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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There are 7 comments. Add yours.

  1. Leif Erik Fossheim

    I think you have something here. But instead of having it completely open-ended, have it tiered, or branched. Firstly, this could allow the researcher to periodically claim funds pockets for use in research. Potentially, each tier or branch, could coexist with a set of research or experimental goals. I agree with the concept of open-ended to develop a long term relationship with supporters, but there should be a schedule or report back to the crowd so that they can see where their funding is going. Second, give the funder the choice of either funding the overall scope of the researcher’s vision or particular arms of his research. This would in turn poll public interest and support for which projects are most attractive to a percentage of the population that represents crowdfunding initiatives.

    All in all, great concept. Keep pushing it.

    • Nick Dragojlovic

      Thanks for the comments, Leif! A couple of responses: 1) I think that funding specific projects/arms of the research is likely to remain the main form of fundraising (with unrestricted donations comprising a small proportion of total dollars raised), but the key point is to pitch these projects as part of a broader “product” (i.e., the researcher and her research vision), rather than as discrete projects. 2) As you note, progress reports and continual engagement with backers is absolutely essential to providing value to those backers in exchange for their support, and specific projects provide a natural structure for this type of engagement, so this is another reason to keep project-specific donations as a core component of the broader strategy.

  2. Chandler

    Great idea. I have found though that most of the population doesn’t understand that research dollars are few and far between and that not every project is sexy and leads to the next great discovery, but is nevertheless necessary if that great discovery is to come about. Mostly, though I think people expect someone else to pay for research. Crowdfunding research or researchers is a fantastic idea, but I suspect it will require an entire paradigm shift before the general public is ready to jump on board.

    • Nick Dragojlovic

      Hi Chandler. Thank you for your comments! I think you put your finger on one of the major challenges for crowdfunding research – the most successful campaigns are likely to be those focused on an area with a natural constituency (e.g., a specific disease) and on research that could plausibly yield a tangible benefit in the short- to medium-term (e.g., later-stage drug development research). Funding a clinical trial for a rare disease treatment, for example, can raise significant funds, whereas more basic research in areas without obvious applications to solving individuals’ pain points will likely struggle.

      One solution to this challenge is, as you note, to increase public awareness about the funding crisis in science and to make the long-term benefits of blue-sky research more salient to people. The trouble with this is that it’s a public good – increased awareness helps everyone, but for that very reason, most individual scientists won’t have an incentive to put significant personal effort into building that awareness, since they can reap the rewards of others’ efforts.

      The second solution is what I lay out in this blog post. By building a fan-base, it should make it easier for scientists doing basic research to appeal to their audience to fund their work, not necessarily because of any expected material benefits that will accrue to donors, but because of the relationship and trust that the scientist has already established with audience-members.

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