How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Crowdfunding

February 26, 2013, 10:14 am

kickstartingToday’s guest blogger, Dan Royles is a doctoral candidate in history at Temple University. He is currently a dissertation fellow at the Center for Historical Research at the Ohio State University. Update: Due to your generosity, Dan raised almost a thousand dollars more than his goal by the deadline.

For almost a month, I’ve been using Kickstarter to raise money for my oral history project on African American AIDS activism. I’m a doctoral student in history writing a dissertation on the same topic, and as with many projects on the recent past, archival sources are relatively thin. But fortunately, although the HIV epidemic in black communities has claimed many of the very people who fought to stop it over the past thirty years, others are still around and eager to share their stories, so doing oral histories makes a lot of sense. I wanted to undertake a full-fledged oral history project that would go beyond my dissertation research.  I would use some of the interviews in my own work, but they would all be transcribed and deposited in an archive for the benefit of future scholars. As I began to interview my first narrators and then the people to whom they referred me, working my way through social and professional networks of AIDS advocates, I realized that I could easily find hundreds of interviewees. How wonderful!

Well, it would be, except that I am the lead interviewer, research assistant, transcriptionist, and project manager for these oral histories, on top of having to finish my dissertation so that I can defend it in August. My zeal for collecting interviews quickly outpaced my ability to transcribe and edit them for review by my narrators. Although I’ve been extremely fortunate to receive fellowships that allow me to focus on research and writing so that I (for the most part) don’t have to hold down multiple adjunct positions just to make ends meet, I also don’t make enough to pay someone else to transcribe my interviews for me.

That’s where crowdfunding comes in. Crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo let people with compelling projects appeal to the Internet to help cover their costs. Put very simply, you create a project page, set a fundraising goal, and then get the word out to as many people as you can. Ideally, a bunch of people like your project, they each contribute a small chunk of cash, and all of their contributions add up to however much money you need.

Of course, it’s not quite that easy. Both platforms ask you to designate pledge levels with corresponding prizes–if someone donates X dollars, they get Y in return. Figuring this out was the most daunting part of the process for me. As academics, and especially as humanists, we’re not trained to think of our work in terms of quantifiable material rewards, and somehow “the warm feeling of satisfaction from supporting scholarly inquiry” didn’t seem like it was going to convince people to pony up $25, $50, or $100. I also remembered when April Winchell at Regretsy ran a Kickstarter campaign with elaborate prizes, nearly drowning herself in the ensuing work of assembling, packing, and shipping off all of the award packages.

After all, the whole point of this was to ease my workload. Some oral history projects, like this one have a film as their final product, in which case a DVD copy and producer credit make sense as awards. However, although I’m videotaping my interviews, I have no plans to turn them into a full-length feature. I do plan to publish the interviews as an edited collection, so I settled on offering a signed copy of that book, along with an acknowledgment therein, as an award for the larger pledges, with the caveat that delivery will be contingent on publication. And since the interviews will go into an archive, they’ll need a finding aid, which can also include donor acknowledgments. In return for smaller pledges, I decided to offer prizes like rubber wristbands, printed note cards, and tote bags. These work well for almost any project because they’re easily scalable and relatively inexpensive to produce and ship. Cost-free intangibles like thank you e-mails and a mention on the project’s WordPress page rounded out the award packages.

The next big hurdle was putting together a video to introduce the project. According to Kickstarter, projects with a video are way more likely to achieve full funding. That makes sense, since it’s an engaging way to put your voice into the project page–literally. For my purposes, I pulled together a slideshow with voiceover that makes the same historiographical argument I use for my dissertation research: that African Americans have mounted a significant response to HIV in their communities, but that it has yet to be fully documented and incorporated into narratives about the politics of AIDS in the United States. I also put in some interview clips to show that the project is already underway, and to give the video a personal dimension. From a technical standpoint, I used iMovie and GarageBand because I’m a Mac user, and I found both programs to be relatively simple and intuitive (I had used iMovie previously to import and edit some of my interview clips, but nothing like what I was trying to do for the Kickstarter page.) Altogether, the video I put together represented a solid day’s worth of work, including the learning curve of figuring out the software. If you don’t have iLife (which includes iMovie) or the Adobe Creative Suite, Lifehacker has some suggestions for free and cheap alternatives.

Making the rest of the page–writing about myself and the project–was easy. After all, it’s what we’re trained to do. I submitted the page for Kickstarter to review, to make sure that it fit their requirements, and 48 hours later we were live. Then the real work began.

Promoting a project takes time, energy, and persistence. I would like to tell you that I just hit “submit” and let the Internet do its magic, watching the dollars roll in. Maybe some people have projects that are so compelling, with prizes so desirable, that they can do this. I’m certainly not one of them. In fact, promoting the campaign has been much more of a project unto itself than I had anticipated. I have posted so much about Kickstarter on Facebook, I’ll be surprised if I have any friends who haven’t blocked me from their newsfeeds. I also tweeted at everyone I could think of–celebrities, academics, news sites, Oprah–asking them to retweet the Kickstarter link. But this is all an important part of the process. Over half of the funds I’ve raised so far have been through Facebook referrals (Kickstarter provides analytics for your campaign page), and I’m writing this here and now because I sent a Twitter plea for a RT to @TenuredRadical.

As I write this, there are a little over three days left in the campaign, and I need about $1,700 in pledges to see even one cent of the $6,000 I set out to raise. No joke–that’s nerve-racking, and I’m now in the habit of checking my phone constantly for e-mails from Kickstarter alerting me to a new funder. But it’s also been a good experience in pitching my project to the widest audience imaginable, and validating to see that other people believe in the value of the work I’m doing, even if a lot of those people are my family and friends. Just as with other digital humanities tools and methods, crowdfunding can open up new ways for us to pursue our projects while creating new publics to consume and engage with our work.

I don’t want to present Kickstarter and Indiegogo as staples of our “glorious online future,” (HT Jonathan Rees) and I’m admittedly wary about what this might mean for the future of scholarship as other sources of funding continue to recede. Will only “sexy” projects get funded as we become beholden to the whims of the digital hoi polloi? Will more projects with small constituencies see the light of day as people capitalize on the power of the internet to reach wider audiences?

That, of course, remains to be seen.

In the meantime, anybody got a spare $1,700?



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