frequent users on your campus can be just as effective. Half an hour with a colleague who is keen might give you enough training to get started.

LinkedIn is an excellent ‘business to business’ network that many academics ignore. LinkedIn provides a network of colleagues, rather than friends and family. Recently, I’ve been asking my academics if they link with students on LinkedIn. I’m surprised how many do not, given that the students they teach often go on to work in the industry that they trained them for. Those that do use LinkedIn have described running a training session during final semester, or sending out an invitation after the last class.

There are a plethora of other social networks out there. To some extent, it is a matter of finding one that you are comfortable with. I know people who have built enormously loyal audiences on Flickr and YouTube. I’ve met academics who are more comfortable with Instagram or Tumblr.

For some people, the social media work is a means to an end, and they drop it after the campaign is over. I think that is a shame, as they have built up an audience for their work, and they could share their work with that audience on an ongoing basis. It also gives the impression that they are only ever on social media when they’re asking for something, which is never a good look.

Talking to the media

Like asking for funds, there is often a group at a university that is already charged with training people in how to talk to the media. The Media Unit or Communications Group can also provide training in how to write a press release and how to identify and contact media outlets.

They will be interested in your campaign and will be very interested in knowing when the media has contacted you, and may even provide individual coaching for high profile media, such as television or national radio. They may track media activity, which can be helpful in evaluating how effective your media outreach has been.

Making a video

There may be a multimedia department at your university that can help you with your video. If not, you might want to brainstorm ideas with your (or someone else’s!) kids to get your creative juices flowing. They can bring a sense of creativity and fun to your work.

Reviewing some other research crowdfunding projects will give you a sense of what works and what doesn’t. I find myself tuning out after a surprisingly short time. Even though I’ve worked in multimedia, I very rarely find myself distracted by low production quality. In the end, it comes down to the pitch. A great video won’t save a poor pitch. A great pitch will probably work, even if you shoot it on your phone.

One important point: don’t work alone. Have a critical friend review your video before it goes live, and listen to what they say. You may not have noticed that there is a silly error in that formula on the whiteboard, or that your dog is doing something unmentionable in the background. You want your video to be seen for all the right reasons, not all the wrong ones.

Coping strategies

The emotional side of a crowdfunding campaign is harder to prepare for. Most campaigns have an early spike of funds, followed by a long lull, with a sharp rise at the end. In that long lull in the middle (the ‘valley of death’), you need to keep working on your campaign, even though there is little or no evidence of results. You need resilience and an ability to maintain your self-confidence.

You also need to find the time and do the work. Most crowdfunding campaigns require an hour or two a day for every day of the campaign. That is a lot of time, and a lot of work, especially if you feel that your might be shouting into the void (pro tip: you aren’t).

The best way to cope with this might just be to keep in touch with other researchers who are also running their own crowdfunding campaigns. A good rant and a bit of mutual support goes a long way in the trenches.

This training program invites different groups within a university to contribute their skills and experience to a common cause. Some groups are keen to raise funds; others are keen to raise profile. A crowdfunding campaign provides both.

As an added advantage, since 50-75% of the projects will be successful, this is one training program that literally does pay for itself.

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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. At the moment, he is spending a bunch of time looking at crowdfunding for research. In fact, he has enrolled in a Masters by Research to do just that. He'll let you know how it goes.

7 Responses to Crowdfunding: training that pays for itself

  1. I have developed with some undergraduate students doing their 3rd year project with me an activity for PGR training to get PhD students to understand how to do a crowdfunding activity. This is an interactive training activity. We have trialled the activity once in Sheffield with Biology PhD students. I would be interested to see if people were interested in using this further to improve the resource and further disseminate. Let me know whether you are interested or if someone in the network is interested.

    Dr Sandrine Soubes
    Researcher Development Manager
    Faculty of Science
    The University of Sheffield
    Firth court (room F16), Western bank, S10 2TN
    Tel: (0114) 222-4220

    ThinkAhead blog / @SandrineSoubes
    Think Ahead website
    Faculty of Science Researcher Development webpages

    Liked by 1 person

  2. When you see creative works seek crowd-funding, they often have incentives or rewards for those who donate. This has been my stumbling block when thinking about crowd-funding my research work. What do you give in return? When I crowdfunded funds to pay for an expensive image for an article, I rewarded those who donated with a thanks in the acknowledgments section and a e-copy of the article. Is that enough for people when trying to crowdfund a larger project?

    Like

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      The jury is still out on whether you need rewards or not. Experiment is a research crowdfunding site that doesn’t allow any rewards at all. As they say in their FAQ:

      What is the reward for funding science?

      Results. Scientists share the outcomes of their experiments with their backers.

      I like Pozible’s advice: “The best rewards are those that are worthless and priceless“. They list a number of examples of rewards that are creative and clearly related to the project, but aren’t a product (item produced by the project) or a souvenir (hat, teeshirt, mug…).

      Their first example: recognition. This is a popular one with creative projects. In recognition of funding, you get thanked in the credits. All to often, we forget to say ‘thank you’.

      I’m also a big fan of giving a bit of yourself back as a reward. A short talk by you is something that a school or a community group (Lion’s club, etc) might find enormously valuable. Obviously you can only provide a few of these. They might be face-to-face for locals, or via Skype for people at a distance.

      Knowledge translation is another way to give of your expertise. Sending out a copy of your journal article is a good way to demonstrate that you have actually done what you said you would do (proving the promise, so to speak), but it probably won’t get read by most of your backers (even some of the academic ones). Writing a version that is human-readable is a nice challenge, and it pushes you to produce something that your backers will value. Writing a version (with a teacher) for a classroom of kids is even more fun.

      Involving your backers in your research is a great way to say ‘thank you’. For a very small number of projects, this can involve providing data or crunching data or some other activity that is useful to your project. But that doesn’t work for most research. However, a tour of the lab or campus (or, in your case, historical site or archive) can be a simple way to involve your backers in your research and talk to them about their interest in it.

      The desire to give is powerful, and crowdfunding allows people to give. For research crowdfunding, it allows them to give to the public good. Amanda Palmer has good advice about how to think about asking, and giving back in return.

      When all else fails, turn to Google. “Clever crowdfunding rewards” will provide you with an entertaining evening of reading that might get your ideas flowing.

      Thanks for your blog.

      Jonathan

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Crowdfunding: training that pays for itself | R...

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