Worth more than money

Power Ranger for sale (Photo by Peter Dutton: https://www.flickr.com/photos/joeshlabotnik)

Power Ranger for sale (Photo by Peter Dutton: https://www.flickr.com/photos/joeshlabotnik)

At the moment, there isn’t a lot of glory for an academic in crowdfunding.

If you want to get promoted at a university, you need to secure funding from one of the key funding bodies in your country (the National Science Foundation in the USA, for example, or one of the Research Councils if you are in the UK, Canada, or Australia).

There is this dodgy hierarchy of funding with one or two national funding schemes at the top, followed by other national funding, then by other government funding, then industry/philanthropic funding (depending on your discipline). In that hierarchy, crowdfunding sits somewhere down the bottom, as a type of philanthropic funding.

Crowdfunding is a lot of work, and it isn’t work that most researchers are familiar with. It takes most people into areas where they may not be comfortable. At its heart, crowdfunding is a funding campaign and the two key tools are Facebook and Twitter. Not everybody wants to take their professional identity into Facebook. They might prefer to keep it as a personal realm (despite the fact that work leaks in). While they might be happy to build a professional identity on Twitter, for most academics this is new territory. Unsettling new territory.

The point of a funding campaign is to ask for money. That’s what the ‘funding’ bit means.

While academics are generally good at promoting their research, they aren’t good at asking their friends and family to give them money to fund their research. Often, they don’t understand why anyone would want to fund their work. They like it, and they see the benefit in it, but they’ve spent the better part of their lives explaining to Uncle Ted ‘exactly what is it that you do, again?’.

Given that most crowdfunding campaigns start by mobilising personal networks, that means not just explaining to Uncle Ted what the work is, but asking Uncle Ted to put his hand in his pocket and donate to it, and have him then tell all his friends to do the same. A lot of people feel uncomfortable about that.

I don’t shy away from these topics when encouraging people to try crowdfunding, which may explain why I haven’t had any takers at my university yet. Perhaps I should try to emphasize the positive side of a crowdfunding campaign. There are lots of positives to emphasise.

While crowdfunding is a lot of work, I don’t think that it is much more work than writing a major grant application. The difference is that the work for writing a major grant proposal happens before you submit the proposal, while the work for a crowdfunding campaign happens after you make your campaign live. It happens during the 4-8 week campaign period, plus about 2 weeks before while you get it ready. So, all up, about 10 weeks. A lot of people write their grant applications over a 6-10 week period, so that isn’t so different in scale.

But the work is very different. Writing a grant application is a combination of thinking, writing, doing some bureaucratic form filling, and pulling a team together. These are familiar tasks for most academics – even if they’ve never written an application before, they have the skills and they are surrounded by other people who also have those skills and are willing to advise them. Some people are willing to advise them, even if they don’t have the skills because they think they do. They are in a familiar milieu.

In contrast, running a crowdfunding campaign is very different type of work. It is about making a pitch video, a little bit of writing and planning, thinking up and valuing incentives, then being very active on social networks (primarily, Facebook and Twitter) and at live events, encouraging people to donate. These are skills that most academics don’t have (they need them, but they don’t know it yet). They don’t have them, their colleagues don’t have them, and possibly no-one they know has them.

So, crowdfunding is really a sekrit skill development program for academics. Your crowdfunding campaign is actually a crash course in the skills that you will need as a researcher in the 21st century.

When you are running that crowdfunding campaign and painfully learning how to be a l33t Facebooker and a Twitter-wizard, you are also networking, networking, networking.

In theory, academics have a natural network to draw upon: their past students. However, it doesn’t always work out that way. Finishing university is traditionally a time when people change their address, so mailing them might be hard. During their academic life, the university probably studiously ignored their personal email, preferring to give them a completely new university email address, which (by definition) doesn’t work any more. Even if it did, unsolicited email from past lecturers soliciting funds would definitely fall foul of anti-spam and privacy laws. Some students join alumni organizations, others don’t. Some academics make a point of friending their students on Facebook or LinkedIn. Others see it as a breach of ethics and don’t do it at all. There is some work to be done in building up those networks again.

But when it is built, what a network it is! It is a beautiful professional network, as a lot of those students will have gone on to get jobs in the industry that you teach into. It is of value to you, your colleagues, and your university’s alumni association. It is of value to the network itself, as it can be a professional networking opportunity for your past students, if you build it right.

