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You Could Be Crowdfunded

Mathilda Harris

Crowdfunding might just be the answer to your funding needs. Imagine you submitted your proposal for the second time to a federal funding source, and for the second time, you were rejected. Of course, you’re upset and want to call the donor to tell them – in addition to a few choice words – that they missed the point. Instead, your sense of reason prevails and you put the proposal away for a couple of days. When you pick it up again, you are more composed, but still determined to fund your idea. While researching success rates for the federal donor that rejected you, the increasing competition and decreasing funds strike you like bolt of lightning. It dawns on you that the days of being funded by one source are dwindling. Funding trends from thirty years ago are simply not today’s reality. Statistically, the traditional donors like Federal agencies only make up about 33% of the funding. To succeed in this environment, you must diversify your requests. Donors such as foundations, corporations and even individual giving can be lucrative options, but you face the same heavy competition and diminishing support. Luckily, a new source is growing in popularity and success: crowdfunding.

Where Do You Begin?

Everything from breast cancer research to potato salad recipes is being funded through online donation sites. Although the amount initially raised may not be large – say, a few thousand dollars – it beats not having any funding at all. Crowdfunding allows good ideas that do not appeal to conventional donors to get support from the Internet. In addition, it contributes to word-of-mouth advertising. It all depends on how appealing your project is to potential donors and how big an audience you have at your disposal. Social media and other online resources are tools that can help you grow your audience and idea.
If you’re in academia, you’re in luck. Universities are beginning to comprehend that traditional sources of funding are drying up and involve more competition. Savvy colleges have created their own crowdfunding portals or have partnered with a site – like Oxford University and Hubbub – and are training staff on marketing techniques and strategies. If your university doesn’t have its own platform, you might also consider Hubbub’s open crowdfunding site that doesn’t take commissions. There are other research-focused portals, but many charge commissions from five to ten percent.

What Should You Know?

• Building your online network through social media is crucial to your success. It’s not an immediate method to receive all the money you are seeking, but it will increase your online presence. Over time, your network of followers will expand, thus increasing your donor base.

• You need to be realistic about the amount of money that can be raised with this approach. A few thousand dollars is most likely the maximum you can expect in the beginning of your venture. However, funding may increase as your online presence grows, along with support from your institution, foundations, and corporations.

• An important or urgent topic, such as researching the Ebola virus or providing Ferguson protestors with aid, is the best way to immediately attract attention and money from the crowd. Other types of topics can be successful, but must be compelling to inspire donors to give.

• Crowdfunding works best when used as a supplement to an existing network of donors. Using this system to fund research or project will never be the sole method to raise all the money you will need. Instead, consider it one section of your funding portfolio.

• Smaller projects, such as afterschool programs, small equipment, and scholarships for students tend to work very well within this system. Your needs are likely immediate, but not overwhelming, resulting in a very wide base of donors who give in small amounts.

Why Should You Be Cautious?

As a serious researcher or project leader, you must consider the cons of this approach. The biggest threat is that your idea could easily be copied. You are exposing your research and methods in a public forum. Another problem arises if you need a large amount of money to conduct your research, especially for long-term projects. A broader issue rarely discussed is the supervision, ethics, and checks and balances concerning your research. Traditional grants require continuous monitoring of a project. Reporting, evaluations, and the donor’s request for accountability are all used to keep a proverbial eye on what you are doing with the grant money. Crowdfunding does not lend itself to this type of scrutiny. In all likelihood, the responsibility will fall on the shoulders of the institutions where the research is being conducted. However, it is just as likely that projects will move forward without controls.

Where Do You Go From Here?

The issues above are being debated within the research community, but without any definitive answers thus far. Just as with any other career opportunity involving public interaction, your perseverance is required. You must have a backup plan or network of donors to be successful, and the support of your institution would be a bonus. If you decide to pursue crowdfunding, remember that it is a system built around you. You determine how to grow your social media network, what topic to use, and what amount to seek. If you make these choices effectively, crowdfunding could be a great alternative to fill the gaps in your project’s funding.

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