Note: This post originally appeared on my blog for the course Social Informatics.
Everyone knows a little something about crowdfunding – remember that weird potato salad Kickstarter that went viral? – but I didn’t know much about it in terms of professional libraries. Let’s dig in…
In her article “Crowdfunding: What’s In It For Us Librarians?,” Hope Leman writes about how libraries can use crowdfunding as a tool to involve their community and build a good reputation. She speaks about projects she’s crowdfunded and how the site works in general, and then delves into library projects funded on Kickstarter by outlining their themes and how successful they were. She takes examples of projects she’s funded for libraries and suggests that they need to rewrite their content so it captures the attention of potential donors. To conclude her paper, she writes:
The age of crowdfunding is upon us, and opportunities abound for savvy librarians and information scientists. There are risks—if you fail, you fail publicly, and your Kickstarter page stays up whether you make your goal or not. Moreover, it takes time to develop and market a crowdfunding campaign. Nevertheless, a well-conducted, successful campaign could generate goodwill in your community and convey the image that your library is a with-it, happening place.
Leman urges libraries to consider crowdfunding as an option for future projects. So, let’s consider it, shall we?
Argument: Libraries should use crowd-funding.
Support: Successfully funded library projects that built community interest.
In Leman’s paper, she discusses a few library projects that caught her attention as a Kickstarter backer. LibraryBox 2.0 was her main example of a successful Kickstarter. Jason Giffey had an initial goal of 3,000 and was overfunded to a total of $33,139. Two years later, LibraryBox goes on sale for $150. All in all, it was a very successful Kickstarter that was met with praise. Best of all, Jason Giffey was a librarian. This is doable for library professionals, and he proved it.
Libraries often face budget cuts. All library professional knows this. The Huffington Post even has a tag dedicated to it. For many public libraries, it’s all they can do to stay open and keep books in circulation. If they have an idea for a project that can keep the community involved – like the Literary Lots project to engage children in Cleveland – they may not have enough money in their budget to do so. Turning to the community, then, is a great idea.
Community outreach for funding is perfect if your project serves the community. You can’t create a Kickstarter for, say, a new coffee machine in your office. But if you have an idea for something that could turn more interest to your organization in your community, then crowdfunding would be an effective way to do so. You would build trust in your community by following up on your promises as well as showing initiative to create new projects.
Counter-Argument: Libraries should use more private means of funding.
Support: A multitude of failed projects that have caused backlash.
Despite the success of the LibraryBox 2.0 Kickstarter, Jason Griffey still faced a multitude of issues. When his project grew closer to its goal, funders began to pull their pledges, assuming that he no longer needed their money. She even quotes a tweet of his where he admits that the real “secret” to pulling off a successful Kickstarter is to have a multitude of connections. According to his site, the success of LibraryBox 2.0 is thanks to both Kickstarter and a grant from the Knight Foundation.
If you’re considering launching a public crowdfunding campaign, you need to already have a good social media presence. Unfortunately, not many libraries have adjusted to social media in a way that goes beyond an informative tweet once a week. Though this is better than no presence at all, it’s not often engaging for the community. If you want your community to donate money to your cause, you need to to know that you can count on people rallying behind your organization.
Let’s say you do think you have a good potential donor pool. That’s great! But you need to really understand how much money your project will need. This is true for any money request, especially professional grants (you’ll probably get turned down if you haven’t outlined your expenses clearly). Grant foundations often understand that estimates can sometimes be inaccurate. Kickstarter backers, however, might not be so forgiving.
Consider that a Kickstarter does not just require getting the money raised. You need the money for the project, plus money for the incentives that you will ship to donors. I have seen several successfully-funded Kickstarters that then failed fantastically. The people who donated to the project begin to lose faith in their company, and will take to Twitter and Facebook to openly complain about not receiving their promised rewards. Examples of Kickstarters that failed in this way include The Coolest Cooler, Yogscast, Leelah Project, Geode from iCache, and many others.
Almost all crowdfunding sites require that you provide some level of rewards. Not only do you need an itemized list of how the money you raise will successfully shape your project, you also need to set aside money for rewards. These rewards should be inventive. For example, if you were going to raise money to create a local film archives, then you might offer someone who donated $100 a chance to get their films digitized, or perhaps someone who donated $50 could attend a donor’s dinner. Rewards can add up quickly – the Mystery Science Theater 3000 Kickstarter had 27% of their goal dedicated to the costs of shipping and creating rewards.
If you don’t have all the estimates down, then you might end up with a funded project that only barely covers the cost of your actual goals – or maybe doesn’t cover it at all. First, you need to send out the rewards as soon as possible, and then see what you have left. If you don’t, then backers will get angry, and will label you as a scam. They are not very forgiving. Using a more private means of getting funded – like a grant – is a near guarantee that people will not label your organization as a failure or as incompetent. This is very important. You need to consider how your organization would handle a failed Kickstarter, and how you would deal with the backlash.
Any project proposal that requires IT can get messy. In class last week, we discussed the failure rate of government IT Projects. Only 5% of large federal IT Projects in the last decade fully succeeded. 41% were complete failures that canceled before they were even turned on. This is the government we’re talking about. They have much more money for their projects than most libraries will get for their crowdfunded projects. However, they only have themselves to answer to. If you use crowdfunding, you might have a large community turn your backs on you.
Crowdfunding, if successful, can strengthen your ties to your community. It’s worth considering if you believe that your project is something that people are interested in and would be willing to support. However, if you’re not absolutely sure about how to complete a project goal, then it might be better to turn to other sources.