How I Crowdfunded My Learning Project, And What You Can Learn From It

Posted: May 23, 2016

Crowdfunding to study or learn is a very new concept; Aruna Raman who tried it out shares all her learnings with you.

In true ‘little drops of water’ mode, crowdfunding has taken over the fancy of many as a true “virtual raffle book” method of cobbling together funds for dream projects. Dreams stored away at mind-nooks can come to life – a shower-singer takes centrestage, a can-do-everything garden rake can find enthusiasts who open up purses, and suddenly, many people who each give a little provide propeller fuel to many ideas.

In addition, crowdfunding is an efficient and, if done right, swift way to generate appeal and interest for social projects and campaigns. Crowdfunding also helps validate proof of concept for new products and services, earns first customers, and builds a “circle of trust.”

While most crowdfunding appeals come with the need to fund a product or service, or raise funds for social causes, I used it to access two opportunities – the first, a chance to attend a two-week training program in social impact and investment at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies (MIIS) in Monterey, California, and the other, a paper presentation on social innovation and entrepreneurship in New Zealand.

Both were unlikely “dead ringer” candidates for crowdfunding. As my opportunities didn’t present immediate and tangible value to potential contributors, I had to hone my approaches and communication strategies accordingly.

Two disclaimers:

I chose “all you can keep” platforms rather than “all or none” platforms for both campaigns. Indiegogo and BitGiving, the two platforms I used, are “all you can keep” – you get to keep what you raise (after transaction fee deduction). In “all or none” platforms such as Kickstarter, if you don’t raise your targeted amount, your contributions are returned to the respective contributors. I chose the former, because I was happy to raise any significant amount that would reduce my personal investment. If you are happy with any money you raise and don’t welcome the anxiety of the “all or none,” choose your platform accordingly.

In both situations, I approached my crowdfunding challenges with the enthusiasm of a bashful bride. In addition, I also had an inherent lassitude for social media, a potent tool in the crowdfunding process. While these were initial challenges, I managed to make enough course corrections to to rake up a respectable sum in both campaigns.

Act 1. Stage: Indiegogo

Plot: Raise funds to help pay for participation in Frontier Market Scouts, at MIIS

I ran this campaign for two months – from November 2014 till January 2015. I chose Indiegogo because I didn’t have a significant enough Indian network to capitalize on at the time.

Since I work as a consultant with an American university, and had lived in the US before, I thought that I could activate my networks to channel enough traffic, and inspire enough purses to open. I had an ask of $5000, and raised about $1,700, which helped pay for my airfare to the US, and rent for two weeks.

So, the reader might ask – why wasn’t I able to travel the full distance? In answer, I would like to share some pointers, based on what I learnt:

  • I failed to discern the nature of my campaign – a niche, for which I had to ratchet up the interest and attention of people I knew, and those who believed in me. I didn’t activate those channels enough. Instead, I adopted the “spray and pray” approach. I assumed that if I posted my appeal on Facebook and LinkedIn pages that were even remotely related to my area of work, it would grab eyeballs, and set the cash registers ringing. I relied heavily on the “pull” factor, rather than pushing my campaign through a few select avenues.
  • In retrospect, I realized a crucial distinction – I didn’t have a product or service as a peg. Campaigns with a tangible outcome – where there is a “pot of gold,” and people can take first dibs at trying a product or service, are generally “cool”. Similarly, with social campaigns – those that are associated with disaster relief – for instance – awaken an inherent altruism. In casting my campaign in a similar mode, I was misdirecting my energies.
  • My asks were ambiguous. When I would talk to people about my campaign, I didn’t specify what I wanted. I would often end e-mails with “any help would be appreciated.” A few people wrote back to me asking about the monetary magnitude of the help. I realize now that if I had outlined my ask very clearly, my communication would have been more effective.
  • Crowdfunding campaigns involve immense opportunity costs – which I deeply underestimated. I spent a lot of time chasing down “probables” who had financial wherewithal to contribute, but they scarcely knew me. I expected them to believe in me, and kept making polite appeals, which resulted in minimal contributions, relative to the time that I had put in, in nurturing those connections. However, as you go through the process, there is a self-learning mechanism which learns to discard the sceptics and the disinterested.

This first campaign certainly helped alleviate some financial burden, and also taught me lessons that I carried into Act 2.