So, your crowdfunding campaign is an exercise in reconnecting with your past students and building an industry network.

Some members of the network will (presumably) fund your crowdfunding campaign. That is, they will vote for your research with their wallet. That is a very, very powerful action to take. It is a vote for your project, and (in an abstract sense) a vote for research in general.

Most importantly, those people have publicly declared their interest in your research. They want to know more. They are a source of research subjects (if that is appropriate for your methodology and ethics considerations) and, through platforms that allow for crowdsourced data analysis, a potential group that will help you to massage, analyse, and crunch your resulting data. The best crowdfunded research projects are the ones that find ways for the crowd to contribute more than just money. Many of your crowdfunders will want to do that.

Your crowdfunders are also the perfect group to turn to when you want to disseminate your research findings, to get them out to the public and taken up by industry.

It is always nice to be able to say, “I heard about this great new thing.” How much nicer is it to be able to add “…and I helped fund it”?

When you look at it that way, it turns out that crowdfunding is not just about the money. It’s about the skills that you learn, the networks that you build, and the boost for the dissemination of your research. That’s got to be worth something.

About Jonathan O'Donnell
Jonathan O'Donnell helps people get funding for their research. To be specific, he helps the people in the Faculty of Science at the University of Melbourne in Australia. All opinions are his own. He has been doing that, on and off, since the 1990's (with varying degrees of success). He loves his job. He loves it so much that he has enrolled in a PhD to look at crowdfunding for research. With Tseen Khoo, he runs the Research Whisperer blog and @ResearchWhisper Twitter stream, about doing research in academia. His ORCID is 0000-0001-5435-235X. The views expressed here are his personal views and are not the views of the University of Melbourne.

8 Responses to Worth more than money

  1. Jonathan O'Donnell says:

    This is the text of a talk that I gave last week for the amazing folks at FundScience Australia. Check them out – a non-profit crowdfunding platform with an amazing structure for stretch goals. They are about to launch and are looking for inaugural projects. Best of all – no fees!


    • bestqualitycrab says:

      Worst of all – they are domain specific


      • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

        I’ve got no problem with domain specific crowdfunding platforms. If everybody tries to do everything, I think we’ll end up with a crash. There are plenty of crowdfunding platforms out there that are either implicitly (by the way people use them) or explicitly (by their terms of use) linked to particular domains – charity, music, etc. That’s OK by me.

        These guys are setting up a non-profit, so they need passion. Their passion just happens to be funding science.


  2. Thanks for this really useful article. I think crowdfunding, like you say, remains very low on the list of potential funding options in the UK to. This is partly due to the lack of skills researchers have but I think it is also related to the funding hierarchy that you refer to as well as an inherently conservative approach to funding within many UK universities (including their administrative systems!). I think this approach presents a great way to potentially get seed funding for research, especially when university discretionary research budgets are so limited now. One day I am sure some brave academics will make a move into crowdfunding and the funding landscape in the UK may change. I’ll continue to try and encourage it!


    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Thanks, Lachlan

      Partly, I think that people don’t understand that the option is available, or can’t imagine how they could use the funds. These amounts could be useful for seed funds, for top-up funds, for student scholarships or to fund aspects of a student project (where the scope is generally tighter).

      One of the criticisms of crowdfunding is that it potentially lets governments ‘off the hook’ – allowing them to reduce research funding. As you say, some governments are doing that, regardless of anything that is happening in the crowdfunding space. On the other hand, crowdfunding and government funding programs have two very different goals. There are some projects that the government will fund that would never raise funds from the public. Conversely, crowdfunding is a good way to get some funds for projects that would never be successful from the government.

      The bigger issue is dealing with those projects that don’t suit crowdfunding or any of the other standard funding sources.


      • You are spot on in that people don’t really know about the option which does in part come down to the research support functions (people like us!) promoting it but it will take universities being more open minded about crowdfunding to make it work. Things are slowly changing here in the UK so there are positive signs for the future.

        I agree that there are some projects that the government pots won’t fund and crowdfunding might and vice versa. It is important that we all keep trying to learn and understand the best approaches – your blog is very helpful with that, thanks.

        And finally I agree there are lots of potentially really interesting projects out there that wouldn’t work for crowdfunding and the traditional funding pots keep getting squeezed or are not interested and therefore the sources for funding become ever more problematic. A real challenge for us all.


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