Patronage as a research crowdfunding model

Martin Pfeiffer with a box of National Nuclear Security Administration FOIA documents.

Martin Pfeiffer with a box of National Nuclear Security Administration FOIA documents. Used with permission.

Meet Martin Pfeiffer. Martin uses anthropology to investigate nuclear weapons. That’s amazing, in and of itself. Even more interestingly, Martin is crowdfunding his research and I’m all in favour of research crowdfunding.

What really got me excited, though, was how Martin is crowdfunding his research. Martin is crowdfunding on Patreon.

Patreon works differently to most other crowdfunding services. On Patreon, you donate a small amount regularly. For example (and in the spirit of full disclosure), I support Martin for US$2 per month.

As I write this, people like me are donating $551 per month to Martin’s research, and that funding base is growing. On 27 June 2017, when I subscribed, Martin was receiving $442 in donations. Now it is $551. By the time you read this, it may have crept a bit higher.

$550 per month doesn’t seem like much, but $6,000 a year (you lose a bit on fees) can be handy when you need to pay for copying, or freedom of information requests, or local travel, or any of the myriad of costs that may or may not be covered by your research grant.

It is comparable to other research crowdfunding campaigns that are based on a project by project model. In Australia, where I’ve done my research, most research crowdfunding campaigns are raising A$6,000 to A$9,000. Martin’s funding is annual, so a true comparison would be someone who is running a crowdfunding campaign every year. Most researchers are not willing to do that. It is too much work and they don’t want to exhaust their donor base.

It is also comparable to what I would give to a project-based campaign. Most of the time, if I’m going to donate to something, I’ll probably donate about $25. My $2 per month is a similar amount, just spread out over the year. If I find someone that I like, I’m generally willing to fund them on an on-going basis. After all, their research isn’t about one project, it is about an on-going program of work.

Martin’s funding is also untied funding. That is, Martin can spend it on anything related to his research. He isn’t bound by what he wrote in a research application or a funding agreement. He works in line with what he has written on his Patreon page. If he discovers something interesting, he can follow his curiosity. He doesn’t need to file a Change Request to a funding body. He can just do it.

That doesn’t mean that he can use the funds to drink margaritas on a beach (Bikini Atoll, perhaps). Martin is a PhD student at the University of New Mexico. He is governed by university rules, ethics requirements, professional reputation and his own conscience. Also, as a funder, if I don’t like the direction of his research, I can stop funding him.

As a funder, I like Patreon because it brings me closer to the research. There is an expectation that the people I follow on Patreon will send me updates on their research. They’ll keep in touch. Cindy Wu, co-founder of Experiment, called this ‘publishing in real time’. It is one of the most powerful aspects of crowdfunding, and one that many project-based crowdfunders struggle with.

As a research whisperer, I like the Patreon model because it funds research the way that we do research – incrementally. Most research funding works on a project model. You design a project (generally for three years) and describe what you are going to do over that time. If you are funded, you sign a contract that you will execute that plan over the next three years. In research, things rarely go to plan. Given that an integral element of research is intellectual risk, you could say that research is, by definition, not supposed to go to plan.

The common complaint about the project-based model is that your research time is taken up with fund raising. This is particularly true for project-based crowdfunding. Crowdfunding is, by all accounts, incredibly time-consuming. Once you’ve got your funds, you then need to do the project. Once you finish the project, you then need to exhaust yourself raising funds again.

Don’t get me wrong – Patreon is a lot of work, too. It is just that the work that you do involves communicating your research to your funders and the public. Some people might dismiss this as relentless self-promotion. I see it as finding your audience. It is public engagement and research communication. Where it works well, you get as much (or more) from your audience as you give.

Who might this work for?

Crowdfunding is hard work, and it is different work. It doesn’t suit everybody. The people at SciFund Challenge wrote a paper called “To Crowdfund Research, Scientists Must Build an Audience for Their Work”. That is both a recommendation and a warning. Most crowdfunders struggle to get donations from anyone other than their friends and family. That isn’t the core audience for your research.

I like the Patreon model because the task of building your audience is integrated with the task of raising funds. When you start your Patreon campaign, you have zero supporters. As you find them, one after the other, you are also connecting with your audience. As you build your audience, you carry them with you. The work of finding your audience never stops. You don’t have to build an audience, and then ask them for funds. You do both at the same time.

That means that Patreon is ideal for research communicators. By definition, they are seeking to build an audience. Patronage provides a way to let your audience show their appreciation. SciShow, Science for the People and the amazing Upulie Divisekera are good examples here.

Patronage is, at its core, about generosity (it is also about power, but that is a different discussion). Patreon provides a way to thank people who do good things. As such, I think that it can work for people who make stuff. Andrew Thaler is a good example – he makes open tools for ocean science. He also runs a blog on oceanography and does his own research. Because the patronage model is untied funding, the funds can be spent on all of these things, as required.

I’m also excited about the potential of Patreon to support independent researchers. Indies have to cover their own costs for the most basic equipment, like desk and chair. They often work hard to make sure their name is out there, so that people understand that, as well as doing their own research, they are available to do interesting research consulting work, too. Often they combine independent research with research communication. Good examples in this space are Audrey Watters, who critiques educational technology, and Eleanor Saitta, who writes on security and systems failures.

Who doesn’t this work for?

In my experience, crowdfunding can work for any discipline. However, it doesn’t work for all topics. People working on topics with highly organized opposition groups, like vaccination and gun control, often keep their head below the parapets, and for good reason.

It won’t work if you can’t get outside your current network. Crowdfunding is generally done by social media, so you need to be active on social media to find the people who are (a) interested in your topic and (b) interested enough to actually give you a small regular donation to help you do more research. The SciFund Challenge paper talks about 100 people visiting your campaign page for every person who donates. That figure is similar to general fundraising statistics that I’ve seen. So, you need to be constantly talking to different people who might be interested in your work. Some people just don’t want to do that.

It may not be suitable if you are seeking to commercialise your work, or you are working under a non-disclosure agreement or other limitation on what you can share with the public.

Actually, in any situation where you are not prepared to share, it probably won’t work. One of the things that I like about Martin is that he is constantly putting out interesting little bits of information.

If you can get it to work, you may find that the money becomes secondary to the value of the enthusiastic audience that you build up for your research. For me, that network of supporters is the best thing about the patronage model.


Please note that, at the time of writing, I contribute small amounts to some of the crowdfunding campaigns mentioned in this article:

Change log

15 Aug 2017: Changed ‘It may be suitable if you are seeking to commercialise…’ to ‘It may not…’. Thanks to Justin for picking this up.

16 Aug 2017: Added Upulie after she confirmed that she was happy to be included.

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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 has been doing that, on and off, since the 1990's (with varying degrees of success). He loves his job. He loves it so much that he has enrolled in a PhD to look at crowdfunding for research. With Tseen Khoo, he runs the Research Whisperer blog and @ResearchWhisper Twitter stream, about doing research in academia.

4 Responses to Patronage as a research crowdfunding model

  1. Justin says:

    Hi Jonathan – I assume you meant to say “It may *NOT* be suitable if you are seeking to commercialise your work, or you are working under a non-disclosure agreement…” in that third last sentence? Otherwise, super interesting article!

    Like

  2. Helen says:

    Great ongoing series….thanks Jonathan

    Like

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