Wednesday, May 1, 2013

On IndieGoGo Campaigns

This week, my student team finished mailing out perks to the sponsors of our IndieGoGo campaign, which raised funds for a community-level organization in rural Ghana to extend microloans and scholarships to local women. We were able to deliver $1,290 to Capacity Rural International during our class visit, over $900 of which came through IndieGoGo.

The IndieGoGo campaign actually raised $1,085, but the site takes a fee. Although we knew that going in, there are some other things we discovered over the course of the campaign that would have been helpful to be aware of beforehand. Since I know IndieGoGo (and its sibling rival Kickstarter) are popular crowdfunding platforms, not only for charitable causes but especially for creative ones--and I suspect a lot of this blog's readers are creative types--I'm writing this post to share key points of our experience.

First off, it’s crucially important that you build in lead time for planning your campaign. Kickstarter suggests you spend 2 weeks tinkering with your campaign page before going live. This time can also be used to set up and polish the webpages and social media you’ll be connecting with the page. Breathing room is important, because among other things it lets you take your hands from the keyboard and rest, not to mention allowing those insights in your brain to percolate in case you wake up at 3 am one night having found the perfect way to explain that perk you're offering which involves your Cousin Fran's goat ranch and your personal recipe for caramel swirl cake in such terms that nobody could pass up donating $350 in exchange for it.

If you're wondering what perspective I approach this from, my group's IndieGoGo campagin was set up in 4 hours. We had planned ahead of time--for weeks, actually--and had some idea what perks we'd offer and what sort of narrative we were making, but next thing we knew we had a fundraiser to complete before midterms (and more importantly, our flight to Accra which came right after Sprin g Break) and there was nothing for it but butt-in-chair and go. We set up the campaign and made it live in the same afternon, as soon as our plan was approved by the powers-that-be of our university course. We may have hit the ground running faster, or sooner (even deciding to be less timid about seeking approval from the powers-that-be, who found nothing to sanction in our plan after all) if we'd known about IndieGoGo's dispersal time.  

Which is, to say it bluntly, long. In fact, if funding closed on your Indie campaign and you sat down to think of a sequel on Kickstarter, you'd have that Kickstarter alive and--ahem--kicking by the time you saw your IndieGoGo funds. We were leaving for Ghana on the 20th, so I set the fund dispersal for me recieve the funds on the 15th--about as close as I dared cut it with travel preparations. Except I did not recieve the funds on the 15th. IndieGoGo sent the funds on the 15th (despite the weeks elapsing between that date and the time our fundraising had to close) and they arrived in my bank on the 22nd. By which point I was safely in Ghana. I managed by borrowing against myself, which was more stress and inconvience that I'd have hoped. In short, if you want to fund something through IndieGoGo, make sure you won't need the money on short notice, and when they ask you "When you do want the money?" they're not promising they'll give it to you by then.

Also think carefully about how much money you ask for, and remember the impact of IndieGoGo's fees. Deciding to reach for the stars, my group set our fundraising goal at $2,000, figuring with the "Flexible Funding" option that let us keep whatever we collected even if we failed to meet that goal, nothing could go wrong. And it's true, things did work out. But IndieGoGo collects a 9% penalty fee for Flexible Funding campaigns that don't meet their goal. We could have made a more modest attempt of $1,000, met it, and paid only 5% in fees.

Other student groups within our class had other issues, including one group that used a fundraising platform incompatible with PayPal. On the bright side, IndieGoGo allowed donors to give in various ways, and we had a parallel PayPal donations button running. Making things easy for the people who want to give you money is always the best practice.

Images and media for the campaign are crucially important. Though the number of photos we had, which came from previous semesters' visits to the villages, was limited, we were lucky in that we had a wonderful spokeswoman. Her smiling picture spoke a thousand words for us at the top of the page. Longer-running or larger-scale campaigns generally incorporate video, where a more dramatic appeal for the project can be made. I've overlooked this in the past because I personally don't watch a lot of videos (unless it's an IndieGoGo campaign funding, say, an Indie movie), but I do see how it would help draw in interested potential funders.

We linked our IndieGoGo page to Facebook, but not to other sites, deciding in the end that a Twitter account wasn't worth running for the brief duration of our campaign. There was some trouble coordinating between the websites, as different people were in charge of running each. Longer lead time and more explicit planning would have cleared this up. If we'd done videos, linking to YouTube would have been an obvious second move, as would connecting a website if we had one. According to IndieGoGo and Kickstarter's guides, each additional social network connected and each piece of media added increases the odds of a project meeting its funding goal. While the FaceBook account was enough to get our project going and give all of us some experience with coordinating social media and crowdfunding, in a larger campaign I would go all-out. That 2-week lead time is perfect for collecting photos and polishing a short video as well.

