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.

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Think like a kindergarten

Chinese lion dancer, surrounded by smoke

‘Lion in the smoke’ by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr.

About every six months, someone I know asks me to help them to find funding for their community group / kindergarten / art project. Fundraising is a different process to applying for research funding.

However, thinking about how you fund a community project is a useful way to refresh your thinking about how to attract funding for your research program / centre / institute.

So, in that spirit, here is a new way to look at raising some funds.

First of all, most community projects are looking for an ongoing funding stream, rather than one-off project funding. A modest request might be looking for $120,000 – $180,000 per year, every year, to keep the program running. Often, they will get started with a one-off injection of funds and are looking to move to a continuous, reliable source of funding. This is possible, and very hard work.

Work with the community

Local problems need local solutions. Most community projects are located, by definition, in a community. One of the standard truths for finding long-term solutions is that you need local input to make it stick. You can’t impose solutions from the outside. So, work with the community to build a long-term local base of support. It will be hard for them to put in the time, and you are going to have to work hard to make it work, but it will be worth it in the long run.

Think like a sports club, community orchestra or kindergarten. Think about sausage sizzles, working bees, planning meetings, committee meetings… All of these things need volunteers. Chair, secretary, and treasurer are all volunteer positions that you will need to manage your money. This voluntary labour force can be drawn from your supporters. You need a mailing list, and probably a way to keep in touch with these people on a day-to-day basis (e.g. a Facebook group). This will need a volunteer to coordinate the contact list, too!