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.
Tags: crowdfunding, fundraising, outreach, research, research funding, researchers, science, science communication, scientists, universities