University crowdfunding by the numbers – a first look at the data

University crowdfunding by the numbers – a first look at the data
Types of university-hosted crowdfunding campaigns as of August 2014 - © Nick Dragojlovic

A growing number of universities are setting up their own crowdfunding portals as a way of increasing alumni engagement, recruiting new donors, nurturing a culture of philanthropy on campus, and boosting home-grown innovation.  As I’ve argued before, crowdfunding by faculty to support their research is particularly well suited to meeting these objectives.

In fact, there’s reason to believe that research-focused crowdfunding might provide a greater return-on-investment than other types of campaigns even when viewed strictly in terms of the amount of money raised per campaign. After all, research with medical or other practical applications is likely to appeal to a much broader geographic and demographic pool of potential donors than, for example, campus improvement projects, and faculty-members’ personal networks are likely to be wealthier on average than most students’.

To get a sense of whether the data supports this perspective, I put together a dataset of all the campaigns hosted (as of August 5) on the university portals linked to by this Wikipedia page. [UPDATE: The Wikipedia editors have decided that the list is against the site’s terms of use. I’ve put together an alternative list HERE.] A total of 269 campaigns appeared on 38 crowdfunding websites, 213 of which had been completed. 7 of the completed campaigns did not focus on specific projects (these tracked contributions to general funds or annual giving campaigns for specific academic units or institutes), and were excluded from the dataset.

I coded each of the 206 remaining campaigns based on three categories (bearing in mind that many university researchers are running crowdfunding campaigns on non-university portals like Experiment.com or Pozible, so the data below reflect university-hosted crowdfunding, not necessarily research crowdfunding in general):

1) campaigns that focused on student life and opportunities (e.g., teams, clubs, scholarships, or service learning);

2) academic research projects;

3) other types of projects (e.g., alumni & student start-ups or non-profits).

I also converted all currency amounts to U.S. dollars, to allow us to compare universities in different countries (the list of portals includes Canadian, British, and Dutch universities, in addition to American ones). Finally, a subset of portals listed the number of donors to each campaign, which allowed me to calculate average donation amounts for each category.

As the pie-chart at the top of this post shows, most campaigns (57%) were student-focused, and only about a quarter (26%) aimed to fund a specific research project. So it looks like universities are focusing on the low-hanging fruit in terms of crowdfunding, and struggling to scale up their research crowdfunding efforts.

It’s also interesting that these two types of campaigns look very different when one looks at their relative success.  Student-focused campaigns aimed for lower fundraising targets (about $6,000 on average), and were quite successful, with 62% raising more than 99% of their goal.  Research-focused campaigns, on the other hand, had more ambitious targets (about $10,500 on average), and while they raised larger dollar amounts on average than student campaigns, their success rate was much lower (only 28%).  That said, the average donation was larger for research projects ($242) than for student-focused projects ($164).

 

Summary statistics for 206 university crowdfunding campaigns listed on August 5, 2014

Statistics for 206 completed university crowdfunding campaigns listed on Aug. 5 2014

 

So what’s the take-away? First, the data suggest that universities are either having more trouble recruiting faculty than students to fundraise through their crowdfunding portals or are choosing to focus on non-research-related projects. One reason might be that student-focused campaigns can afford to have more modest fundraising targets, which makes it easier for these campaigns to succeed. (Goals for research-related campaigns may be more constrained due to the high cost of research and/or the availability of other research funding, which is likely to influence faculty-members’ cost/benefit calculation when considering crowdfunding.)

The data also suggest, however, that research-focused campaigns are potentially more profitable than student-focused campaigns. Research campaigns raised 10% more than student-focused campaigns on average, and the average donation size was 48% greater. This may be either because faculty-members’ networks are wealthier and/or because donors to research-related campaigns perceive greater value in those projects.

Either way, promoting greater faculty engagement with their institution’s crowdfunding efforts should be a priority for development offices seeking to maximize the ROI on their crowdfunding portals.

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