Why Crowdfunding Researchers, Not Projects, Will Work Better

Why Crowdfunding Researchers, Not Projects, Will Work Better
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When they think about crowdfunding their work, most researchers picture the standard crowdfunding model adopted by the majority of research crowdfunding campaigns to date. This approach features campaigns that: 1) are limited in duration (usually 30-90 days), 2) are meant to fund a specific research project, and 3) must hit their fundraising goal in order for campaign owners to receive any of the funds pledged (the “all-or-nothing” approach).

In most cases, this is a terrible model for scientists and scholars to adopt. The biggest problem is that a limited-duration crowdfunding campaign takes a lot of work. Basically, for the campaign to succeed, researchers will have to drop everything for 30-90 days to engage in fundraising and promotion – activities that do not come naturally to most researchers and which most have not invested in developing. For the vast majority of researchers who do not have a large existing audience, this means that they will either fail or have to aim quite low in terms of dollar value if they hope to meet their fundraising goal. This will lead them to question the return-on-investment of engaging in crowdfunding, given the opportunity costs in terms of time spent doing research or writing grants.

In short, limited-duration crowdfunding just doesn’t fit in well with researchers’ standard work-flow, and encourages them to think of the pay-off purely in terms of the money raised in the campaign they’re engaged in, whereas crowdfunding’s true value for researchers lies in long-term audience-building.

A Better Way to Crowdfund Research

So what’s the alternative? First, researchers should get away from fixed-term campaigns. Many crowdfunding portals allow open-ended campaigns either explicitly (e.g., GoFundMe) or in practice by automatically extending the fundraising period of expiring campaigns (e.g. Consano).  Not having a deadline makes it easier for researchers to integrate fundraising and promotional activities into their daily routines, and helps them to think of crowdfunding as a long-term audience-building project. It also allows those researchers who do not have significant outreach and promotion experience to “learn on the job” (i.e., develop their outreach skills as part of the campaign), which makes the prospect of crowdfunding less daunting.

But if researchers adopt an open-ended crowdfunding model and view it as part of their long-term audience-building strategy (which they should), then why not make this explicit and crowdfund the researcher instead of a specific research project?

Obviously, the value of the research itself is what’s going to attract donors at the end of the day, so appeals will likely still have to be focused on specific projects. But researchers should focus on building a broader narrative that conveys the passion and the values that motivate them and their long-term research program, not simply list the potential benefits of individual research projects.  A researcher-focused narrative is what will keep audience-members and donors engaged over time, and will make it easier for researchers to crowdfund expenses that are not directly tied to a specific project (e.g., a piece of equipment, or a stipend for a grad student).

Most crowdfunding portals are ill-suited for this approach, though some, like Thinkable and LabCures are starting to experiment with researcher- and lab-focused crowdfunding. To get buy-in from researchers, though, will require a number of features that are currently not available, and which I’ll outline in my next post.


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I’m A Scientist. What’s My Audience Worth?

I’m A Scientist. What’s My Audience Worth?
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A recent Nature News survey finds that a large proportion of researchers use academic and professional social networks like ResearchGate and LinkedIn, but only 14% use Twitter on a regular basis, and 52% have never posted research-related content online. As many others have pointed out, building an online platform can be hugely valuable for scientists, leading to new collaborations and new opportunities for engaging in public outreach, among other benefits.

The Nature News survey also suggests that scientists by and large recognize the value of their online networks, with more than 50% of researchers finding online networks useful for raising their and their work’s profile among the research community, and 44% finding them useful for attracting collaborators. What they don’t perceive online networks to be useful for is as a way of attracting research funding (only 17% believed this).

While this perception may be accurate as regards traditional granting agencies (though I’m skeptical, since new collaborations can often lead to new funding opportunities), it’s definitely not the case in the brave new world of research-focused crowdfunding.  Whether scientists use niche crowdfunding portals or the growing number of university-hosted crowdfunding websites, researchers’ online networks and public outreach are crucial to their ability to attract donations to support their research.

…researchers’ online networks and public outreach are crucial to their ability to attract donations.

In a fantastic analysis of the #SciFund Challenge campaigns, the team behind the initiative found three main avenues through which researchers were able to drive views to their project’s crowdfunding page: Twitter, email, and media outreach. They estimate that it took about 7,000 Twitter impressions, 59 emails, or 1.09 press contacts to generate 1 contribution to the crowdfunding campaigns in their sample.

So here’s a thought experiment for those researchers who do blog and Tweet:

What’s your audience worth in crowdfunding dollars?

Let’s take the case of Judy.  Judy is an assistant professor in molecular biology whose research focuses on finding targets for new cancer drugs. She invested in building her Twitter following during graduate school (she now has 3000 followers), and since setting up her own lab three years ago, she has built a list of 500 subscribers to her lab’s email newsletter. She’s also made an effort to develop relationships on social media with a number of health and science journalists.

Judy is having trouble finding the money to run a couple of experiments that she thinks are really important to her long-term research program, and so she decides to take the plunge and use crowdfunding to fund these projects. So how will her investment in online network-building pay off?  Here are two scenarios:

Scenario #1: Bi-annual project-based campaigns

In this scenario, Judy decides to conduct two 30-day crowdfunding campaigns per year on her university’s crowdfunding website until her tenure review in 3 years’ time. During each campaign, she plans to Tweet a link to her crowdfunding page 3 times a day, send an email to her newsletter subscribers at the beginning and end of the campaign, and contact 1 journalist per day during the campaign.  Based on the #SciFund Challenge team’s estimates, Judy can expect to generate 84 donations to each campaign. Given that the average donation to university-hosted research crowdfunding campaigns is US$242, she can expect to raise about $20,000 per campaign, which translates to about $40,000 per year, or $120,000 over a three-year period.


© Nick Dragojlovic


Of course, running a campaign is quite arduous, and while it would likely help to build Judy’s online network even more, leading to more lucrative subsequent campaigns, this approach to fundraising might interfere with her research work-flow. Happily, there is an emerging alternative: lab-based crowdfunding. In this approach to crowdfunding, the researcher may seek to fund a specific project or simply ask for donations to their lab’s general operating funds, but the main difference is that the fundraising effort is open-ended, meaning that the necessary outreach and promotion can be conducted as a marathon instead of a sprint. This is likely to suit researchers much better than running two high-intensity campaigns each year.

Scenario #2: Year-round lab-based crowdfunding

In this scenario, Judy commits to fundraising for her lab over the long term. She decides to Tweet fundraising appeals 4 times a week, send one fundraising email to her newsletter subscribers each quarter, and contact 1 journalist every week to promote her crowdfunding efforts. Given the size of her audience, she should be able to raise about $41,000 per year, or about $123,000 over a three-year period.


© Nick Dragojlovic


In both scenarios, the total amount raised over a three-year period compares favorably to some traditional research grants (in the social sciences, for example), and is certainly enough to conduct a series of pilot experiments that could help to secure larger grants. In fact, these estimates are probably conservative, since sustained outreach will lead to a growing online audience, which will lead to a greater pay-off in each subsequent campaign or fundraising period.

In short, this is my message to scientists skeptical about online outreach and crowdfunding: Building an online audience and fundraising takes time and effort, but you should view it as a long-term investment in your career that will gain increasing value over time. Happily, it’s also fun, keeps you up to date with the latest goings-on in your field, and helps you build useful connections. So get to it!

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