Act 2. Stage: BitGiving

Plot: Raise funds to help pay for participation in Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship Conference at Massey University, New Zealand

Battle-scarred from my first experience, I was reluctant to mount a campaign. However, daunted by the high costs of attending the conference, and encouraged by the staff of Bitgiving, the Indian crowdfunding website that I chose as my vehicle, I decided to forge ahead.

I was guided by two pieces of learning:

  • There are “tsunami” and “puddle” campaigns. The former are big splash – either by virtue of mounting a product or service of interest to a significant target audience, or because they are socially appealing. Raising funds for the Chennai floods qualifies as a tsunami appeal. I realized that I was unwittingly competing with these “tsunami” appeals, while I needed to focus on being a “puddle” – small, deep, and focused.
  • Since I was raising funds for initiatives that would be of immediate and intrinsic value to me, but only have long-term impact for the ecosystem, I had to ensure that I made the effort to bridge the gap in explaining the value to people in my “influence circle.” For instance, how would my participation in a course or attendance in a conference enhance me as a professional, and in turn, create value for those around me? I had to to craft a mental map of that value and communicate it.

So, here’s how I went about it:

  • Understanding your core professional and personal networks is very important, in ‘puddle’ campaigns, as is crafting your messages for this circle. So, I put myself in the shoes of the giver – how would my opportunities enrich them? It is the equivalent of singing at a chamber music concert, as opposed to a large arena. One needs to feed off of individual energies. I found that I had to spend a lot of one-on-one time with individuals who were interested, but weren’t ready to take the step yet. This meant phone calls, one-on-one meetings, offers of mentoring sessions, and other ways in which one creates intimate opportunities for discussions.
  • I did the opposite of spray and pray – I unearthed every contact whom I had encountered in a professional or personal setting. In other words, these are people who had reposed their faith in me in the past. I was asking them for a different manifestation of that faith. Since the channel of trust already existed, I could piggyback on it for support.
  • I kept my ask specific – instead of asking them to “do what they could,” I put my cards on the table. I outlined reasons for the appeal, asked for (specific) financial contributions, and outlined how I could be of use to them. In this case, the rewards are to do with “acts” linked to the individual’s (my) competence and ability to engage, as opposed to a product or service. So, it is important to analyze those forms of engagement from past experience, and use the most relevant ones to showcase you as an individual.
  • I learned not to snip the umbilical cord of the engagement, just because it wasn’t to my liking. When some people expressed their inability to contribute, I asked them what they would be able to do – perhaps a smaller contribution? An introduction to someone who could help?
  • From my first experience, I decided that it wasn’t worth my time to chase down “media showcase” opportunities. Instead, I focused on individual conversations, and platforms where I could talk to small groups of people, so there could be chances for intimate engagement.
  • I would still credit my robustness on social media as lukewarm; however, when I did get on Facebook or LinkedIn, in addition to making requests for contributions, I also put up links of interesting stories in my field, in addition to short commentary that showcased my opinions. This helped me cultivate a voice for myself.
  • Finally, I learned not to close doors. BitGiving is an Indian website that only solicits contributions from India. However, my friends who live overseas were also keen on helping out. A colleague and a student (both in the US) – offered the use of their PayPal accounts for outside-of-India contributions, resulting in an unexpected, yet, welcome, windfall.
  • Continuity of conversation – I learned to be subtly pesky. For instance, a student of mine was happy to contribute, but in a month’s time from when I asked him. I followed up with him in a month’s time, and asked if and how he might be able to help, while respecting his inability to do so. It is also important to recognize that no contribution is too small, and “ease the passage,” so to speak. A contribution for some might be the cost of a meal or a beer, for instance, but a not-too-insignificant leap for you.

At this point, I am not sure that I am ready for a third innings. However, I have come to realize that crowdfunding for individual-driven initiatives is the equivalent of weaving handloom fabric – every warp and weft, carefully woven, makes a difference in crafting the wholesomeness and identity of who you are, and how others recognize and support that identity.

Top concept image of seeking funds via Shutterstock

Aruna Raman is the India Programme Director at Acara, University of Minnesota. She is a multi-skilled professional with over 10 years of experience in social enterprise ecosystem facilitation and capacity building, qualitative research, project and program coordination, writing, editing, marketing and corporate communications, with work experience in both the United States and India.

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