I was going to write more on crowdfunding using Tomas van Houtryve’s post as a starting point. In the meantime, David Campbell added his voice, which is like pretty much everything David writes something you want to read. Between these two posts you get a pretty good idea about the shortcomings of some of the various proposals that recently have generated some attention. What is entirely missing, however, is recognition of the fact that crowfunding isn’t quite as new as it is made out to be. In particular, how about talking about The Sochi Project? (more)
Regardless of whether you like the project or not, Empty Land, Promised Land probably would not have been made without crowdfunding. And if you look through the website then you realize that many aspects that David talks about in his post are indirectly already dealt with by Rob Hornstra and Arnold van Bruggen.
But there is more to The Sochi Project than just a budget and transparency. If you support their work, you also get exclusive contents on the supporter’s only part of the website. That is the key here, and I feel that that’s missing in many of the debates about crowdfunding. When Larry Towell says that for a pledge of $10 you get “A personal handshake if I see you on the street corner of my home town” - how much of an incentive is this (in all fairness you also get “a thank you on the project’s blog” - whoo-hoo!)? Even if you think that’s kind of funny, why would you give him $10? Hey, if you send me $10 you’ll get “a personal handshake if I see you on the street corner of my home town” from me - how about that?
I think I’ve said this before, so I risk sounding like an old record now, but the key to crowdsourcing really is what you give back. Crowdfunding is about raising money, and it is about business, but if you leave it at that you’re missing the point. Sites like The Sochi Project are able to raise money year after year because it’s more than a blatant effort to raise funds. As someone who has donated money to the project, you actually feel as if you are making a real contribution, which is acknowledged in various ways - not only do you get exclusive contents, but you also know that a book in part has been made possible by money you gave.
It’s interesting how The Sochi Project basically follows the model of German industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten. For a while, they raised money to record music through their site, and if you became a supporter you would get exclusive contents, plus a supporter’s only CD etc.
And that exclusive contents - that makes all the difference. Unlike some handshake on a street corner you actually feel like there’s an effort made to give back. So yes, crowdfunding is of course about business and all, but it’s also about making connections with people willing to support your work.
Frankly, the one thing that I miss in pretty much all the Kickstarter projects I’ve seen are real attempts to give back. It’s fine to send out some unsigned 4x6 print, and it’s even better to send out a signed 4x6 print, but come on! That’s it? I mean really? That’s all you can come up with? I can think of a huge number of things - many of them actually cost almost no money - that are much better as something to give back and to make the donors feel like they’re not just cash cows.
A supporters-only website is an obvious example (that won’t work with Kickstarter, of course, unless you tie it in with such a site). How about sending supporters exclusive updates, via email for example? That will cost you only the time it takes to write the email, but it’s vastly better than some 4x6 print. Or let’s say it’s a different value.
Money, of course, is the big issue for all those small donations - if you want to raise money you can’t afford to spend $9 on every $10 donation. That’s where exclusive websites or emails come in - in terms of money, they’re very cheap. In terms of what they really do - namely to involve the people who are generous enough to donate money - they’re priceless.
I personally would rather give someone $10 if I knew I’d get, say, emails “from the road” than some 4x6 print - in part that’s because I feel emails require an actual effort (if you think emails from the road are a silly idea, there are lots of other things. It’s just an example).
It’s hard to make a fool out of oneself by predicting the future, but regardless: I am pretty certain crowdfunding a la Larry Towell will have a much harder time to stay around than crowdfunding a la The Sochi Project. In part, this is because of business practices (see David’s post, for example, plus the various other posts he links to). But the main issue here is whether or not you engage with the people who give you money. That’s what it’s all about.