Crowdfunding is quickly becoming the new shiny object in the world of social change. From Giving Days, to new giving platforms, to lots of articles and studies (here and here to start), it seems that crowdfunding is everywhere lately.
I'm all for innovations in the funding of social change, but I'm not convinced that crowdfunding is really creating anything fundamentally new.
Under "crowdfunding" I include efforts like Kickstarter, where a creative effort (a film, art exhibit, library) can garner small investments from a large number of people. And I'm also including Giving Days, at the city and national level, where nonprofits try to raise as much money as possible in a 24-hour online "event." What these efforts all have in common is they raise money, from a large group of people, over a short period of time.
I earned my fundraising chops working public television pledge drives, one of the earliest "crowdfunding" efforts. The technology was different (TV screens and telephones, instead of CRM systems and social media), but I'm not sure much else is.
So I would like to see us separate what is potentially exciting about crowdfunding from what is just hype. To help in that effort, I offer some questions:
How much is truly new money?
It's unclear to me how much new money crowdfunding brings to social change organizations. For example, nonprofits participating in Giving Days encourage their annual donors to give on that specific day so that Giving Day dollars are higher. But that's not new money. True innovation in social change funding comes from efforts to grow the 2 percent pie -- giving as a share of America's Gross Domestic Product has stayed at 2 percent for the last 40+ years. I'm not convinced that crowdfunding uncovers money that would not have otherwise ended up somewhere in the nonprofit sector.
How many new donors are being retained?
The point of crowdfunding is that it's a one-time deal. There is a message of urgency that encourages donors to give NOW. So the numbers on a specific Giving Day or with a crowdfunding campaign may be good, but is the funding sustainable? Are nonprofits or social change organizations actually growing their donor base? Are they able to go back to these investors later and encourage them to give again? And if the funding isn't sustainable, is it really worth the effort it took to get it?
Is crowdfunding reinforcing the "Overhead Myth"?
The destructive idea that donors shouldn't support nonprofit "overhead," or administrative costs, is slowly dying, but crowdfunding might just be bringing it back to life. Nonprofit crowdfunding darling charity:water has been taken to task for reinforcing the idea that 100 percent of the dollars they raise go "directly to the field." And crowdfunding projects are often specific and "sexy," which means that the money is not being raised for boring things like the staffing, technology, and infrastructure that most organizations desperately need. Are we perpetuating the overhead myth by encouraging donors to give to specific projects, instead of to overall issues, organizations or teams?
What's the return on investment?
A lot of time and effort can go into crowdfunding campaigns. If the benefits are short-lived, donors aren't retained, and the majority of the funding is not new dollars, while the costs (staff and board time, technology investments) are high, then what is the true return on investment? I'm not arguing that it can't be positive, but I would like to see more critical analysis about it, both at the aggregate and the individual organization levels.
I hate to be a Debbie Downer, but I'd like us to dig a bit deeper to understand what the real effects of crowdfunding are so far and what it's true promise is. If there is already research out there that can answer some of these questions, let me know in the comments below.