How to Get Faculty Engaged in University Crowdfunding (and why it matters)

How to Get Faculty Engaged in University Crowdfunding (and why it matters)
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Projects hosted on university crowdfunding portals tend to fall into three categories: 1) initiatives to improve student life, 2) social ventures launched by members of the university community, and 3) academic and scientific research.  University fundraisers clearly see the value in project-based crowdfunding as a way of engaging with alumni and existing donors, encouraging young alumni to make that crucial first donation, and expanding their pool of non-alumni donors. Crowdfunding for research is particularly well suited to meeting these goals for three reasons:

1) The benefits of scientific research are usually non-localized, since it creates knowledge that can be used to improve everyone’s quality of life. This means that fundraisers can tap into broader donor networks that were not previously affiliated with the university or its local community (e.g., disease advocacy organizations in other countries).

2) The research process itself provides an ideal opportunity to engage in continuous stewardship by updating donors on the progress of the research project they contributed to and alerting them to new developments.

3) Finally, to the extent that project creators (faculty and their students) are willing to reach out to potential donors in their own social networks and actively engage in promotion, outreach, and continued engagement with donors, advancement offices may be able to outsource much of the fundraising and stewardship activity for their crowdfunding portal to unpaid volunteers. Other than the initial set-up costs, then, a university’s research crowdfunding operations could represent a minimal ongoing expense, leading to a potentially large return on investment.

All of these benefits, however, depend on the active participation of faculty members who are committed to public outreach and engagement. Too often, though, researchers who become involved in crowdfunding view it as a passive revenue tool and leave the fundraising to advancement staff, which is a recipe for failure.

There are at least three barriers to active faculty engagement with research crowdfunding:

1) A perception that using social media like Twitter as a channel for outreach is in poor taste or a waste of time, and a widespread lack of social media literacy.

2) A perception that the monetary return on the time and effort invested in running a crowdfunding campaign is small compared to applying for grants from other funding sources. (While this is probably an accurate perception for established faculty members when crowdfunding is viewed from a narrow perspective, given the relatively small amounts most campaigns raise, the long-term value of running a crowdfunding campaign is much broader.)

3) Concerns that crowdfunding will direct precious donor resources to outright scams or at least to shoddy science, since (critics contend) laymen may not be able to tell the good science from the bad.

Consano and the #SciFund Challenge have already shown how appropriate levels of peer review can be incorporated into science crowdfunding efforts, and university-affiliated portals are likely to lend credibility to the practice in the eyes of researchers, so the third barrier is likely to disappear over time.

The first two barriers, however, can only be torn down by persuasion and by providing investigators with the tools and the training necessary to succeed at crowdfunding. Many have already begun to make the case to scientists that using social media, engaging in public outreach, building a fanbase for their work, and seeking to crowdfund their research all have lasting value for their careers, both in academia and beyond. It is the success of this effort that will ultimately determine whether university-based crowdfunding fulfills its potential and becomes a key component of the funding mix for university-based researchers.

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