The major attraction of IndieGoGo to us was the chance to offer perks, which seemed like a fun way to reward our donors. However, because it did take some effort to acquire and send our main physical perk (a handcrafted gift purchased during our trip in Ghana), we set the giving level to earn it rather high, at $100. I think this encouraged people who already wanted to give to give at a higher level than they might have otherwise, as the $100 level, which I first worried might be too much, proved our most popular.

But it didn't encourage people not already familiar with us to give (at least not many of them--we did have one donor from Australia! Who, if she's reading this--thank you very much! Your perk is on its way! I hope the attached customs form doesn't spoil you for what's inside; the Post Office wanted me to be very specific!).

Finding donors is a struggle for all crowdfunding sites (I think Kickstarter's success rate hovers around 60%), and it's especially difficult for charity causes. I didn't see any charitable campaigns that did particularly well on IndieGoGo, and none of the projects I found when searching 'microfinance' met their goal. In making a bit over 50% we in fact did outstandingly well. Some of the problem is establishing the legitimacy of a cause through the Internet, and another part is the fact IndieGoGo is oriented more towards artistic and inventive projects than redistributive giving (though not to the extent of Kickstarter, which forbids any non-artistic projects). Lastly, and perhaps the greatest challenge of all, is that if people want to crowdfund microfinance they already have an established, legitimate site with a thriving community: When describing this project I tried to differentiate it from Kiva loans, but competition wasn't really possible. Simple shared interest in microfinance wasn't enough to draw donors to us, and in hindsight it was overconfident of me to think it might, or to expect the campaign to go viral. Just as well it didn't. The perks were very fun to shop for, but you have to be careful to budget money and time to fulfill them, even in small numbers!

Managing the level of information we offered funders was another challenge in hindsight. I wanted to be perfectly clear, brilliantly persuasive, and share my passionate interest in microfinance services with the world. The world listened politely to me but just could not get that excited about the walls of text I threw at it. Looking at the pitch I made before posting my pledge-story, "The Family" looks like there's two short stories there, and you had to read through one to get to the other, or even to the PayPal donations box. I fear I may have talked some of my dear audience to death. "Less is more" is a lesson I'm still learning, after years of academic writing and novel writing and the joy I take in shaping a narrative--which a fundraising pitch is. These women begin in poverty and, with a little bit of help from donors and a lot of their own effort, they expand their production, hone their skills, improve their businesses and livelihoods and emerge more empowered and with greater income and resources. A sort of rags-to-riches story without an unbelievable level of glitter. The reality is not always quite so neat, of course (they don't always start in rags, for one thing, nor of course end by dripping with diamonds for another). But when I even tried to engage with the complexities of the issue, both to indulge my interest and to head off any possible criticism I feared might come (none did), it lead to Walls of Text (TM). I would have done well to remember the classic advice to revising authors: Resist the Urge to Explain. You need to explain a little more when making a persuasive statement, to show people how what you're seeking is possible, and microfinance isn't a concept intuitively grasped by everyone, but it doesn't help to strain the reader's patience by writing a master's thesis when they wanted a simple outline.

(Yes, I delivered the money in cash. Our trip took us through many rural areas where ATM machines were not readily available. On the one hand, I got to enjoy physically holding multiple Ben Franklins and realizing this was the amount I'd helped raise for a cause I believed in. On the other, making sure I kept a hold of that envelope through my travels was a bit nerve-wracking).

That said, I am very proud of my team's hard work and our success! $1,290 is very close to our private goal of $1500 (we upped it for the Indie campaign because we figured reaching for the stars couldn't hurt, a position we've since, as I've mentioned, gently adjusted) and enough to fund an entire round of loans to the 50 women in the villages' microfinance project, or to fund 5 youths pursuing vocational training. Ultimately how much goes to loans, and how much goes to scholarships (and if they men of the village wish to rent a tractor for this growing season--under the blanket of 'microfinance, business, and empowerment' we were actually fundraising for a lot of things, only adding to the length of my explanations) will be decided by the leadership of Capacity Rural International itself, based on its knowledge of needs on the ground in the community it serves.

For a creative IndieGoGo project, thinking about the target audience and how to frame the narrative pitch, as well as choice of media to add and what sort of goal to reach for, would be different, but the general  pointers about having a long lead time for preparation, linking your websites together and developing them into a coherent campaign, and being careful about finances and timeframe hold true. I really enjoyed the chance to try out a crowdfunding campaign, am glad and grateful at the amount of good it did, and hope I'll have the chance to launch one again someday.

The author I'm interning with, Zahara Heckscher, has just launched a creative Indie campaign of her own for a nonfiction book on international volunteering. To see how they incorporate video and balance a somewhat complicated (even controversial) issue with a clear narrative, check it out here: